The first time I heard of Dave Alvin was my second year of university, rooting through the various delete bins of cassettes looking for that next sleeper selection. Finding a collection of the Blasters was the find, and boy was it worth it. Mixing everything that defines American rock and roll, Alvin and his brother maintained that rockabilly-meets-rock-meets-punk format to a great deal of success and a greater legacy. Although that legacy was resurfaced recently with a series of reunion shows and subsequent album, Dave Alvin has mainly been a solo act for a while now. His latest album is suggested as a blues album, but you’d be hard pressed to find the mid-tempo blues tunes an improvement on the stellar folk-oriented side.
The album opens with the slower title track that makes one feel as if they’ve been dropped into an Austin blues band mid-set. Slow but a tad catchy from time to time, Alvin’s timbre talks about “Reverend Gary” in awe while the guitars and tempo keeps it relatively tame. “I wanna go back to the Ashgrove, that’s where I belong,” he sings as the music creeps on you from a distance. Unfortunately he only hits paydirt a third of the way in with the chorus meeting a blues guitar solo that’s worth its salt. The country-tinged “Rio Grande” fares much better as Alvin sounds like he’s quite content in the style, a slow and reflective country roots ditty that brings with it a train rolling backbeat. Think of solo Mark Knopfler stuff or an extremely happy Notting Hillbillies.
When he gets darker and seedier when it comes to the blues, the results are very impressive. “Black Sky” gets you in the gut and keeps you there for the duration. It’s not too rapid but the pace is definitely an improvement on the opening tune, ambling along brilliantly. “Nine Volt Heart” is a basic narrative of a boy’s love for his radio and another heartfelt number that flows along effortlessly. It’s also void of the slick, pre-packaged country sound that would be end of most numbers of this ilk. Americana to a tee. But for that gem there is then a steep drop in quality. “Out of Control” is a murky tune that tries to make use of its atmosphere but sounds much too forced. Alvin’s audible swagger misses the mark from its onset.
The middle is a hit and miss affair as shown by the last two songs mentioned. Alvin takes a huge lovely upswing on “Everett Ruess” which talks about Utah and Arizona and where the character died. It’s the sort of folk tune that the likes of Townes Van Zandt would have loved to record despite the quasi-orchestrated touches in certain places makes one recall John Denver’s over-the-top textures. The listener wants it to go on just a bit longer to savor the tune in its entirety. Ditto for “The Man in the Bed”, which offers up images of Springsteen during his early Nebraska incarnation or later on during his Tunnel of Love phase. Just singing barely over a whisper, the folksy gem slowly builds but maintains its acoustic basis. Finally, two songs in a row hit the mark, this time the blues riddled “Black Haired Girl”, a track Alvin gets to gel early on.
The supporting cast Alvin has, usually known as his Guilty Men, are superb throughout, including Greg Leisz on various guitars and pedal steel. But this is Alvin’s proverbial boat and he steers it two different directions. A few blues numbers less and folk-oriented tunes more and this would be a classic. As is, still pretty damn good.
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