At the dawn of 1996, Lexington received introductions from two acts pinned to a booming alt-country movement. Downtown at the long demised Wrocklage, Son Volt, Jay Farrar’s roots-driven offshoot of Uncle Tupelo, had showcased the music of its debut “Trace” album. Over at Lynagh’s Music Club (also defunct), a pack of electric country-rock ruffians from North Carolina called Whiskeytown, fronted by a then-unknown Ryan Adams, were playing the occasional weekend gig as an opening act for local bands.
This month, the latest recorded chapters from Farrar and Adams have arrived to reaffirm their keen ability to give voices of modest comfort to unsettled souls.
“Notes of Blue,” the newest album by the newest Son Volt lineup (of which Farrar is the only mainstay), begins with deceptive calm and a familiar air of despondent faith. “Don’t get down when the cavalry doesn’t arrive,” sings Farrar in “Promise the World” with his usual plaintive candor. “That’s only in Hollywood, and they didn’t get it right.” The music moves leisurely along, with an easy country demeanor aided beautifully by the pedal steel accents of Jason Cardong that follow the thread of such recent Son Volt records as “American Central Dust” and “Honky Tonk.”
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But there is nothing complacent about “Notes of Blue.” The storm rolls quickly in for “Static,” a tune that seems to purposely reach back not just to the “Trace” days but to Tupelo’s crankier exploits, with a volatile guitar riff that bounces about with relentless glee. There are also acoustic-driven reveries (“Back Against the Wall” and the wonderfully impressionistic “Cairo and Southern”) and a 1960s style blues noir epilogue (“Threads and Steel”) that fill “Notes of Blue” with acres of robust color.
Adams’ new “Prisoner” is a mash-up of his two most recent albums, 2014’s “Ryan Adams” (a departure from the reflective tone that marked his Cardinals-era Americana records into Neil Young-like electric immediacy) and 2015’s “1989” (a sometimes turbulent song-for-song re-imagining of Taylor Swift’s hit album of the same name and material). But at the core of the unlikely blend sits an inevitable truth — that Adams writes great songs as readily as you or I make a sandwich.
In short, pop rules on “Prisoner,” from the anthemic 1980s charge of “Do You Still Love Me?” to the breezier rhythmic embrace of “Anything I Say to You Now” to the gentler echo of “We Disappear.” Lyrically, though, Adams is still potently restless. “Wish I could explain, but it hurts to breathe,” he sings as the album’s last minutes tick away. “It didn’t fit in my chest, so I wore it on my sleeve.” Then comes the coda: a squall of jagged, emotive guitar to tell us again what a glorious prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll Adams still is.