Friday, May 24, 2002

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men
“Out in California”
High Tone

Christy McWilson
“Bed of Roses”

Dave Alvin has been the most valuable player of the American roots-rock movement ever since the band The Blasters hollered their way out of blue collar Downey, Ca. with a 1980 classic on the adventurous Slash label whose title said it all: “American Music.”

The Blasters underachieved: They were certainly radio friendly, had your radio been set to the AM dial circa 1963. Being mostly normal looking American guys, they lacked the skinny ties, bad acting and bad haircuts that would’ve made them featured players on then-new MTV. And though Dave wrote the songs and twanged them home, his brother Phil Alvin had the far better voice, so by convention put his brothers words in his mouth. This created problems akin to those of the brothers Davies (The Kinks), and whoever those guys are in Oasis, limiting the Blasters’ durability.

But Dave Alvin is an American music survivor, and his new live, part electric, part acoustic disc “Out in California” (High Tone) reinforces his role as the man without whom categories such as “Americana,” “alt-country” or the fine magazine No Depression may not have existed.

“Out in California” shows Alvin’s genius for consolidating the isolated fiefdoms of Southern California into a potent, united musical nation. In his generously gifted fingers and croaky voice, he brings together Santa Monica surf, Bakersfield hillbilly, San Gabriel Valley roadhouse, San Fernando Valley pop, Venice boho-stomp, West Hollywood alternative rock, Orange County post-punk, Watts’ postwar blues, East L.A. garage rock. He creates a unified geographical area linking Sunset Blvd to Whittier Blvd. to Central Avenue to Highway 10, a realm that would be a wet dream if it could be reached as fluently by the circulation department of the Los Angeles Times, forever desperate to figure out how to get those entities under the roof of one newspaper.

As Dave will be the first to tell you, singing is not his strength. But his taste is impeccable, his touch irridescent, and his spirit irrepressible. Among the great tunes getting the Alvin electric touch are “Haley’s Comet,” the bittersweet classic co-written with Tom Russell about what happened to the creator of “Rock Around the Clock” when his time ran out. “Little Honey,” co-written with John Doe of X, is a caterpillar of a tune that breaks open halfway through its nine minutes to become the butterfly that is Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”
There are West Coast echoes of Springsteen’s Americana in the electric “Abilene,” and the acoustic “Blue Boulevard,” which sounds like its the biggest street in the smallest town in Nebraska.

Alvin is no snob, no purist. The album seems to end with a song called “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right,” when one of the customers in the audience calls out for “Free Bird.” Alvin gives the joker a friendly taunt: “You think we don’t know it? You think we can’t play it?” Before the words are out of Alvin’s mouth, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men are soaring away on “Free Bird.” It’s too bad they didn’t keep the tapes rolling, or go all the way with it: Dave Alvin might have had his elusive hit at least. No, he can’t sing a lick. But their ain’t a lick that doesn’t sing from his fingers.

Alvin’s skills as a producer and sideman are abundantly displayed on another recent brilliant HighTone release. Christy McWilson’s “Bed of Roses” is a readymade rocky-tonk classic, from the bristling guitar and country soul kick of the opening track, “Life’s Little Enormities.” That track is a wonderful reminder that music like this used to be at the heart of pop’s commercial mainstream: It’s got the melody and drive of one of the uptempo Fleetwood Mac tunes that featured the coincidentally named Christine McVie.

“Lila Jean” keeps the mojo working, with immensely literate lyrics that convey a woman caught between craving the freedom she sees in a nude dancer and frustration at her own restraint: “I’m afraid to show anything to the world I know.”

She’s got an A-team behind her potent yet vulnerable voice: not jut Alvin as producer and guitarist (and co-singer on a longing-filled version of Moby Grape’s ballad, “8:05”), but players like Peter Buck, Don Heffington of Lone Justice, and Alvin’s Guilty Men sidekicks Rick Shea and Chris Gaffney. Not to be overlooked: Scott McCaughey, the Young Fresh Fellow to whom McWilson is married.

Though I love the hopped-up beautiful anger of “Shooting Fish in a Barrel” and the fresh-but-anchored version of the Youngbloods’ “Darkness Darknes,” it’s the title song that keeps me coming back. Sequenced ninth on the CD (even the American League’s designated hitter rule doesn’t encourage managers to have their best hitters bat ninth), it can get lost amidst so many other great songs and performances. But it’s the song for which the Trisha Yearwood’s, the Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s, heck, the Dolly Parton’s of the world should come begging.

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