Son Volt’s Notes of Blue testifies to a love of lesser-spotted folk and blues luminaries and esoteric open guitar tunings, shifting in tone from reflective and drifting folk bliss to scratchy, hard-scrabble blues scuzz.
Led off by ‘Promise the World’ Jay Farrar’s voice masterfully inhabits the world weary but resilient tone (“Light after Darkness…that is the way”) and is nicely complemented by some beguiling fiddle and Jason Kardong’s Ben Keith-like pedal steel. Though Farrar namechecks Nick Drake in discussing the genesis of the song, the tone is more akin to the unsentimental but gentle delivery of solo Richard Thompson. The following ‘Back Against the Wall’ with its overdriven tremolo guitar and vibrato Hammond organ pitches itself into the aching, flyover-country Americana of The Heartbreakers and on repeated listens reveals a timely and earnest political (with a small p) message of resistance and fortitude married skilfully to its blue-collar sound.
From there on in the album becomes a veritable kaleidoscope of blues: pulling in fixings from the hill country blues of Mississippi Fred McDowell, the proto rock of Bo Diddley and the slash and burn juke-joint riffery of Skip James and Robert Johnson. The songs are steeped in the elemental light and dark of the musical and lyrical blues vocabulary: “I feel like my time ain’t long…too many graves to be kept clean…spent all my money on whisky and women…darkness might be your only friend.” Under this, on songs like ‘Lost Souls’ and ‘Static’ the slide guitar is cranked to a bristling, jaundiced fury echoed in the sharp primal chord stabs of the strident St. Louis referencing ‘Cherokee St.’ Elsewhere Farrar conjures the southern gothic miasma for the reverb-drenched ‘Midnight’ “it’s always midnight way down in hell” and summons the ghost of Slim Harpo’s rhythm-stuttering right hand from out of the swamp for the hip-shaker ‘Sinking Down’ with its brusque lip-smacking grind of a slide solo in octave-C tuning.
Balancing this darkness are the great beauties of the album – full of the space and natural light of their sparse acoustic accompaniment. The hill country blues of ‘The Storm’ with its gliding bottleneck solo, simple chiming guitar theme and falling vocal line makes a poignant frame for the longing, down-at-heel singer, sure that if he can just catch that west-bound train to California… it’ll all be fine. ‘Cairo and Southern’, a lovely wandering blues on low-tuned baritone guitar, with softer quarter-tone singing, drifts weightlessly, exquisitely towards the escape its lyric seeks.
But suddenly, in the short, sharp, talking-sharkskin-suit-blues of ‘Threads and Steel’, it’s all over; 10 songs, 30 minutes, Jay smiles his hundred-proof smile, puts on his go-to-hell hat and gets himself real, real gone.