A RE-ENERGIZED SUN VOLTWhen Belleville, Ill.'s Uncle Tupelo released their debut album, No Depression (Rockville), in 1990, few could have predicted that it would spawn its own genre. Never mind that country, punk and rock had been tossed together previously (anyone remember cowpunk?); from that moment on, No Depression, or alternately, alt-country or Americana, was a full-on movement with designs on taking back roots music from the slickies in Nashville, Tenn., dragging it through the mud and recasting it with an edge of authenticity that it had been lacking for a few years. And it only took three normal guys from a small Midwestern town to spearhead it. Even more amazing, when you look back on it, is that Uncle Tupelo only lasted about five years.
After playing a weekend's worth of final shows at their own ground zero--St. Louis' Mississippi Nights--principal singer-songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy put a lifetime of friendship behind them and veered off into different directions.
It's somewhat difficult to remember now, but following the breakup, it was Farrar's Son Volt that Tupelo fans were most excited about, not Tweedy's Wilco, who have gone on to become, well, freakin' Wilco!--a band whose every move is gauged with bated breath by fans and critics alike, and who somewhat reinvent themselves with each new album. Son Volt, meanwhile, have been overshadowed in recent years by Wilco, but that hasn't stopped them from expanding their own horizons, too. They're just a little bit quieter about it. (And a few years of being stuck in a holding pattern didn't help much, either.) For the release of 2005's Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Transmit Sound/Legacy), Farrar put together a new lineup of musicians and bounded out of the gate with a renewed sense of invigoration. It was arguably Son Volt's best album since Trace (Warner Bros.), the band's debut, was released a decade prior. How many people noticed is another question entirely.
Advance word on the band's new album, The Search, released March 6, on Transmit Sound/Legacy, was that it would be the one to put Son Volt back in the spotlight, and if there's any justice for Farrar, that'll be the case. Armed with the same band as on Okemah, Farrar allows room for expansion in the way of new sounds (horns, Eastern motifs), but still manages to sound like he's in his comfort zone. Whereas in the past, that comfort zone allowed him to sound a bit lazy at times, he now sounds like a guy who knows exactly what he's doing.
Those Eastern elements can be found on both The Search's opener, "Slow Hearse," and "Action." The former is a dirgelike piano ballad with flourishes of Eastern-informed guitar, while the latter is a grinding Southern rocker with an Eastern vocal melody. "The Picture" would be an enjoyable if fairly typical Son Volt song were it not for the Stax horns, and "Highways and Cigarettes" is a gorgeous, moonlit duet with Shannon McNally.
While Farrar and company aren't exactly reinventing the wheel, or start shape-shifting à la Wilco, with The Search, they have added another fine work to place alongside their best. And that should count for something.
Son Volt perform next Thursday, April 5, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. The all-ages show begins at 8 p.m. with an opening set from Magnolia Electric Company. Advance tickets are available for $18 at the venue's box office, online at the Rialto Web site or by calling 740-1000. They'll be $20 on the day of show. For more information, call the aforementioned number.
CD CELEBRATIONSTwo local or locally related CD-release parties head our way this week, each with its own twist.
Those who have hovered around Tucson's music scene for a while surely remember the name Mike Semple, though he now lives in Los Angeles. In the mid-'90s Semple fronted the Dog and Pony Show, a beloved band that sounded a bit like Dinosaur Jr., had they come from the Sonoran Desert instead of Boston. Around that same time, Semple also played guitar in one of the many incarnations of Giant Sand. More recently, he was a guitarist in Campfire Girls, and he remains a full-time member of the formerly Tucson-based band Friends of Dean Martinez, who are now centered in Austin, Texas. The Friends' most recent project was scoring Richard Linklater's 2006 film Fast Food Nation, and scattered among the notable names that contributed songs to the soundtrack--Spoon, Elvis Perkins, Robbers on High Street, Dr. Dog, etc.--was one new to most people: Secretary Bird is, to my knowledge, the first band that Semple has had creative control of, and written all the songs for, since his days in the Dog and Pony Show.
The group released their self-titled debut album on March 20, on In De Goot Recordings, and it should appeal not only to those who fondly remember D&PS, but a whole slew of newbies, too. In fact, Semple's overall aesthetic hasn't changed much since those days (he's still a beast of a guitarist, and his singing style is perfectly described in the band's bio as "lackadaisically melodic"), but he's improved in a couple of ways: Secretary Bird draw from a wider sonic palette than the Dog and Pony Show did, and perhaps most importantly, Semple's songwriting has improved over the years.
"Somewhere Girls" falls into the Neil Young/Son Volt camp and features a chorus so simple and pretty, it can't help but hook you. "Cornerstore" starts out as a pleasant midtempo tune plucked on an acoustic guitar before building so much steam that it finally erupts in a hail of distorted guitar freakery. "Late Night Cab Ride" proves that rootsy rock and glam stomp aren't mutually exclusive, and as an added bonus, the lovely "Tio," previously only found on the Fast Food Nation soundtrack, is included here, too.
Secretary Bird celebrate the release of the new album by performing on Friday, March 30, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. The show begins at 9 p.m. with openers Mostly Bears and Creosote, who are fronted by former Dog and Pony Show member Jason Steed. Five bucks gets you through the doors. Call 622-8848 for further details.
After a few years playing gigs and releasing an EP, Tucson's Lagoon finally hit their stride with the 2005's Graduation (self-released), which saw them leaving their past Brit-popiness for something a bit moodier. This week, Lagoon--singer/guitarist David Ziegler-Voll, guitarist Patrick McMahon, bassist Woodie Polk, and drummer Marisa Chattman--release their follow-up full-length, Dose (self-released).
If Graduation was a step forward, Dose is another leap in the same direction. For one thing, the songs are almost uniformly longer (eight songs in just less than 43 minutes)--not always a good thing, but here, it allows the band to stretch out and tinker with song structures. Opener "Blind" is a perfect example: It begins with skeletal guitar notes and Ziegler-Voll singing a hypnotic melody, then breaks into a slow, grinding guitar riff that transforms the song entirely, and sounds unlike anything Lagoon have ever done. Add an extended bridge (which essentially amounts to part two of the song) with acoustic guitar and what sounds like an e-bowed electric, and ladies and gents, we have ourselves a winnah! Elsewhere, the band seem to integrate their past into their new sound, as on "Dead at 30," a jaunty, jangly pop song with unusually gravelly vocals from Ziegler-Voll, while, true to its name, "Dreamcycle" is 6 1/2 minutes of ethereal slow-burn.
Unfortunately, this week's release party for Dose comes on the heels of the band's announcement that they'll be pulling up stakes to relocate to Providence, R.I., this summer. Catch Lagoon while you still can on Saturday, March 31 at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. The Iods open at 9:45 p.m., and your $6 cover includes a copy of Dose. Questions? Call 798-1298.