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