MUSIC REVIEWS: Son Volt

Okemah and the Melody of Riot Transmit Sound/Legacy
Music •••½ Sound ••• DualDisc Extras •••
A Retrospective Warner Bros./Rhino
Music •••½ Sound •••½
Live from Austin TX New West
Music •••• DVD Mix •••½ Extras •••
Americana figureheads Son Volt have cut their first album in seven years. Yet they're Son Volt in name only, since leader Jay Farrar alone remains from the founding lineup. Farrar tried to work with the original members, but it didn't pan out, so Okemah and the Melody of Riot finds him joined by three new recruits. Since they're driven by Farrar's voice and songs, this Volt sounds a lot like the old one - though without the countryish changes-of-pace provided by Dave Boquist, who'd jump from guitar to banjo, fiddle, or lap steel. In the end, the new group comes across like the more rock-leaning outfit of 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo.

Thankfully, the reconstituted band coheres around one of Farrar's strongest sets of songs. Memorable tunes include "Bandages & Scars" and "Atmosphere" (from which the words "Okemah," which is Woody Guthrie's hometown, and the "melody of riot" are respectively derived). The surging rocker "Afterglow 61" chases legends like Leadbelly and Dylan down old highways. Farrar sounds revitalized, and the album successfully rekindles Son Volt's compelling blend of populist folk, truck-stop country, and craggy, indie-minded pop.

Farrar's lyrics scroll onscreen as the songs play on the DualDisc's DVD side, and they're worth studying - particularly the barbed broadsides of "Jet Pilot" and "Endless War." You don't get a surround mix, but you do get a 28-minute documentary, Break Through the Lens, offering Farrar's insights, some glimpses at the recording sessions, and live run-throughs (including a song that didn't make it to the album, "Joe Citizen Blues").

If you miss the old foursome, you can check out a fresh CD compilation and a concert DVD. A Retrospective: 1995-2000 gathers songs from Son Volt's three '90s releases, adding demos, B-sides, and odds 'n' sods from sound- track and benefit albums. The music is uniformly great, but Tremolo is given unduly short shrift (only three of its 14 songs are included) - so this Retrospective is a compromise between a best-of and a collector's cache.

Live from Austin TX is a DVD document of a 1996 set from the Austin City Limits TV series. The band does all but one song from its debut album, Trace, plus four from Straightaways and a pair from the days of Uncle Tupelo (to which both Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn belonged). The songs are beautifully played, and Son Volt may never have had a surer sense of purpose and place than it did on this night. Chet Himes's 5.1-channel mix is faithful to the Austin venue, with the surrounds picking up ambience, audience noise, and a lot of Boquist's banjo and guitar work. Farrar looks to be thoroughly into the songs and unaware of the cameras, which makes for a dreamy, absorbing performance.

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