"Okemah and the Melody of Riot"
"Spelled in Bones"
Okemah is the Oklahoma birthplace of Woody Guthrie, so it's reasonable to expect that the protest songs on Son Volt's "Okemah and the Melody of Riot" will recall the Dust Bowl balladeer. He's in there somewhere, and not just in "Bandages & Scars," the opening track that drops his name. But on its first album in seven years, the reconstituted Son Volt emphasizes noisy rock over the gentler strains of Guthrie's folk or the alt-country that band leader Jay Farrar helped invent in the early '90s with Uncle Tupelo.
The album also invokes Bob Dylan ("Afterglow 61'') and others, but its principal inspirations seem to be Neil Young and President Bush. The music is rough-edged and raucous, in the spirit of Young's sallies with Crazy Horse. (The quartet's vigorous current lineup, all new save for Farrar, includes drummer Dave Bryson, late of Washington's Canyon.) As for Bush -- well, "Jet Pilot" is not about Chuck Yeager, and "Endless War" wasn't inspired by the war on drugs. Another of the rowdier numbers, "6 String Belief," rededicates Farrar to "rock and roll around my head /Alive and kicking," and he does have some fun with plugged-in guitar. Much of "Okemah," however, is powered by anger rather than electricity.
Although Fruit Bats record for Sub Pop, once the axis of grunge, frontman Eric D. Johnson hasn't had a Farrar-like rock 'n' roll epiphany. In a blindfold test, the Bats' third album, "Spelled in Bones," could be mistaken for the folkie-pop of such contemporary labelmates as the Shins and Rogue Wave. "Lives of Crime," which opens the disc, shows the trio at its most tuneful and energetic, with inklings of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson -- and, yes, the Shins. Elsewhere, bland synth bits and dragging tempos sometimes weaken Johnson's melodies. "Canyon Girl," one of the livelier songs, vows that "I won't return back to the run of the mill again," but most of these decidedly ungrungy songs can't keep that promise.
-- Mark Jenkins
Both appearing Friday at the 9:30 Club.