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Published: 2009/07/13
by Brian Robbins

American Central Dust Son Volt

Rounder
Admit it: the first time you heard Jay Farrars voice on Uncle Tupelos 1990 debut No Depression, you didnt know just what the deal was, did you? I mean, you were pretty sure it really wasnt an alcoholic black-lung-stricken 84-year-old coal miner on vocals, but the guy sure nailed the spirit, didnt he? And once you knew it was a 23-year-old kid from Belleville, Illinois with an old, old soul that you were hearing, you had to wonder: Okay and Dylan wanted to sing like Woody Guthrie, too whats this guy going to sound like in 20 years?
Well, were not quite 20 years down the line, but close enough to say this for certain: Jay Farrar still sounds like Jay Farrar. The man is a shaper of words and a craftsman of emotion cadence and syllables come secondary to emotion and vibe. Tell the story; get the heart of the song across; let it flow as it wants to. Its that simple.
On American Central Dust Jay Farrar leads Son Volt through tales of love and loss, gives us lessons in history and present-day attitudes, and even tips the hat to a hero along the way and the man has never sounded as comfortable as he does here. How much of it is Farrar himself and how much of it is the current lineup of Son Volt is hard to say; but it doesnt matter it works.
Steel guitar freaks rejoice – American Central Dust is chock full of what you seek: from acoustic lap (Farrar and Mark Spencer) to electric lap (Spencer and Chris Masterson) to classic pedal (Mark Spencer yet again), there are steel threads woven throughout. Masterson also lays down some nice electric six-string passages; crunchy as needed, sweet when called for and never shows all his cards. In fact, right from the album opener Dynamite, which could almost be a long-lost two-minute-and-40-second soulful Sir Douglas Quintet nugget the whole band plays with a level of grace and tastefulness that never lacks for power but never overshadows the spirit of the song, either.
The rhythm section of drummer Dave Bryson and bassist Andrew Duplantis make Down To The Wire shimmer like hot gasoline with a tension that falls somewhere between the Stones Sympathy For The Devil and Lucinda Williams Righteously but again, dont expect big, long flourishes of guitar squall and drum thunder this band gets the job done without any of that. No Turning Back comes off sounding like an alt-country/Americana/whatever version of the E Street Band (which, in this case, is cool), while When The Wheels Dont Move could easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything off Neil Youngs Fork In The Road, both in terms of subject matter and groove.
Farrar trades his guitar for a seat at the piano in the haunting tale of the steamboat Sultana, the Titanic of the Mississippi, which exploded and sank in 1865. The stark piano holds steady as a droning fiddle and dobro snake around each other in the background youll throw another log on the fire after that one, no doubt. And his tribute to Keith Richards, Cocaine And Ashes, couldve come off as schmaltzy or cartoonish in lesser hands here, were to imagine its Keef himself telling us Im the same as anyone, just kind of lucky and we listen. Many moons ago, when a young Nils Lofgren was paying his dues as a rock n roll pirate, he laid down Keith Dont Go for his hero with Cocaine And Ashes, Farrar may have finally topped it without a pirate scarf in sight.
All in all, American Central Dust is a fine piece of work a blend of simplicity and dynamics that feels real, powerful, and focused. This is the Son Volt and Jay Farrar – youve been waiting for.

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