With anger over the war in Iraq escalating and next year’s presidential election looming, there seems to be a lot of politically charged music coming out, though it could just be the enormous presence of the new Arcade Fire album, Neon Bible. However, alt-country outfit Son Volt’s new c.d., The Search, finds Jay Farrar and his band mates on Arcade Fire’s wavelength, asking the question on everyone’s lips: What the hell is going on?
The difference between the two discs, other than their musical direction, is that Son Volt frontman Jay Farrar somehow sounds livelier than ever — perhaps miserable times really do inspire. Maybe that’s because his last project, Death Songs for the Living, with fellow singer-songwriter Anders Park under the moniker Gob Iron, was morose in more ways than one. The Search picks up where the previous Son Volt album, 2005’s Guthrie-inspired Okemah and the Melody of Riot, left off. And while a new song like “The Picture” sees the world “bound for trouble,” hope still shines, chiefly in the form of bright horns and Farrar’s airy croon — both complemented by pounding drums and rich, distorted guitar riffage.
Unlike Arcade Fire — and most good, non-preachy political music — Farrar lines The Search with political references, from the bad air index to Monsanto. Somehow, it all still works, partly because The Search may also be Son Volt’s most experimental, musically progressive album yet. Pummeling beats, a soaring organ, and effects-laden electric guitar diminish any semblances of the band’s alt-country heritage. For example, the foreboding folk strum at the beginning of “Circadian Rhythm” is abruptly pushed aside by a more psychedelic, spacey feel. Even the slower, darker “Adrenaline and Heresy,” with its gradual buildup, gives way to raw punk energy, in “Satellite.”
Jay Farrar may never escape comparisons to his former Uncle Tupelo bandmate, Jeff Tweedy, and The Search won’t go down as “epic” the way that Tweedy’s last few Wilco albums have. But Son Volt’s latest is a fun listen. In fact, being depressed about the state of the world may not have felt this good in a long time.