Ever since he and Jeff Tweedy fronted Uncle Tupelo back in the late 1980s and early '90s, Jay Farrar's signature sound has been the electric-guitar-driven, country-tinged rock that set the whole Americana scene in motion.
Until, that is, The Search, the 2007 Son Volt album that found Farrar and his band expanding their approach with horns on the successfully soulful "This Picture," synthesizer on the down-tempo "Underground Dream," and backwards guitar on the psychedelically textured "Circadian Rhythm."
But with Son Volt's new CD, American Central Dust, Farrar has gone back to more familiar, earthy terrain, this time with an emphasis on acoustic guitars and pedal steel guitar.
"I guess going into the recording, the main approach was just to try to make an overall record that was more focused than the previous one," says Farrar. "With The Search, it was more about trying to stretch things out and try out different instrumentation, different song structures. This time around, it was perhaps more of a return to a more fundamental, familiar aesthetic."
But to hear Farrar tell it, a willingness to change course is part of the Son Volt ethos.
"There's always been kind of a pattern of vacillating in between trying out and pushing things to see what can be accomplished, and then kind of going back and getting into a more familiar format," he says. "This time around, I did go into the songwriting knowing I wanted to focus more on standard tunings. And that sort of evolved into more standard, familiar song structures. The rest of the [writing] sort of followed that approach."
Farrar has always had a knack for writing quieter material. Longtime fans will recall such songs as "Tear Stained Eye" (from the band's 1995 debut CD, Trace), "Strand" (from 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo) or "Ipecac," off 2005's Okemah and the Melody of Riot.
On American Central Dust, Farrar and his bandmates came up with consistently strong songs in a similar vein. "Dynamite" is an easy-going track that gets some warmth from its accordion-like leads, while the slightly twangy "Roll On" and the stark, piano-based "Cocaine and Ashes" (inspired by Rolling Stone Keith Richards' tall tale that he had marked the death of his father by snorting dear old dad's ashes) are highly effective introspective ballads. The closest the group gets to rocking out is on "Jukebox of Steel," a track that generates considerable momentum with a vaguely swinging beat.
Farrar thinks the new album reflects an evolution in the Son Volt lineup that came with the departures of guitarist Brad Rice and keyboardist Derry deBorja following the release of The Search.
Mark Spencer and Chris Masterson joined holdovers Farrar, Dave Bryson (drums) and Andrew Duplantis (guitar) in time to put in about eight months of touring before the recording of American Central Dust.
"The recording itself reflects the coalescence of the latest lineup," says Farrar. "The sound of the band has evolved from The Search period — primarily there's a lot of interplay between Chris Masterson on guitar and Mark Spencer on either pedal steel and keyboards. And you can hear that on the record."
"Catching On" by Son Volt