In the grand tradition of AC/DC, the Ramones, and Robert Pollard, Jay Farrar is a guy who has essentially been making the same record over and over again throughout his career. That's not a bad thing in and of itself; all of those artists have made plenty of great, powerful records that reflected a distinctive style that was theirs and theirs alone. Ever since Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992, where the divide between Farrar and Jeff Tweedy's writing styles became especially clear, Farrar's music has been dominated by his deep, thoughtful vocals, his strong, elemental melodies, and his bursts of Neil Young-style roughhouse guitar. Twenty-five years on, Farrar hasn't abandoned that formula, and while he puts a somewhat different spin on his songwriting on 2017's Notes of Blue, recorded with the latest edition of his band Son Volt, it's entirely obvious that this is Farrar's work less than 30 seconds into the first track, "Promise the World." Son Volt's lineup has been fluid since Farrar resurrected the band in 2005, but with Farrar at the helm their musical personality has not. The title Notes of Blue refers to his recent fascination with vintage rural blues that informed this batch of songs, but the lyrical fragments scavenged from ancient blues numbers and the bursts of slide guitar only do so much to give this album a distinctive outlook. Farrar is still a commanding vocalist, his guitar work remains powerful and muscular, and this new edition of Son Volt (Mark Spencer on bass, slide guitar, and piano, Gary Hunt on fiddle, Jason Kardong on pedal steel, and Jacob Edwards on drums) sounds taut and convincing. But despite diving into the blues, ultimately Notes of Blue sounds like territory that Farrar has explored before, and this never connects with the strength of his best work. Committed fans and casual admirers will find Notes of Blue worth a listen, but ultimately this is the work of an artist who has done better with similar ingredients in the past.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming