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Album Review: Son Volt ‘Union’

Son Volt’s latest finds them chewing on memorable melodies.

I first came across Son Volt back in my vinyl-slinging days when a customer requested them and I thought that with a name like that they must some crazy metal band, like Sunn O))).

They are not. The only similarity they have is that they both calm me down — but in totally different ways, so, how much does that count anyway? Their ninth studio album, Union, was released on March 29 on the Transmit Sound label, almost 25 years after their 1995 debut, Trace.

Son Volt is an alt country band, and I’ll admit that I didn’t even know what that entailed before listening to their music. I learned that these folks, especially the lead singer/songwriter/ guitarist Jay Farrar are, deep down, inspired by punk, which made no sense to me until I squinted my ears and noticed two distinct similarities: the mostly short song lengths and the political lyrical content.

One song that typifies this perfectly is the one minute, 23-second song, “Lady Liberty:” “Lady Liberty, are you still here? Can you see us now?” Farrar chants.

My favorite song on this LP is “Broadsides.” It is just rough enough, especially with the background organ adding an extra touch of grittiness. It flows from the smooth, gentle lyrical bits to a drawling instrumental motif, and Son Volt keeps it simple by having only those two oscillating parts hypnotizing you throughout.

Another thing I like about this album is its gentle singability, like the chorus, “99 percent, 99 percent, it’s a trickle-down world when you’re stuck in cement.” In fact, I have gotten the refrain from “The 99” stuck in my head multiple times.

Songs like that and “Rebel Girl” remind me of Irish minstrel songs that have stripped down instrumentation and singers who are primarily storytellers, as opposed to face-melting vocalists. I think this is why this album calms me. Sonically, it is very easy to listen to, and lyrically, it gives you something to chew on.

If someone had told me that this was a solo project by John Michael Stipe, I would believe them, without question. I actually had to check the artist again once or twice during my first listen of “Lady Liberty,” and that song is less than a minute and a half long! The way he sings the descending “he-ee-ere” is so R.E.M.

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