Jay Farrar's Son Volt is the "other" splinter group that resulted from the disbanding of the seminal "No Depression" group Uncle Tupelo. Jeff Tweedy's Wilco is the first, and so far more successful, group to be born out of this breakup, producing two critically acclaimed albums (especially 1997's "Being There") and teaming with Billy Bragg on the brilliant "Mermaid Avenue", where new music was written for some of Woody Guthrie's unscored lyrics.
But "Wide Swing Tremolo", the new record from Son Volt, may swing the balance in their favor, or at least even the scales a bit. Son Volt has always managed to simultaneously sound more rock and roll and more country than Wilco, but their songs have tended to have a sameness to them that can turn the audience off after a few listens. Their first two records were characterized by midtempo, twangy ballads girded by a few power-chord driven rock numbers, and there's still some of that present on this record. However, many songs show the band taking new risks, trying new arrangements, and creating music that is a departure from what they've done before without being a betrayal.
Wilco's and Son Volt's differences are in some ways epitomized by the voices of their singers; Jay Farrar's smooth, throaty growl, sounding every bit like a twangy Michael Stipe, contrasts sharply with Jeff Tweedy's whiskey-cured rasp. Farrar's debt to Stipe is appropriately showcased the "Wide Swing Tremolo" opener, "Straightfaced", which is every bit the song that R.E.M. was trying to write with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?". Farrar's distorted voice traces a meandering path through stream-of-consciousness lyrics before barreling into a rock-solid chorus that anchors the song. The next two "real" numbers, "Driving the View" and "Medicine Hat" (track 3, "Jodel", is an oddly comical snippet of maddeningly out-of-tune harmonica playing), find the band shifting down a couple of gears, but that doesn't make the songs any less satisfying. The band sounds relaxed, confident, finally sure of their songwriting abilities in a way that they never were on their first two records.
The album is not without its missteps, however; there are a few songs which just don't measure up to the high standards set by the best tracks on the disc. These are especially prevalent towards the middle of the disc, bogging down an otherwise compelling piece of work. This is far and away Son Volt's best work to date whose best tracks show a lot of promise for the future development of the band. There is a lot of good songwriting here, although those tracks would have seemed even better had they not been held back by some of the weaker numbers. If you are already a fan, this album is definitely worth picking up; if you like artists like Wilco, Steve Earle, or Whiskeytown, then you would do well to give "Wide Swing Tremolo" a good listen.