A lesson in abstract depression

Jim Boquist, bassist for the standard-setting country-rock group Son Volt, is talking about painting. "There's the literal, the obvious realism, and there's impressionism," he says. "For some, impressionism is more challenging."

He's using painting as a way to discuss bandleader Jay Farrar's oblique lyrics. Son Volt's music echoes the sounds of Appalachian back porches and open prairies at dusk, but it's married to the high poeticism of evocative lines like "Broken-down lessons learned/ Redeemed on epitaphs."

For many, Son Volt bears the flag for the musical subgenre known as "No Depression," whose bands draw equally from the old-time country of George Jones, the melodic folk of Gram Parsons and the blurry punk of Hüsker Dü. No Depression got its name from a 1990 album by Uncle Tupelo, Farrar's previous band. When Uncle Tupelo broke up in 1994, its bassist, Jeff Tweedy, formed Wilco, while Farrar created Son Volt by picking up Boquist, his multi-instrumentalist brother Dave Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn.

Son Volt's first two albums, "Trace" and "Straightaways," featured some brilliance but were weighed down by too much sameness. But their latest, "Wide Swing Tremolo," gently explores new territory. Vocals get slightly fuzzed-out, instrumental snippets provide sonic surprises, and a couple of songs ease up enough to, well, groove.

Boquist says the band's approach to songs evolved without a lot of discussion. "The main factor was that we had a lot of time so that we could avail ourselves of different instruments and experimentation," he says. They set up in an Illinois warehouse to rehearse and record at their own pace. The freedom paid off. "Maybe in the past," notes Boquist, "we would've called something done sooner."

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Indeed, the songs feel slowly built. But Boquist says there's also an adventurousness to this CD, as seen in the song "Medicine Hat," where a buoyant, catchy melody insists that you sing along to an absolutely inscrutable litany of prophesies: "There will be droughts and days inundated/ and feelings free from saturation/ departures raised with no masquerading," and so on.

As Boquist says, there's the literal, and then there's impressionism. Farrar beckons us to a place swirling with words like resolution, regret, hesitation, atonement and wonder. No other songwriter employs as many abstract nouns, but as a band Son Volt anchors these images to the concrete, rustic sorrow of guitar, pedal steel, fiddle and harmonica.