Over the course of a nine-year tenure at Hightone, former Blaster Dave Alvin more than lived up to expectations. The former Blasters’ time at the label culminated in the 2000 Grammy for Public Domain: Songs from a Public Land. Now, Hightone releases a best-of compilation celebrating that career.
There is plenty in the back catalog of Dave Alvin’s career to suggest an admiration and respect for the sounds of America’s past. When he finally took the time to put that respect to tape out poured the ability to bring life to music that had become stilted and predictable. His vocals raised the hair on the back of your neck as he told the tales of gold miners, thieves, and lost love. Hightone was wise to leave Alvin alone. The seven records that he completed for the label stand like a perfect documentary of a music’s past. It has authenticity, beauty, and respect and, at its best, it draws you back to a time of high lonesome pioneers.
Dave Alvin seems from another time. Of course, so did the Blasters. He is a reminder that there is a side to Los Angeles that Hollywood has hidden. While the world has come to equate this part of Southern California with movie stars and paparazzi, Alvin recalls a Los Angeles where cultures – and their music – collided. To him, the connection from X to Buck Owens is a clear as the nose on his face. The city that spawned Los Lobos, Warren Zevon, and The Blasters, deserves more from American memories than just Disneyland and Alvin seems committed to singing that story.
In capturing that story, this compilation draws evenly from Alvin’s defining albums. “King of California” manages to tell a love story while also capturing the purity and notion of the open west. Alvin’s vocal is full of promise, but there’s also a weary aching just underneath. “Fourth of July” is similarly hopeful yet yearning, and “Dry River” simply leaves you speechless.
It would be a mistake to ignore the musicianship that Alvin put together for his years at Hightone. The work with his Guilty Men is well reflected here. It is subtle but present. Some of what works so well here would appear contrived were the musicianship less impressive but at no point will a listener feel like it is the year 2009 when listening to the collection; these songs defy era, timeless in both theme and execution. Indeed, the song selection is spectacular here, with something for everyone. Five of the tracks are previously unreleased so even if you have been an avid collector of Alvin’s solo work, the quality of the sound as well as those tracks make this a must have.
Dave Alvin has made a career out of being untimely. His tastes and talents always seem to place him in a different place and time. There is, however, no question that now is the time to hear his output at Hightone. Dave Alvin’s Best of the Hightone Years is a wonderful way to discover his impressive body of work — or a great way to concisely revisit it.