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For Whom the Music Twangs

[whitespace] Son Volt
Bonnie Butler Murphy

Like the Past, Only Better: Son Volt's songs evoke the Eagles, Poco and the Band.

Son Volt, Whiskeytown and Golden Smog pursue new takes on classic Americana

By Gina Arnold

ONCE UPON A TIME, in a galaxy far far away, there was a band from Belleville, Ill., called Uncle Tupelo. This was in the high-water days of indie rock, when little bands from weird towns toured the whole country in beat-up Dodge vans, playing gigs to half-empty clubs on Tuesday nights and forging bonds with individuals in the crowd. It was, no doubt about it, a romantic way to spend your youth, but tiring--very tiring.

Uncle Tupelo played music that melded country with punk. Its four records, No Depression, Still Feel Gone, March 16-20, 1992 (produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) and Anodyne, had some songs that sounded one way and some that sounded the other. "Watch Me Fall," for example, was a poignant picking-and-agrinning song about overcoming failure, while "D. Boon"--a tribute to the late lead singer of the Minutemen--was more of a three-chord punk-rock song. The band consisted of two equally talented singer/songwriter/guitarists, and when it broke up, in 1995, these two formed their own bands.

Jeff Tweedy, who wrote "D. Boon," started Wilco; Jay Farrar, who wrote "Watch Me Fall," formed Son Volt. It was felt by everyone who knew the group that Uncle Tupelo was only just peaking, but bygones, apparently, could not be bygones, however inopportune the timing. It was a year when anything with two legs could get signed, and both bands were warmly embraced by major labels.

A funny thing happened to Uncle Tupelo after it broke up. The band suddenly became a really big deal. Critics went around talking about how great and seminal its first three records were. (All were released on the obscure label Rockville and had been roundly ignored, except in small fanzines.)

One set of newfound fans even came along and started up a magazine titled No Depression--ostensibly after the Carter Family song, but more likely after Uncle Tupelo's album. Wilco, which tours incessantly, got the lion's share of the reflected acclaim, but Son Volt is the better band.

Like Wilco, Son Volt plays a type of music now known as "Americana." The term means simple twangy rock music of the kind often associated with acts on KFOG: Dylan, Neil Young, and Loggins and Messina. Son Volt's sound recalls the '70s in the same way the new girls' fashions do. You think those polyester shirts and platforms look the same as they were back then, but in fact they are cuter, come in better colors and are more flatteringly cut.

Similarly, Son Volt evokes the Eagles, Poco and the Band, but in fact, its songs are more poignant, and the words more poetic. On the beautiful song "Flow," from the group's new album, Wide String Tremelo (Warner Bros.), Farrar sings, "What it all comes down to is a different set of values/to throw away or mobilize to use." And that's it exactly. Farrar is a massive music fan, whose music always exudes an unmistakable purity of emotion.

This record was two years in the making, rehearsed and recorded in an old barn in the band's small Midwestern hometown, and the authenticity of that birthplace is audible. I love the dirty fuzz on top of Farrar's voice on songs like "Straightface" and "Dead Man's Clothes," and the countless minor-seventh chords that turn plain songs into anthems.

I also love "Medicine Hat" (with its hopeful assertion that in the future "there will be right, and there will be wrong") and the equally positive "Blind Hope." Wide String Tremelo offers music for 30- and 40-somethings who don't care what the band members look like, but who are sick of hearing Blood on the Tracks for the millionth time.

SON VOLT AND WILCO are the unwitting leaders of a movement called No Depression, the New Authenticity or, sometimes, Y'Alternative. It's a movement that hasn't exactly caught on with either country-music listeners, who prefer their music cornier and more produced, or with young rock listeners, who like it more fashionable and glamorous. The music business, however, still has faith in Americana, as do most critics.

Dallas' Whiskeytown is another highly acclaimed No Depression outfit. Its new record, Faithless Street (Outpost/Universal), is full of heartfelt twang, keening vocals and lyrics about such loaded American topics as baseball, beer and real hard work. The band has definitely imbibed a lot of Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp, although it does try to adulterate those influences with patches of R.E.M. and the Byrds.

Whiskeytown is actually very reminiscent of an '80s band from North Carolina called the Connells. It boasts a truly affecting lead singer in Ryan Adams, but Whiskeytown is still a less unusual proposition than Son Volt. Indeed, in spite of pedal-steel guitar, a female violinist and harmony singer (Caitlin Cary) and touches of harmonica, all too often the group's more anthemic songs fall dangerously close to Goo Goo Dolls territory. Faithless Street is a long record--21 songs--and it showcases a band that has an abundance of talent but no particularly original take on country-styled rock.

SON VOLT COMES from suburban St. Louis, and Whiskeytown from Texas. In this brief overview of the new Americana, Minneapolis weighs in with Golden Smog, a supergroup made up of members of Soul Asylum, Jayhawks, Wilco and Run Westy Run. These guys--who used to get together and play Eagles and Grand Funk covers at bars on their bands' off nights--have come up with yet another record of excellent original music.

Weird Tales (Rykodisc) is catchier than either Wide String Tremelo or Faithless Street. Although it uses a harder rock beat and less country instrumentalism, Weird Tales also evokes American folk music. Only in this case, "folk" implies music for the new folk: that is, suburban kids who love melodic rock by R.E.O. Speedwagon and the Babies.

The album has its share of big chords and high harmonies, although it also contains a lot of twangy guitar. Mostly, however, songs like "To Call My Own" and "If I Only Had a Car" are reminiscent of early '70s AM radio, and all those one-hit wonder songs like "Please Come to Boston," "Chevy Van" and "It Never Rains in Southern California."

A friend of mine calls this type of music "country and Midwestern," and that's not a bad description: it's music that would not get the time of day on the radio in London.

The truth is that all three of these bands--Son Volt, Whiskeytown and Golden Smog--are infected with a virulent strain of nostalgia, which is a little bit disheartening to hear if, like me, you prefer to think of yourself as cutting edge. On the other hand, anyone who is sick of electronica, doesn't like rap and can't get behind dance music or ballads by the likes of Mariah and Madonna is bound to find something to like on one of these three records.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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