Album Review: Trace

Son Volt
Warner Bros.

Son Volt - TraceI don’t know if there’s an album that’s taken me more miles down the highway than Son Volt’s 1995 magnum opus Trace, an Americana classic that still sounds as fresh and relevant today as it did more than 20 years ago upon its initial release.

Son Volt is the group that Jay Farrar formed after his previous band Uncle Tupelo imploded, and there have been several different lineups through the years. Additionally, Farrar has also delivered ‘solo’ records through the years, but it would be a stretch in my opinion to look at a Son Volt album as anything other than a Jay Farrar album with a backing band. I have come to view the moniker as more of a vehicle for him when he wants the support of a full group of musicians rather than that of a traditional band where all the members are a collective, creative force. However, you look at it, Trace built on the themes that he had previously explored in Uncle Tupelo and, especially, on Anodyne, the group’s 1993 swan song.

While some music historians have speculated on where Uncle Tupelo may have gone from there, I’m more of the opinion that there was nowhere else for that band to go. If you look at the musical paths Farrar and his Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy (who formed Wilco in Uncle Tupelo’s aftermath) have traveled in the years since, Trace seems like the most logical follow-up to Anodyne – certainly more so than A.M., Tweedy’s debut album with Wilco, and in my mind, a more logical place than the disparate forces of Uncle Tupelo would have taken it. And besides, if Uncle Tupelo had soldiered on through the chaos, Farrar may have never delivered this gem under any moniker.

Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel … may the wind take your troubles away …
Son Volt’s “Windfall”

No, Trace appeared at the exact right moment in time, and yet, somehow, still remains timeless. Had it never been released, Farrar could issue it today, and it would still sound new (and a remastered reissue is coming in October 2015). It opens with his simple but instantly familiar acoustic guitar notes on the wistful “Windfall” – a road trip song if there ever was one – but wastes no time easing into the first rocker immediately after with an electric guitar this time furnishing the introduction to “Live Free.” This alternating pattern continues on the acoustic guitar intros of “Tear Stained Eye” and “Ten Second News” with their vague allusions to small towns (“Sainte Genevieve can hold back the water, but saints don’t bother with a tear-stained eye”) and highways (“driving down sunny Forty Four Highway”) that are part of the fabric of Farrar’s Missouri homeland. In between is “Route” – an angst-fueled rocker that somehow makes its desperation seem emotionally appealing. By the time the album hits “Drown” – a minor modern rock hit that found its way onto college radio playlists – you’re ready to sink below the surface anywhere he takes you.

And it’s now or never – too close to the latter … we’re all living proof that nothing lasts …
Son Volt’s “Route”

Even the reprieve offered by “Loose String” (“coming up for air again and again”) is just about catching your breath long enough to survive the next plunge, and the emotional depths of the album aren’t fully explored until the end of track 10 (“Too Early”) – the final song on the album penned by Farrar. Themes of yearning, loss and loneliness – even mortality – weave their way through the album’s 11 tracks, but so do references to roads and rivers and highways that offer at least a temporary respite if not a permanent escape. Maybe that’s why the album works so well – Farrar’s world-weary delivery is anything but a surrender, and it convinces you that any reprieve is worth the time it buys you. That makes the urgency of “Out Of The Picture” (“somewhere along the way the clock runs out … somewhere along the way it all stands still”) worth the journey, and offers you a perspective that only comes with the experience of living in “Catching On” (“take whatever lies ahead – the good and the bad – and leave the rest”).

Like to hear your story told with a two-step beat and rhyme … could be Tennessee or Texas, on and on, that road winds …
Son Volt’s “Too Early”

By the time the album reaches “Too Early,” Farrar has said about all he can say, and that song definitely sounds like an album closer. Fortunately, he had an even better idea, however, dusting off Ron Wood’s classic “Mystifies Me.” After all the emotional baggage of the album is sorted out, perhaps the greatest theme of all to emerge is one of hope. Against all odds, Trace still offers you an exit from the highway you once used to escape – and just enough time to find another path to redemption.

Stay awhile and work it out with me … we got time, and we can cast it true …
Son Volt’s “Mystifies Me”

– Kendall Webb

Trace on

  1. Windfall
    A RoadTripRadio Selection
  2. Live Free
  3. Tear Stained Eye
  4. Route
  5. Ten Second News
  6. Drown
    A RoadTripRadio Selection
  7. Loose String
  8. Out of the Picture
  9. Catching On
  10. Too Early
  11. Mystifies Me

Trace Live Video on

  1. Windfall from Austin City Limits (1996)
  2. Live Free from Austin City Limits (1996)
  3. Drown from Austin City Limits (1996)
  4. Catching On from Austin City Limits (1996)
  5. Drown on Late Night with Conan O’Brien (1996)

Trace will be re-released in a remastered, expanded two-disc reissue by Rhino Records on October 30, 2015 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original release.



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