Son Volt ‘Union’ CD
Label: Thirty Tigers
By MIKE RITCHIE
There is a rip-roaring political protest cut and thrust to this, the ninth Son Volt studio album, all the while tempered by songs designed to remind us of the timeless power of love and the endless lure of music.
Jay Farrar, who wrote all 13 tracks here, pulls it off and brings it all together skillfully and cleverly, so the songs seem instantly familiar as Son Volt offerings, yet yield, undeniably, renewed freshness and, ultimately, great pleasure.
There is a crackle and energy and no little spirit on an album that’s spattered with sharp but far from bullish lyrics. With Farrar sticking to acoustic guitar and standard tuning this time round, the questioning, incisive songs of unrest are boosted perfectly by a zestful, boisterous, yet measured band – long-term members, Mark Spencer (piano, organ, acoustic slide, lap steel, backing vocals) and Andrew DuPlantis (bass, backing vocals), plus Chris Frame (guitar) and Mark Patterson (drums and percussion).
They offer extra bulk that brings back, in places, memories of the band’s 2005 release, Okemah and the Melody of Riot – and Frame’s breakout parts, it should be noted, are commendably fluid and excellent throughout.
As an extra challenge to inspire authenticity and heart in his compositions, Farrar visited the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, home of the renowned American labour activist, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, as well as the Woody Guthrie Centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma – both important figures to Farrar – to record more than half the album.
The gently flowing opener, While Rome Burns, is followed by the harsher, sinewy, guitar-barb laden, The 99, and the melancholic title track positively bustles with political observations and comment, with Farrar clearly advocating tolerance instead of division.
“Upstate versus Downstate / city versus county / rural versus urban/ Red versus The Blue / he said National Service would keep The Union together” is the message delivered.
Final song, The Symbol is haunting and worrying. It leans heavily on Guthrie’s 1948 poem, Deportee: Plane Wreck At Los Gatos, with the focus on a Mexican builder working in post-Katrina New Orleans who is now less welcome.
The song’s main character sings: “They say I’m a criminal / that’s what they say / my children, these children were born in the USA / they say these children they too must go // but their home’s here not in Mexico.” A telling and desperate dilemma left hanging as the final notes of the album subside.
Away from the political song arena, Farrar and his band are simply cooking on tracks such as Devil May Care, which is a fond and carousing, heartfelt toast to playing music. The drums bump happily, Farrar sings heartily and the infectious guitar jangle all serve up a typical Farrar gem.
There are always many reasons to welcome a new Son Volt offering and that goes for Union as well. There is not a single moment that doesn’t grab your attention and admiration.