Son Volt's Jay Farrar says he wanted "Honky Tonk" (Rounder) to reflect the sound the band had on its 1995 debut, "Trace," one of alt-country's pioneering albums.. That's a great plan.

Though Farrar has followed his eclectic interests all over the musical map, his warm voice never sounds more at home than when it's surrounded by pedal steel guitars and fiddles. And throughout "Honky Tonk," Farrar sounds great, especially on the gorgeous "Angel of the Blues" when he sings of time slipping through and burdens of truth, declaring, "Sad songs keep the devil away."

Son Volt has come a long way on the six albums since "Trace," as both musicians and lyricists. Musically, the influence of the "Bakersfield Sound" popularized by Buck Owens is here -- and not just in the song "Bakersfield," where pedal steel and electric guitars duel. The simple arrangements showcase the way Farrar can fit unconventional lyrical ideas into these tradition-steeped songs.

On the single "Hearts and Minds," he adapts a Michael Stipe-ish delivery on the questioning verses before going extra-traditional on the chorus about unwavering love. In "Brick Walls," Farrar takes us through a clever, extended metaphor about the "brick walls and bridges on the way to your heart" that plays off the musical simplicity. "Honky Tonk" may seem deceptively simple and comforting in its alt-country traditions, but it harbors a whole lot of envelope-pushing ideas that only masters could make work.



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"Honky Tonk"


BOTTOM LINE Alt-country pioneers return to their roots