As if you weren't conflicted enough by what does or doesn't constitute country music these days, we have two fascinating new recordings by Son Volt and The Mavericks to further blur the lines.
Son Volt, longtime brainchild of song stylist Jay Farrar, was born of the wreckage of alt-country fave Uncle Tupelo. Over the past 17 years (including a favorable run of Farrar solo records), the band has inched away from anything resembling country — alternative or otherwise. Until now.
The band's new album, Honky Tonk, is a selection of rustic, spiritual waltzes, pedal steel-steeped reflections and wistful meditations that embrace a country spirit more traditional than even Uncle Tupelo could have envisioned.
The Mavericks, on the other hand, were onetime corporate country darlings. But that darn Raul Malo, the country Caruso who fronts the Miami-based foursome, had to go and explore his Cuban roots, leading the band to incorporate enough brass and brazen grooves to make their music sound less like something forged in Nashville and more like music that poured out of Havana circa 1959. The only curiosity about the new Mavericks album, In Time, is that it is indistinguishable from a Malo solo project. Given how glorious the songs are, that's not exactly a problem.
Son Volt's Honky Tonk is a beautiful listen. As possibly the least rock-oriented album that the band has made, its sound centers on pedal steel guitar melodies, fiddle accents and, of course, Farrar's singing. But just as the album's overall tone opts out of traditional country self-pity in favor of more spiritually inclined promise, Farrar's vocals have dropped the sad-sack warble of early Son Volt records for a warmer, more articulate cast that neatly complements the antique fiddle waltz Hearts and Minds and the more tentative hope ("going for broke in a film noir smile") that unfolds like ripples in a pond on Shine On.
In Time is equally inviting, even though it slides its stylistic (and geographical) reference points between vintage Cuban pop and '60s-style Tex-Mex. Malo, still in possession of a voice with Roy Orbison-level clarity and range, fronts the parade, from the lush Cuban sway of Back in Your Arms Again (which grooves like a slower version of the early Mavericks hit Dance the Night Away) to the twang-happy dance drama Come Unto Me to the Orbison-style pop lullaby Amsterdam Moon.
Malo wrote or co-wrote all of the album's 13 tunes, which kind of makes one wonder what the other Mavericks brought to the party. But democracy doesn't matter here. View the album as another great Malo solo venture if you like. Regardless, the music of In Time is thoroughly in tune.