Son Volt – Okemah and the Melody of Riot

Son Volt
Okemah and the Melody of Riot

After assorted solo efforts, alt-country figurehead Jay Farrar resurrects the Son Volt moniker (he’s the only remaining member of the band’s original line-up) for Okemah and the Melody of Riot, the first album by Son Volt in seven years. And while Okemah is clearly driven by Farrar’s vision, it suitably develops Son Volt’s sound, bringing it clearly into the mid-2000s while giving a nod toward the influences of bygone days that have always been a factor in Son Volt’s alt-country tendencies.

Perhaps it was the desire to wax about the state of today’s affairs that drove Farrar and co. to release a new Son Volt album, or perhaps Okemah is an album whose time has come. Farrar is clearly making a point on this release, writing veiled (and not-so-veiled) protest songs and roots-rockers that do more than just nod to influences of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, they make obvious references to those forefathers. In fact, it’s on the opening track, “Bandages and Scars,” that Farrar makes references to “the words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head,” which clearly inspired this latest effort. On “Jet Pilot,” Farrar reinvents Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” with a nod to a new son, while “Ipecac” has a theme of corporate excess that’s still extremely timely.

But Farrar and his compatriots are too talented to turn Okemah into an album of all theme and no substance. The best songs with meaning from days gone by are first and foremost just good songs, and Okemah is filled with Southern-rock rock hooks, upbeat rhythms, alt-country drive, and a rock ‘n roll soul. “Afterglow 61” is a remarkably catchy and upbeat rock track, with some gritty guitar from Farrar and Brad Rice, and “Endless War,” though sounding like an obvious reference to current events, still feels like a classic tale of growing up in a small town, a classic theme for rock songs over the last three decades. The rhythm section of Dave Bryson and Andrew Duplantis also thrive in creating the moody texture lurking beneath the surface of this more upbeat song. On “6 String Belief,” the band rips out a blazing rock track, on which Farrar sings, “Rock and roll in my head, alive and kicking,” clearly one of the best all-around tracks on the album.

There’s much more of that classic alt-country feel on slower tracks like “Atmosphere,” a more mid-tempo song that has some shimmering guitar work and a gorgeous mixing of vocals. The aforementioned “Ipecac” has the heartfelt vibe of classic folk- and country-influenced rock, and there’s vintage Byrds-like undertones to compliment classic instrumentation on the starkly pretty “Medication.” Harmonica just adds to the classic feel of the sweetly melancholic “Gramophone.” The lovely “Word Waits for You” and its album-closing reprise are led by piano rather than guitar, and Farrar’s warbly voice wraps around the piano and hints of lap steel beautifully, closing off the album with a personal touch.

This is not a Jay Farrar solo album, let’s make that clear. This is a Son Volt that’s more about rock than some efforts in the past, but it’s a Son Volt that still has the heart and soul of its mid-90s days. The rock is thick and gritty, catchy and upbeat, and energetic, making you long to see the band rip these tracks off live. And these songs are timely, with the kind of message needed in rock these days. If Farrar maybe goes a bit too far in giving credence to his forefathers and influences, he should be forgiven. Those men paved the way for albums like this, albums that are as important as they are enjoyable.