Every band that loosely adheres to conventional pop songwriting tactics struggles to remain above the teeming trenches of luke-warm typicality. For Son Volt, despite the fact that the majority of their songs are easily accessible and played in a relatively commonplace vein, character, conviction and aptitude keep them levitating well above their peers. On their latest, the band branches outward from their alt.-country roots and into territory that borders on pop-centric indie rock and southern bar stomps, while still subtly retaining the charm and instrumentation of their Americana tendencies.
Vocalist/guitarist Jay Farrar's casual wavering and occasionally fragile singing rings with a consistently soothing tone; he bares imperfections, struggling for notes every now and again, but the slight flaws are endearing and transmit sentiments of honesty.
Moreso, his commitment to lyrical substance (especially considering the state of writing in contemporary pop) is commendably refreshing. Narrative and pointed, Farrar tackles the American social and political demise in the up-beat horn-infused "The Picture," heart-wrenching pre-marital doubt in the balladic "Satellite," and humanitarian immigration reform in the traditional country waltzed duet "Highways and Cigarettes."
The worst songs here are good, and the best are spine tingling. The record serves as a marker for the year and is highly recommended for existing Son Volt fans and/or folks who are seeking the upper crust of the genre.