The seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo seemed poised on the verge of a major commercial breakthrough in 1994 when, to the surprise of many (including his bandmates), Jay Farrar quit the band to form Son Volt, in which he wouldn't have to share his creative vision with another songwriter.
Then a funny thing happened -- Son Volt made two more albums that were solid and heartfelt but nowhere near as satisfying as Trace, and in 2000 Farrar put the group on hiatus, preferring to record and tour under his own name with a shifting set of musicians.
In whittling Son Volt's history down to one disc and 20 songs, one might expect that A Retrospective: 1995-2000 would play to the genuine strengths of their body of work, but instead this compilation does as much to point to the group's flaws.
From that point on, much as Son Volt's second album got stuck in a mid-tempo rut that it never quite escaped, A Retrospective captures the sound of Farrar calling up the same beautifully sad late night vibe over and over again, with only the occasional rocker happening along to break the monotony (and anyone who saw Son Volt live knows they were a band who could rock out powerfully when the mood struck them) and Mike Heidorn, Jim Boquist, and Dave Boquist struggling to add weight and muscle to Farrar's increasingly similar songs.
Fans will doubtless be drawn by the wealth of rare and unreleased material included (including a pair of home-recorded demos, some hard to find covers, and live radio recordings), but while there are a few glorious moments on A Retrospective, too much of this collection captures the sound of a major artist stuck in third gear, and that's certainly not the way this disc needed to sound.
(Ironically, a new Son Volt album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, was released two months after this compilation appeared, though Farrar was the only member of the original lineup to participate in Son Volt 2.0.).