Notes of Blue (Thirty Tigers) starts out with a note of comfort. “Promise the World” takes me right back to the late ’90s, when Jay Farrar and Son Volt played with confidence and shared the spotlight with few other bands. Nobody sounded quite like them, not even the other bands filed under “No Depression,” the genre tag taken from the title of the debut by Farrar’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo. Unfortunately, it’s a false promise. You won’t hear any more pedal steel until the second to last track on the record, and in the meantime, you’ll hear Farrar playing and singing with a frustrating lack of conviction. Maybe he knows this material isn’t worthy of him. Maybe he knows how weak the lyrics are on “Back Against the Wall,” or how little menace is mustered by the plodding “Midnight.” Maybe he knows that much of this record comes off like Tom Petty fronting the Black Keys. That might even be intentional.
“Lost Souls,” which doesn’t quite manage a riff or a melody, is built around a middle section so generic it could have been lifted from pretty much any Third Man Records release. On “Static,” Farrar slides his voice all over the verses, up and down the scales, complaining about his “mind turned upside down” and his time not being long enough. The guitar and drums sound pretty tough here, but Farrar’s voice comes out more whiny than gritty. I think I’m meant to feel his pain, but it only make me turn inward.
And it’s not that I want Farrar to remake Trace every time out. Twenty years on, most of Son Volt’s releases have served up both originality and authenticity as Farrar has mined every available corner of the back country genres. Taken as a whole, it’s a catalog with more hits than misses and an impressive breadth, especially considering it’s been essentially a one-man project for the last 15 years. But this album isn’t nearly as convincing as it needs to be, nor as fun as I’d like it to be.