From the moment Jay Farrar stepped back from the wreckage of the genre-defining alt-country troupe Uncle Tupelo to form the more streamlined Son Volt in 1995, a sound was set.
If Bill Monroe provided a high lonesome moan to Americana music, Farrar gave it a low lonesome mumble — a voice that encapsulated literary and social references along with stream-of-consciousness narratives as restless as the electric grinds supplied by his bandmates. Only the abstract interludes of a 2003 solo album, Terroir Blues, seemed to dramatically shift his musical course.
And for the most part, fans and critics seemed to love the resolute nature of Son Volt. Then Farrar got a bug, slapped some horns onto a 2007 Son Volt tune called The Picture and everyone acted as though the sky was falling. Jeez, can't a guy break from the norm without everyone thinking he's been bought out by Disney?
Obviously not with Farrar. His newest Son Volt work, American Central Dust, is a return to the band's murky, neo-country roots. A retreat? Perhaps. Here's the thing, though: The music might seem almost shamelessly familiar — from the playfully askew wordplay in Dust of Daylight ("there are ways to buy trouble, but a bail bondsman finds friends in jail") to the percussive stutter, lap steel atmospherics and layers of twang and tremolo that pepper Farrar's tale of "cavalier progress" in Down to the Wire. But it's still a glorious listen. Homemade, earthy, live, unfashionably emotive — American Central Dust is all that and more.
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As with Son Volt's two previous Sony albums (American Central Dust moves the band to Rounder), the new recording is cleaner sonically and more cohesive lyrically than its '90s records. That robs the band of a little of its mystery. After all, in his day, Farrar was as champion an electric mumbler as Michael Stipe was on R.E.M.'s albums with IRS.
But clarity suits American Central Dust. Farrar frames most of the tunes in acoustics — specifically a mingling of guitar and piano. The heavy electric lifting is left to two new recruits: guitarist Chris Masterson (from country rocker Jack Ingram's band) and Mark Spencer (onetime Blood Orange and a veteran of many Farrar solo projects).
There is also no problem is letting listeners in on the stories. Though impenetrable at times, there is imagery here that links a troubled Southern past to a present that is unexpectedly hopeful.
Sultana, for instance, outlines an epic maritime disaster from 1865. The story is told in sobering but plainspoken terms, from the boiler explosion aboard the overloaded ship that triggered the catastrophe to the lives lost to the "cold Mississippi" as a result. Musically, the song is as stark as its story line with only violin (courtesy of the album's lone guest, Eleanor Whitmore), piano and an echo of acoustic lap steel guitar on deck.
Equally evocative and as eloquently desperate is Exiles, which outlines escape from a broken world where "hustlers and wolves walk freely through the door." Spirits are never dashed, though ("the best religion is faith in man") as the tune's studied mid-tempo sway of acoustics and searing pedal steel guitar add to the majesty.
Aside from the folkish elements, there are no massive stylistic leaps here. But the thematic and musical landscapes are nonetheless arresting. Their shapes and souls remain human and exact long after the dust of American Central Dust settles.