Dave Alvin: West of the West

[26 July 2006]

By Dan MacIntosh

A California man sings what he knows.

If there’s any justice in this world, the next time another singer puts together a collection of his/her favorite California songs, much like this thematic release, it will also include a gem or two by Dave Alvin. When Alvin sings about “California bloodlines” in the song of the same name, this Downey, CA native is singing about himself. When he sang about driving along Imperial Highway on Blackjack David‘s “From A Kitchen Table”, he was talking the road language of locals (like yours truly), and this trait always makes his music sound like home.

California is oftentimes misrepresented as some mythical paradise, where everybody’s dreams always come true. But you won’t get that dreamy perspective from Alvin’s song choices. Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” tells the tragic story of a man who gives up swimming in a river because that body of water took the life of his sweetheart. “Tramps and Hawkers” describes a few undesirables who are by no means watching their dreams come true: “Like ghosts we roam / Without friends or home”. Tom Russell’s “Between the Cracks” chronicles the lives (and deaths) of a few such ghost people, while John Fogerty’s “Don’t Look Now” tells the truth about the real folks who do our dirty work—whether we choose to acknowledge their efforts or not.

Throughout this album, there is little of the sort of stereotypical sun ‘n’ sand that advertisers normally show us whenever California is the setting for a TV ad. But Alvin at least closes the disc with Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl”, which he sings in that cracked voice of his. Wilson may never have surfed, but Alvin sounds even stranger singing this loving ode to a beach girl.

This thirteen-song collection is a reminder of California’s other resources—ones other than its goldmines and Hollywood bimbos. In a region oftentimes jokingly referred to as the land of fruits and nuts, this state has also raised a bountiful crop of excellent songwriters. Alvin clearly went for the best of the best, because he didn’t just focus on any particular sound or era. No style or time period was beyond his scope. In addition to the Haggard cover, Alvin sings the Grateful Dead’s “Loser”, as well as more contemporary fare, such as “Down on the Riverbed” from East Los Angeles’ Los Lobos.

Alvin, who cut his teeth on the blues before co-leading the rockabilly revival band the Blasters, spans a wide variety of musical styles with this Western state tribute. Jackson Browne’s “Redneck Friend” is swinging blues, colored by organ and Alvin’s own stinging lead guitar lines, whereas with “Sonora’s Death Row”, he switches gears for an Old West song, which is highlighted by rippling banjo. “Between the Cracks” stands out from all the rest, due to its Tex-Mex accordion fills.

It would have been easy to just pick out thirteen excellent songs by California songwriters, slap them together, and call it an album. But Alvin not only chose California songwriters, he also selected California songs. “Kern River” is not just any water stream, but a large and dangerous river in Central California. Los Lobos’ “Down on the Riverbed” refers to the L.A. River, a significant landmark in Southern California cultural lore.

Downsides are difficult to find with this new work, because Alvin performs each and every track with an obvious appreciation for the artists who wrote them. The only problem with it—if you can call it a problem—is that it’s kept Alvin from writing more of his own fine songs. Few artists chronicle their home states better than Alvin, and one wonders how this project will inspire his next release.

Dave Alvin is like a history teacher with a guitar. But instead of penning his own history textbook, he’s given us lessons through other people’s words with this CD. If history was this entertaining back when I attended high school, I probably wouldn’t have fallen asleep so often in class.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dave-alvin-west-of-the-west/