Ten years after its release, Son Volt's debut, "Trace," remains one of the indispensable Americana albums. Its warm, old-fashioned '70s country-rock is so ineffably sublime that frontman Jay Farrar spent years trying to duplicate it, with diminishing returns. Farrar's inability to live up to the extraordinary -- and probably a little oppressive -- promise of that start has made him roots rock's Liz Phair, a situation unlikely to be remedied by "Okemah and the Melody of Riot," Son Volt's first album in seven years.
"Okemah" is being touted as a quasi-reunion album (Farrar having spent the past few years making solo discs), though Farrar, the former co-frontman of the estimable Uncle Tupelo, is the only original Son Volt member who shows up. Thanks to a new lineup that brings much needed heft to Farrar's dolorous compositions, "Okemah" is the loudest and most clamorous Son Volt album ever, powered by pedal steels, organs, dulcimers and six strings, all sounding brawnier than anyone might have expected.
There are enough great, unadorned rock tracks here to cover a multitude of sins: "Who" and the full-tilt version of "World Waits for You" (the latter also shows up as a piano ballad, equally fine) are Farrar at his best, streamlined and solid, while "Afterglow 61" is the latest in an illustrious line of Son Volt highway songs.
Like the rest of "Okemah," "Afterglow 61" functions on two levels, with varying degrees of success. As a travelogue through the mythic Middle America of Woody Guthrie and Mark Twain, it's terrific. As a solemn index of present-day wartime indignities, it's a bit of a muddle.
Farrar typically traffics in gently opaque songs about love and doubt dispensed in a kindly, craggy tenor that falls somewhere between Ron Wood and Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight!" But "Okemah" has teeth. It's a high-minded, resolute indictment of the Iraq war that faces the same near-insurmountable difficulties as all political albums: Make your references too topical and risk a limited shelf life; make them too vague and risk no one noticing. With an acrobatic impressiveness, "Okemah" manages both. It's too specific in some places (the protagonist of "Jet Pilot" "found a way to get a passing grade / Made it to the world stage / A hemisphere away death is on display." Go on, try to guess whom it's about), too vague in others ("Atmosphere," with its allusions to "smoke plume twilight / American tears," seems to be referencing Sept. 11, 2001, but it's anybody's guess).
In subject and tone, "Okemah" unabashedly draws inspiration from Guthrie (Okemah, Okla., is his birthplace) though next to the glumly earnest Farrar, even Guthrie sounds positively zippy.
"Okemah" repeatedly reaches for and just as often falls short of Guthrie's velvet-fisted approach to political song craft. Repeat listens to "This Land Is Your Land," the most hopeful and most scathing of American ballads, should be mandatory for any musician attempting to make a political album, especially one with this degree of difficulty.