CD Review of American Central Dust by Son Volt
Son Volt: American Central Dust
Recommended if you like
Old 97's, Drive-By Truckers,
The Gourds
Label
Rounder
Son Volt:
American Central Dust

Reviewed by Ed Murray

J
ay Farrar has one of the most recognizable voices in rock. From the first lines of Dust’s album-opening "Dynamite" ("When the levee goes, the heart breaks away / Mine holds back this loose dirt and pouring rain / The truth is not free and everyone must pay the price"), you know this is a Son Volt joint. Not many singers have this distinct a vocal tone, and Farrar knows just how to wield his baritone croon. "This love is like celebrating the 4th of July with dynamite" goes the refrain, above a gentle accordion and a supple rhythmic throb. As always, Farrar's lyrical mind-mapping is in fine form on American Central Dust, as the imagery switches effortlessly between interior monologue and loose commentary on the observed, outside world.

Most of these 12 songs are rooted in and underpinned by Farrar's acoustic guitar – except for the haunting fiddle-laced, piano-based nod to Keith Richards, "Cocaine and Ashes" ("I snorted my father and I'm still alive") and "Sultana," another piano ballad – which grounds these 12 numbers in a gentle, rootsy melodicism that was mostly missing from the experimental vibe of 2007's The Search (a great album, by the way) and the guitar-heavy rock oomph of 2005's Okemah and the Melody of Riot. And when you add such country instrumentation as pedal and lap steel guitars to the acoustic guitar, fiddle, keyboards, American Central Dust is vaguely reminiscent of Son Volt's first album, 1995's Trace, even Farrar's contributions to Anodyne-era Uncle Tupelo.

That doesn't mean Son Volt doesn't bring the rock. "Down to the Wire" blends tremolo guitar and fuzzed out Wurlitzer over a Stones-y pulse and faintly martial beat, and just might have taken the mantle of the single best tune in Farrar's growing catalog. "When the Wheels Don't Move" has an almost Neil Young/Crazy Horse feel until the atmospheric keyboards kick in. "Jukebox of Steel" is another mid-tempo rocker that feels like a band effort, with a real group dynamic that can only come from having woodshedded these tunes for months before recording them. Whether or not that's true is a testament both to the level of musicianship and the simple-but-effective songwriting, not to mention the sympathetic production by none other than Joe Henry, a genius in his own right.

Lyrically and thematically, American Central Dust is rooted in the heartland. From the Mississippi River tragedy of "Sultana" (which tells the true tale of the worst American maritime disaster in 1865), to the New Orleans-to-St. Louis travelogue of "Pushed Too Far," which practically name checks Snooks Eaglin and Chuck Berry, to the post-industrial lament of "When the Wheels Don't Move" (Who makes the decision / To feed the tanks and not the mouths / When the wheels don't move") Farrar's brooding ruminations on the state of the union extend beyond the Midwest to capture the zeitgeist of a nation in transition.

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