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Son Volt

Trace (Remastered and Expanded) – 2015 (Rhino/Warner)

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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CDs by Son Volt

Son Volt was one of the two bands that rose from the considerable ashes of the May 1994 Uncle Tupelo breakup. While Jeff Tweedy and the current Uncle Tupelo lineup formed Wilco, his former partner, singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Jay Farrar, teamed with Uncle Tupelo founding drummer Mike Heidorn to create Son Volt. Fans knew what to expect from the formidable but volatile Tweedy/Farrar partnership, but what would come from these new efforts? Any lingering questions or doubts were answered when Son Volt's debut, "Trace," was released in September 1995.

The 11-track album was clearly built upon the alt.-country foundation Uncle Tupelo helped pioneer, but Farrar was not content to rest on his laurels. Alternating between heavier open-road rockers, twangy honky-tonk inspired country and a few moments, "Trace" pushed all the right buttons and is still regarded by most as the band's finest album.

Thanks to this sustained popularity, Rhino Records recently released an expanded and remastered edition, produced by Farrar to coincide with the 20th anniversary of its original release. Packed with an audio upgrade, demo tracks and a previously unissued complete concert recording from 1996 that features all but one of the album's tracks, this is essential listening for roots rock fans.

In addition to the newly remastered original recording, the first disc contains eight demos. A very skeletal acoustic version of the high-octane rocker "Route" opens a window into Farrar's songwriting process, while a bare-bones early version of "Drown" only gives the slightest of hints that this track will mature into a sonic gut punch fueled by a memorable guitar lick and a steady cowbell beat. Another noteworthy demo included here is "Windfall," a gorgeous and twangy country ballad that has always been one of the album's best songs. This demo track, which relies more heavily on pedal steel than the finished version, shows how arrangements get tweaked throughout the recording process.

This second disc is dedicated entirely to the real star of this show - a full "Trace"-era concert recording from New York City entitled, Live At The Bottom Line 2/12/96. There is a palpable sense of urgency and an evident raw energy shared by both band and crowd that makes this a memorable recording. As well produced and excellently executed as the studio renditions are, the vast majority of songs from "Trace" are at their finest in a live setting - something that is evident throughout, especially with tracks like "Catching On," "Live Free" and the aforementioned "Route." Also notable here is the live version of the pretty "Trace" standout "Tear Stained Eye," which benefits from a slight tempo bump in the live setting.

The inclusion of a few choice Uncle Tupelo favorites including "Anodyne," "Slate" and "Chickamauga" boosts the set while a twanged-out cover of the Del Reeves truck driving song, "Looking At The World Through A Windshield" is a surprising, but appropriate closing tune from this touring band earning its fans out on the road.