Sun Volt is the sort of band that I’ve, rather ignorantly, confused with another band that may or may not sound like them. One of the reasons that I took so long to listen to The Pixies was that I kept getting them confused with the Pogues or the Posies (send whatever threats you want, I barely get enough email as it is). I can’t remember what band I confused Son Volt with—I’d say 400 Blows, but for the life of me I can’t possibly say why—but I’ve been hearing a good deal of them riding with my Dad, who listens to WFUV (Fordham University radio) when he drives. The man could really give a shit if he has better hipster cred than a Sarah Lawrence co-ed, let alone his eldest rock critic son, he’d rather not spend the last years before his retirement listening to the Eagles, at least not as much.
Perhaps it’s not odd though that Son Volt has that classic rock kind of magnetism given its roots, but it’s meshed with a post-modern artsy whatchamacallit fare that makes them so interesting to the upper-middle class NPR crowd. The Search beckons sonically to a simpler time, when songs weren’t so complicated and made their message clear, which shows plainly the difference between Jay Farrar and former bandmate Jeff Tweedy. Lyrically however, Farrar gives his more affluent listeners narratives of the hardships that they might know of, but not truly experienced.
Farrar gets things started off in the most dismal way he can, which a slow arrangement behind him, Farrar’s Neil Young-esque croon repeats, “Feel’s like drivin’ ’round in a slow hearse.” It’s an interesting, if not risky, opener, but it does not represent the entire album. Many of the songs sound much more revived and upbeat despite that they might not be about things that take up songs so catchy. Songs like “The Picture,” “Underground Dream,” the title track and “Methamphetamine” approach the puzzling developments of the 21st century with woe, outrage and perhaps some hope. Farrar’s songwriting is not trying to mash as many wordy ideas as a single verse will allow, his straightforward, melody-molded but deeply emotional and intelligent style is the kind of storytelling that Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus could appreciate.
Thanks to the achievements of Wilco and Ryan Adams, the alt-country genre has never seen such attention outside the so-called alternative crowd. Son Volt, as well, is a continuation of that creative blossoming. Jay Farrar and his new personnel create an album that is refreshing both in its listenability and its sensitivity to the world around it. Listeners will no doubt appreciate their varied takes on the human psyche and its place in modern society from one low to the next. And yet near the end there is the feeling that life will go on and maybe even get a little better. But as for the rest of The Search, it’s the closest that hardship will ever compare to the sweet calm of nodding off on a hot afternoon with the birds chirping outside.