Short Cuts

A gifted songwriter, he understands minimalism and understatement, particularly on "Blind Hope." As the tune shuffles toward the album's conclusion and the bass guitar rumbles, Farrar sings of "Living it up on the downside" while the pedal-steel offers little consolation. It is a moment of beauty built on a foundation of simple instrumentation.

Sparse production and Farrar's plaintive singing suggest a longing, and so these concise, short story-like songs are frequently haunting. The dirge "Dead Man's Clothes" waltzes with the help of a military snare drum and a somber fiddle before seemingly collapsing in on itself. Because individual instruments are given enough room to breathe, songs like "Straightface" -- with fuzzed vocals and harmonica histrionics -- and "Strands" -- broken up by bits of controlled feedback -- demonstrate self-assurance.

Though the album was mostly mixed by Farrar and David Barbe (formerly of Sugar), three tracks were handled by heavyweights John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr) and Jack Joseph Puig (Weezer, Semisonic). You'd think that, by turning to these radio-friendly knob-turners, Son Volt was seeking to raise its profile, but Tremolo doesn't sound much different than the band's previous records. No high-gloss sheen was applied to the tracks, nor should it have been; because Farrar is from the Neil Young school of singing -- more feeling than technique -- his kind of alternacountry is best when delivered unrefined.

The most obvious song for the airwaves, "Flow," is a two-minute, barnstorming, up-tempo number with lots of guitar fills. A concentrated blast of what makes Son Volt stand out from the pack -- tight playing, a good sense of dynamics, short verses, and catchy melody -- it demonstrates the band's confidence and renewed sense of enthusiasm.

-- David Simutis

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