“Bandages and Scars” from the album Okemah & The Melody of Riot
Audio File

On their last studio album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, singer/guitarist Jay Farrar and his longtime project Son Volt seemed to be getting back to the fundamentals. But their latest release, The Search (Transmit Sound/Legacy), shows a more daring and exploratory side to the band. There’s new instrumentation, new melodic ideas, and a subtle but noticeable swing away from the so-called alt-country tone of their earlier work.

The Search does represent a period when the chemistry was getting really good,” says Farrar, speaking by phone from his home in St. Louis.

Known for their twangy guitar sound, Guthrie-esque lyrics (the Okemah in their album title refers to Guthrie’s hometown), along with rollicking melodies, Farrar, 39, and Son Volt have been at it since the 1994 breakup of his previous group, Uncle Tupelo (co-led by singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy currently of Wilco). After three albums and several years of heavy-duty touring, the original lineup — drummer Mike Heidorn, bassist Jim Boquist, string player Dave Boquist, and mandolinist/pedal steel player Eric Heywood — took a long break around 2000. Farrar took that opportunity to step aside from Americana rock to work on several more experimental solo discs and a live album titled Stone Steel and Bright Lights.

In 2005, Farrar recorded Okemah with a set of newly enlisted colleagues — Brad Rice (of The Backsliders, Tift Merritt), bassist Andrew Duplantis (formerly of Meat Puppets, Bob Mould), and drummer Dave Bryson (ex-Canyon). The Search features the more-solidified lineup of Farrar on vocals, guitar, and piano; Bryson on drums; Duplantis on bass; Rice on lead guitar; and new addition, Derry deBorja on keyboards.

“Dave, Derry, and I first did a tour together behind Stone Steel and Bright Lights,” remembers Farrar. “That’s where this new core started. Both Dave and Andrew have been in a variety of different circumstances and touring bands. That experience is definitely something the rest of us in the band count on. Instrumentally, the electric guitar was the focus of the last record, Okemah, but for The Search we wanted to try something new. This time, we utilized different instrumentation to fit each song — from guitar pedal loops to various keyboard sounds to horns.”

Current guitarist Chris Masterson slid into the lineup earlier this year, replacing Rice, who stepped aside to play guitar with Keith Urban on the road.

“The band’s performance on stage is essentially the same,” says Farrar. “I hope that you learn from experience and bring back the knowledge you learn along the way. We try to emphasize some different elements like keyboards, or, in the case of the song ‘The Picture,’ bringing in horns, which we’ve used at quite a number of shows. That’s a great experience — playing live on stage with great horn players.”

Horns? Has Son Volt detoured into Chess Records or Blues Brothers territory? Have they become the 2000s version of the Rolling Stones with Memphis Horns? Not quite yet. According to Farrar, it’s just a natural progression toward a bigger sound.

“This time around, I knew I had a lot of songs and I knew I wanted to present them in a different way,” the bandleader says. “It always seems to work best to work up the songs in the studio. There’s usually an innate energy that exists within the early stages of a song that sometimes gets lost. We try to capture early takes. Everyone’s ideas are thrown into the mix. In making The Search, we had plenty of songs to work with and it allowed things to stretch out a bit, in terms of instrumentation and sonically. We’re quite pleased about it.” —T. Ballard Lesemann