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 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
Son Volt
Okemah And The Melody Of Riot
Sony Legacy Recordings

Rating: 7/10 ?

October 13, 2005
Woody Guthrie fancied himself an exterminator of the worst kind of ideologues: no better than bugs, they're an infestation of the worst kind. Guthrie spent his whole life trying to wipe them off the face of the earth with the only weapon he had, an acoustic guitar with the words "This machine kills fascists" on its weathered body. It's not as efficient as say a tank or a bomber, but it gets the job done.

At least Son Volt's Jay Farrar would like to think so. Ever the populist, Farrar takes Guthrie's power-to-the-people message to heart on the rabble-rousing Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, the first Son Volt record in seven years. A tribute to folk icons like Guthrie, Bob Dylan and their politics, Okemah And The Melody Of Riot - whose name references Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma - is a collection of protest songs that take dead aim at nothing in particular, except the senselessness of war, economic inequality and environmental catastrophe. It's merely a celebration of whatever power Farrar thinks they hold and how they can change the world. And even though Farrar's chosen weapon, the amped-up electric guitar that's front and center on Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, is technologically superior to Guthrie's, it seems powerless to kill anything.

With a new band consisting of drummer Dave Bryson, bassist Andrew Duplantis and guitarist Brad Rice, Farrar's Son Volt franchise is no longer the dirty, creosote-soaked joint of Straightaways and Trace. The grease and soot are gone, washed clean in the studio. Farrar lays off a little on the heavy No Depression country-folk influence that made Farrar's old band, the legendary Uncle Tupelo, as revered as Steinbeck. In its place is a newfound vigor and a powerhouse country-tinged rock sound in songs like "6-String Belief," "Endless War" and "Bandages And Scars" that rides Crazy Horse's bucking, guitar-mangling bronco. More surprising is how Farrar drags the winding southern gothic-pop river of Reckoning-era R.E.M. for the melodies for "Who" and the murky verses of "Jet Pilot."

When not so buried in dank sonics, Farrar's familiar songwriting drawl feels more crisp and lively; being able to hear the record's engaging pop hooks is a revelation. On the other hand, this newfound production clarity reveals that Farrar might be running out of ideas.

This is painfully apparent with "Afterglow 61": a four-lane freeway with few curves, "Afterglow 61" is a simple, straight-forward rocker that obstinately pushes onward like a trucker driving 18 hours without a break. Though it has a strong hook, impassioned vocals and a smoking duel of distorted guitars, the track feels stubbornly one-dimensional, as if it's missed its exit and rather than stopping for directions, it drives on. And when Farrar branches out for the piano-based "World Waits For You," he sounds like a fish out of water. Granted, as Farrar admits in the DVD that accompanies this Dual Disc package, this is the first time he's written a song on the piano, and it shows. The chords are ponderous and clunky, and its most damning feature is its saccharine chorus, repeated ad nauseum in an even sappier reprise that closes the record.

You could study the minutia of Farrar's songwriting until your eyes cross trying to figure out what's wrong with Okemah And The Melody Of Riot. Don't waste your time, because in truth, this is the best Son Volt record since Trace. The sound is big and inviting, with impassioned vocal harmonies - check out the Jayhawks-inspired "Gramophone" - and beautifully tangled guitars. Still, you can't help but be bothered by the fact that Farrar hasn't progressed much since the band's first record. Even with its rich acoustic textures and haunting slide guitar, "Ipecac" seems like a rehashing of old Uncle Tupelo ballads, as does the Anodyne-revisiting "Medication." Even the cattle-driving rockers, like "Chaos Streams," seem to beg and borrow from the alt-country acts around today that Farrar helped spawn.

Lyrically, Farrar's sharp, evocative language shows he hasn't lost his literary feel. In "Atmosphere," Farrar translates America's post-9/11 confusion into obscure phrasing that, nevertheless, hits the mark in the words, "Prairie burnt eyes tell the hell and break through the lens/Feed the buildings by the coast a flagrant dance/Wounded in the world by a single twist of hate." The world is on fire and Farrar is conflicted. He wants to join the revolution that "will be televised/Across living rooms of the great divide." You get the sense that Farrar is looking for healing and a place to retreat to when the shit hits the fan. This is the Son Volt we go to war with.

Reviewed by Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he\'ll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other reviews by Peter Lindblad



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