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Son Volt

Union – 2019 (Transmit Sound/Thirty Tigers)

Reviewed by Jim Hynes

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Seminal alt-country band Son Volt's ninth studio album, "Union," has a heavy political bent as the name implies. Leader Jay Farrar had set out to make a totally political statement to confront our turbulent times, but felt the album needed some balance. As a result, 8 of the 13 are in the socio-political camp while the other five deal with the power of love, time and music. Strains of the past two Son Volt albums 2013's country-flavored "Honky Tonk" and 2017's blues-influenced "Notes of Blue" are felt in these grooves too, but this one has more of a troubadour/folk music bent, epitomized by Farrar shedding his electric guitar in favor of the acoustic.

Farrar's weathered, unvarnished, deeply resonant voice and his gift for songwriting have always been the driving force of Son Volt, yet he has always had a strong band in support. Longtime members Mark Spencer (piano, organ, acoustic slide, lap steel, vocals) and Andrew DuPlantis (bass, vocals) return as well as guitarist Chris Frames who toured in the "Okemah" era as well as for "Notes of Blue." DuPlantis recruited Austin drummer Mark Patterson to join the team. Farrar's return to acoustic gives Frame plenty of space for soloing and piercing fills.

The eight politically oriented songs were recorded at places associated with two figures central to its theme - labor activist Mary Harris, "Mother Jones" (Mother Jones Museum, Mount Olive, Ill.) and Woody Guthrie (Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, Okla.). Guthrie's influence is deeply apparent on the closer "Symbol," a poignant portrait of a Mexican man who helped build New Orleans after Katrina and now finds himself reflecting on anti-immigration rhetoric and biased law enforcement. Farrar was inspired by Guthrie's classic "Deportee."

Other highlights include the title song inspired by Farrar's dad and the idea of the country coming together as it did during World War II. "While Rome Burns" and "The 99" are direct political statements as are the blues-driven "Broadsides" and "Lady Liberty." They are songs of turmoil and meant to raise discussion about the current state. The piano-driven standout "Reality Winner" pits convicted whistle blower Winner, a former intelligence analyst who leaked secrets, with our reality TV show president. "Devil May Care" hails the joys of playing music with some rhyming of complex terminology. "Slow Burn" is about resilience and hope, and "Rebel Girl" is like "Cherokee St" from "Notes of Blue."

Aside from a few too predictable moments, this is a strong addition to Son Volt's catalog, highlighted by these terrific songs: "Symbol," Union," "Reality Winner" and "Lady Liberty."