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Album review: Son Volt's 'American Central Dust'

July 6, 2009 |  6:30 pm

Sonvolt Son Volt singer-songwriter Jay Farrar casts his gaze around the good old U.S. of A. and isn't happy with what he sees. The economy has tanked, greed runs rampant and dreams come crashing to the ground. Even if all that's true, does it really help to sound this mopey?

Farrar's dour perspective courses through most of these dozen songs, the gloom broken only sporadically by the band's musical interplay. Too often, his melodies are Spartan vehicles for his lyrical prose, which is ambitiously artful but would be served just as well -- perhaps better -- as spoken-word exercises.

"Man's power over nature/Hubris and greed let the fossil fuels burn," he laments in "When the Wheels Don't Move." It's a position that's been argued for ages, but Farrar comes across like the grump at a dinner who grumbles invectives at whatever target comes up. "Pushed Too Far," a glum reminiscence of pre-Katrina times in New Orleans and elsewhere, takes the band into a late-night country Stones vibe that's bittersweetly colored with steel guitar. In "Sultana," his recounting of a Civil War-era maritime disaster, Farrar mistakes historical narrative for art.

The album's sound is raw, but "raw," even in the Americana circles that Son Volt travels in, doesn't always equate with primal power. Sometimes it's just undercooked.

-- Randy Lewis

Son Volt
"American Central Dust"
One and a half stars

Son Volt plays July 16 at the Wiltern Theatre.