Uncle Tupelo pretty much established the subgenre of alt-country in 1990 with the release of No Depression, and the band’s two main songwriters and singers, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, seemed to fulfill the promise that Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds had mapped out over two decades before, a perfect synthesis of rock and country. When Uncle Tupelo split in 1993, Tweedy, always more on the pop side of things, formed Wilco, which enjoyed commercial and critical success, while Farrar, who mapped out the moodier, more hangdog country side of things, formed Son Volt, a band with no aspirations for the charts, indie or otherwise, and while Son Volt‘s albums have been strong, interesting, and decidedly uncommercial ever since, they all lead, it seems, to this new one, Honky Tonk, which arrives at last squarely in country territory (more specifically, the Bakersfield country of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard),
with nary an electric guitar in sight. Full of slow and midtempo
waltzes and shuffles, and framed and led by pedal steel guitars and twin
fiddles, along with Farrar‘s weary, never-in-a-big-hurry, laid-back (but somehow mysteriously intense) vocals, Honky Tonk
is full of a beautiful, thoughtful, and almost Zen-like approach to
life, all set against a classic old-school Bakersfield country backdrop.
Songs here like “Hearts and Minds,” “Wild Side,” “Bakersfield,” “Angel
of the Blues,” and “Shine On” aren’t rave-ups, and aren’t bitter barroom
apologies, but are filled instead with a kind of stubborn hope and joy,
made perhaps even more powerful for being from the 21st century while
sounding like they came from the century before. The whole album
accumulates in a powerful, meditative way, and its themes are less about
drinking and trying to forget the past than they are about making peace
with the past and trying to remember it and use it as a spark and a
springboard to the future. Honky Tonk is country facing forward informed by the past.
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