Three albums seems like an extremely limited number of resources to pull material for a band’s retrospective album. In the case of Son Volt, no new album material has been heard from the band since 1998’s Wide Swing Tremolo, leaving one to wonder, how does Rhino plan on filling up an hour’s worth of music from album tracks? They don’t. Of the 20 tracks on Son Volt’s A Retrospective, only half are from the band’s three studio albums, while the remaining ten are pulled from compilations, a promotional EP, demos, live tracks and unreleased cover versions. With that in mind, even those who happen to already have Trace, Straightaways and Wide Swing Tremolo will find plenty of gems on this new Rhino compilation.
Jay Farrar’s songwriting prowess is on high display on this collection, as choice selections from Son Volt’s three studio albums make up the base of the album. Though it’s often been said that Farrar broke up Uncle Tupelo so that he wouldn’t have to share songwriting duties with Jeff Tweedy, frontman of the now legendary Wilco, there’s a lot to be said for Farrar’s songs. They’re rootsy, classic alt-country tunes with heart and grit, and anyone who’s ever worn a Western shirt or cranked up the Replacements will find plenty to love. The 1995 hit “Drown,” a classic single I haven’t heard in some time, opens the album with some ass-kicking guitar rock. “Windfall” is closer to the sound of traditional country music, while “Route” turns up the rock once more. And some slide work peppers the lonesome road vibe of “Too Early.”
The selections from Straightaways and Wide Swing Tremolo are fewer in number, though no less cool. “Back in to Your World” is slower and more melancholy than much of Trace‘s more rocking material, but instead shows a folksier pop side to Farrar, sounding more like Josh Rouse or Freedy Johnston. “Picking Up the Signal” picks up the pace, while “Creosote” mines more traditional C&W territory for its cowboy ballad sound. In fact, the quiet nature of that song slows everything down so much that you almost don’t expect the raucous explosion of “Straightface,” one of Wide Swing Tremolo‘s highlights.
The funny thing about this retrospective, however, is how many covers are included here. There are seven in all, ranging from Townes Van Zandt to Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springteen to Big Star. Certainly nothing unexpected from an alt-country band, but these re-workings are nothing to sneeze at. Farrar and Kelly Willis do a heart-wrenchingly beautiful duet on a version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues.” The band’s version of Big Star’s “Holocaust” is also stunning, all melancholy and spacious guitar paired with Farrar’s deep crooning. And when they do Springsteen’s “Open All Night,” Son Volt don’t exactly re-write the gospel, but they add some extra instrumentation to The Boss’ spare original version, making it their own with just the right minor touches.
While the band’s output has been relatively limited up to this point, there’s a surprising amount of rare material on A Retrospective, and is worth picking up for that reason alone. Those new to the band will find plenty to love here as well. Son Volt will be releasing their first new album in seven years in a couple months, though the only original band member that remains is Farrar. Nonetheless, this should hold us over until our first taste of new material in quite some time.
Uncle Tupelo – 89/93: An Anthology
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.