You tend to know what you’re going to get with a Son Volt album. Jay Farrar was always the straight man in Uncle Tupelo, as evidenced by how far apart he and Jeff Tweedy now are in musical terms. Son Volt, in both their incarnations either side of his solo career, have produced reliably strong, unfussy records of a country fan’s alt-country. And just in case you’re not sure what might be contained within this latest release, they’ve clearly labelled album number seven: Honky Tonk.
And so Farrar has set out to make the music of the roadhouse, the soundtrack of the backroom bar. The pace is, as is standard with Son Volt, relaxed – this is the music of the troubled troubadours taking solace in a drink, where Merle Haggard might find a some swinging doors, a jukebox and a barstool, perhaps even a bottle to let him down. There may be a song called ‘Wild Side’ but don’t expect anything to get too far out of hand on here.
Bakersfield, not Nashville, is the capital of this form of country, and so the Californian city lends its name to one of the stand-out tracks on this record. But while the name-checked locations are urban, the setting inside a barroom, there is a dusty feel to this record, more a soundtrack to the plains outside than the drunks inside. Lapsteel guitar is no stranger to a Son Volt record, but it is emphasised here in keeping with the subject matter, while Farrar’s drifting vocals are well at home in this style.
The album is home to a handful of stand-out tracks – ‘Bakersfield’, ‘Seawall’ and ‘Shine On’ spring to mind, while ‘Down The Highway’ stands up to some of his best work – although such lofty heights are not maintained throughout. Instead it drifts in and out, like the very characters who might stop by Farrar’s imaginary bar.