Dave Alvin, who was born and raised in Downey, California, may well be the best songwriter to come out of the first generation southern California punk scene. The former Blaster is also one of the best scene-transcending Americana artists from the entire state. He has been often imitated by his contemporaries, but never even close to rivaled.
While Alvin could have easily written his own concept album about California, the choice to cover a broad range of material by California artists, with one original co-written with Tom Russell (“Between the Cracks”), was clever. Alvin’s ability to interpret and reimagine other people’s songs is nothing short of awe-inspiring. He had already demonstrated this shape-shifting talent on 2000’s “Public Domain,” a collection of back-to-the-source, quite old-timey, mostly obscure folk songs.
On “West of the West” Alvin embraces the overwhelming diversity of California culture from all corners of the massive state: rural, urban, white, brown, from the mid-20th century up to 2006. There is so much more to the history and mythology of California than Hollywood. As a native son, Alvin knows the local stories and geography, of course, and with this intimacy created a historically aware and sympathetic album.
Alvin’s Prine-like gravelly vocal range is passionate and honest as he tackles some decidedly unglamorous topics: death, lost love, failure, labor camps, and poverty. He embraces classic tragic country (Merle Haggard’s “Kern River”), overlooked gems (John Stewart’s “California Bloodlines”), the legacy of the Beats and hippies with Tom Waits and the Grateful Dead, the ’60s (John Fogerty’s “Don’t Look Now”), and the ’70s (Jackson Browne’s “Redneck Friend”). He acknowledges the state’s Hispanic/Chicano heritage with “Down on the Riverbed” by Los Lobos, longtime friends and East LA icons, and his own “Between the Cracks” with its norteño accordion. A heart-wrenching version of The Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” closes the album.
Alvin comes off like a music enthusiast and archivist one could fall into hours-long conversation with at a music-heavy flea market stall. He carefully treats these tunes like beloved old friends, taking obvious pride in introducing them to everyone.
Thanks for a nice article. Dave, to me, embodies the true spirit of ‘Americana’. And he’s a nice guy and a terrific live performer. He’s never done a bad, or even not so good, album. The one I listen to most is ‘Blackjack David’. His take on the title track is sublime.
Thank you! I completely agree about Dave’s version of “Blackjack David.” For me, it even beats out Dylan’s.