[Originally published May 14, 2013]
Son Volt’s 1995 debut Trace is one of my all-time favorite albums. My mother played it for us in the car constantly during the summer before I began sixth grade. And I’ve found a new, more passionate appreciation for the record in recent weeks, listening to it essentially on repeat (which is rare for a music geek like me who is always searching for new things). So, when I heard earlier this year that Jay Farrar and co. were releasing a new record, it turned out it was only natural for me, as in numerous cases, to view that new record in light of their undisputed masterpiece.
So, here goes.
Right from the first bars of opener “Hearts and Minds,” Uncle Tupelo idolizers will instantly know Honky Tonk won’t be a standard Farrar effort. It’s in 6/8, as are several other tunes on the disc. The alternating time signatures are refreshing at first when observed in comparison to Trace’s full-4/4 itinerary (“Seawall” even features alternating signatures within the same song). However, the layout of tracks across the album in patterns of 6 and 4 becomes predictable and trite by album’s end. You find yourself knowing after each song what time the next track will be in before it starts.
Farrar, of course, is in top form as a songwriter. His world-weary, highway-evoking, quasi-pastoral lyrics have ripened, if only slightly, with age. Despite this perceived progress, Farrar’s gentle but substantial voice sounds less substantial. As if he’s holding back. This can be a good thing in some instances, but in this one, it’s not. That said, it’s pretty ironic hearing him sing, “Don’t let the barricades of life/Keep the wild spirit still” on the aptly-titled “Barricades.” This record makes it seem like Farrar is doing just the opposite: painting himself and his band into a corner with “barricades” of slick restraint that undermines the group’s own “free spirit.” There are signs of an attempt at past glory – the tranquil “Wild Side” and closer “Shine On” both bear more than a passing resemblance in structure and sound to the gorgeous Trace cut “Tear-Stained Eye” – but overall, it all falls flat.
Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate Son Volt’s efforts to expand their musical horizons – efforts that have been in motion since 2005, when Farrar resuscitated the broken-up group with an all-new supporting cast and released Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Whereas Trace was fairly straightforward alt-country, Honky Tonk is all over the place. Hammond organ. A melancholy-bright dual-fiddle attack that gives much of the album a “Ashokan Farewell” feel (the lilting “Down the Highway” even sounds a bit like a Celtic blessing). There’s even a few auxiliary strings thrown in here and there. It’s a sonic smorgasbord that can be overwhelming and almost unstable at times. Overall, though, the band’s deepened palate not only makes for a gorgeous and exhilarating listen, but also shows how far they have come as a group.
And yet – and yet – I can’t help but feel they’ve gone the way of Counting Crows or even (as much as it pains me to admit it) Ben Folds Five. In other words, they’ve spent recent years abandoning their loose, unbridled sound in exchange for sleeker, almost syrupy arrangements. Arrangements that, in Son Volt’s case, appear to favor modern trends in country-pop as opposed to the lovely, carefree college-rock abounding on Trace. Like the aforementioned groups, they do a reasonable job pulling it off, but the result is still somewhat less gratifying than what they’re really capable of. Each track on Trace has always evoked, for me, traveling down a long, empty stretch of highway, cool breeze blowing, taking my troubles away (sorry, couldn’t resist). With Honky Tonk, I just don’t get that – or any kind of unique emotion.
But that doesn’t mean this album doesn’t deliver in its own way. Far from it. It’s a great record. One of the best I’ve heard so far this year. It’s just not as good as Trace, is all. Then, the standard Trace sets for other Son Volt work is pretty freaking high.
Will my opinion of this record change with further listens? I’m almost certain of it.
For now, I can say this with certainty: while Honky Tonk may not stack up to the brilliant recklessness of Trace, it can still stand on its own as a thoroughly enjoyable record and a fine addition to the Son Volt catalogue. (7.3/10)