SWAPPING STORIES FROM AN
B y c o r y f r y e
Dave Alvin once likened his oeuvre to a “big, messy melting pot,” one he’s been paddling around since 1979 when his first band, The Blasters, shook L.A.'s punk core with a sinewy blast of roots. The match may have seemed doomed on paper, a violent clash of double-barreled disciplines, but The Blasters found receptive ears for their fledgling legend.
They came from Downey, California, too. Imagine. I can’t speak for its mid-20th-century environs, but as a former postmillennial resident of the adjacent Pico Rivera, I recollect a soapy enclave doused in supper-club cologne with a mouthful of churches on every block and an original McDonald’s reclothed as a museum to cholesterol. As a whole it’s devoted to its preferred progeny, Richard and Karen Carpenter, with apartment complexes named after their songs. I know of no such monuments for Dave and Phil Alvin. No Marie, Marie Hair Emporium. No American Music School for the Gifted. That such a place birthed the finest titans of Americana's grand revival — junior historians reared on country, rockabilly, and the blues — is nothing short of remarkable.
Dave split in 1986. Although he occasionally gazes back, he’s since embarked on his own long ride, once as a momentary member of his contemporaries, X (released the same year, X’s and The Blasters’ 1980 debuts, Los Angeles and American Music, respectively, occupy opposing poles of the cultural spectrum, though both remain pivotal to grokking the scene), but mostly as a lone wolf with an occasional band. He’s dropped 19 albums over the last 30 years, expressing his lifelong debt to the masters while demonstrating his own worth to the canon as explorer and student.
This year's been no different, pandemic be damned. In February, he corralled Victor Krummenacher (Camper Van Beethoven!), Michael Jerome, and David Immergluck into an astonishingly psychedelic pill called The Third Mind. Their titular Yep Roc bow blends covers with such breathtaking guitar workout/freakout originals as "Claudia Cardinale," the fiery instrumental that matches its subject's volcanic sumptuousness (the Italian actress was gorgeous enough to be the envy of her surrounding vistas in 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West, her eyes an opera unto themselves). Here, the Grateful Dead's "Morning Dew" sounds like a Forever Changes outtake, Haight-Ashbury by way of Clark and Hilldale.
Last month arrived Album No. 2, another recipe of interpretations and originals called From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings. As promised, it's a trove dropped mostly between 2005 and 2016 (a take on Mickey Newbury's "Mobile Blue" landed during his April 2000 sessions for the Grammy-winning Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land), and if you own any of these songs on their intended albums, guard them, because most are long out of print. He soothes the prickly curls of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" to slinkier Satanic grooves under Leonard Cohen-cool sermonizing; in the press materials, Alvin says he planted the generational prophet in the gulf between Mose Allison and Little Milton. He strips the angelic goosebumps from Waylon Jennning's supernaturally fine "Amanda," giving the harmony vocal to the late Chris Gaffney and narrowing it to a straight declaration of heartbreak. Alvin's old stomping grounds may be different from Peter Case's (they rose on separate coasts, though both made their names in the same zip code) on "On the Way Downtown," but the wistful destination seems familiar nonetheless, despite Alvin's zydeco wash. As he told American Songwriter's Geoffrey Himes last month, “When I do covers, I consider them my songs.” And he treats them with a creator's care.
That his three originals remained rare until now seems simultaneously criminal (they're pretty fucking great) and calculated to round out this specific effort in sequential perfection. "Beautiful City 'Cross the River" glows and rocks as dance-floor gospel for FX's Justified, Raylan Givens' smoldering smirk an optional accessory. "Krazy and Ignatz" serves as instrumental homage to Krazy Kat, the characters' antics mirrored by dobro and slide guitar. Guitar wraps on "Signal Hill Blues," a Carver-esque saunter into adulthood intended for 2011's Eleven Eleven. Here it is at last, better late than never, sweating pools into a swampy blues and ending this great adventure. The melting pot runneth over again.
WHAT: American Strings Series webcast with Dave Alvin, hosted by Bob Santelli of Oregon State University and the Grammy Museum
WHEN: 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9
COST: Free, but register online.
INFO: Webinar registration