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Who's Your Uncle?: Son Volt sold its soul for country rock and roll 

Son Volt makes a stop at The Domino Room, bringing one of the pioneering voices in modern alt-country to Central Oregon in the form of front man Jay Farrar.

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After what seems like a long and relatively unremarkable year for touring acts in Bend - or more precisely touring acts not in Bend, as the case often was - 2009 draws to a close with something of a highlight. Son Volt makes a stop at The Domino Room next week, bringing one of the pioneering voices in modern alt-country to Central Oregon in the form of front man Jay Farrar. The band rolls into Bend with a new album under its belt and Farrar, a recently critically lauded collaboration with Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard.

One of two bands born out of the seminal alt-country group Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt is more a brand than a band. Farrar's muscular twang is the only constant among Son Volt's shifting membership, which Farrar sometimes seems to flip through like stations on an FM dial. Still there's a familiarity to the music that drifts between fuzz-toned Americana and straight-up lap steel tinged Appalachian country.

Unlike former collaborator Jeff Tweedy - who made his musical mark by deliberately confounding convention with his post Uncle Tupelo band, Wilco - Farrar has stubbornly refused to change. The result is a career that sometimes seems to have plateaued around 1994. But there's a certain solace in Farrar's familiar formula that relies on his quintessentially country baritone. While Tweedy has embraced engineering gimmicks, like recording an album over Cold War-era short wave communiqués, Farrar has relied on his voice and a stripped down approach to his art - there's nothing post-modern about anything in the Son Volt catalog.

The band's most recent release is no different, and in some ways it's a little too much of the same. American Central Dust is a collection of songs that's too far removed from the urgency of 1994's essential Trace, and yet too near other less-inspired efforts from Farrar. That's not to say there aren't some bright spots, especially for long-time fans. The early track "Down To The Wire" opens with a nice shuffling drum-beat and fuzzed out slide guitar lines interweaving with a Booker T-inspired organ line. The backbeat chugs along nicely while Farrar mutters a quiet indictment of our greed fueled society and the wreckage that it has wrought.

"Plastic bags fly from trees. Proud symbols of a cavalier progress. Memories and landscapes in triage and disappearing averages, permanent changes. No jury will have a final say, everyone knows the jury is guilty," Farrar sings, intimating his exhaustion.

But instead of letting his subject matter dictate, the song finds its own voice with a half-skipping pace that almost acts as a counterbalance to the grim lyrics. While American Central Dust never breaks down, it certainly stalls at points where Farrar's ballads seem to cave in on their subjects, slumbering toward to a conclusion that has listeners checking the track time.

The good news is that several of these tracks seem poised to emerge as solid live songs. The nearly excellent "When The Wheels Don't Move" should translate nicely to the stage. The song is a meditation on the collapse of American might, told firmly from the perspective of an artist raised in the Rust Belt.

"Who will work the assembly line? Who will pull the freight on time? Who will work the all night haul? Who will explain it all... when the wheels don't move. Bigger chariots didn't see Rome, easy money didn't stay at home."

If there's a better six-string summation of our nation's current quandary, I haven't heard it yet.

While the album holds its own again the rest of the Son Volt catalog, it's about as far from musically groundbreaking as one could get. But at this point in his career, Farrar, like so many middle-aged artists, doesn't really seem to care. It's no longer about the fire in his belly; it's about the light in his soul, which still seems to shine brightly, if not always consistently.

Son Volt

8 pm Monday, December 7. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. All ages. $20/door, $18/advance.


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