Dave Alvin is a multi-faceted, multi-talented cornerstone of americana. As a singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer he has consistently excelled to the point where anything bearing his name, in whatever role, is usually a cast-iron guarantee of quality. Given that, it would seem to be the definition of madness to try and pick out his ten finest works, let alone to rank them in order. Nevertheless, that’s what I’m going to attempt to do, opening myself up to your dissent and derision, but hopefully a few nods in agreement too.
Dave Alvin was born in Downey, California in 1955. He grew up listening to and watching blues and country music with his older brother Phil, often sneaking out at night to see catch his heroes playing in local venues. In 1979 Dave and Phil formed The Blasters. Dave filled the dual role of chief songwriter and guitarist. The band went on to build a reputation as one of the hottest live acts of their day with their mixture of covers and Alvin originals. The Blasters recorded four studio albums with Dave Alvin before he left in 1986 to pursue a solo career where he could not only write his own songs, but sing them as well.
Beginning with ‘Romeo’s Escape’ in 1987 Alvin then embarked on a solo career that has lasted until this day and included collaborations with others, covers albums and those that showcased his own songwriting, some of which feature in the selections below.
As with any task of this kind, the hardest decisions are about what to leave out. This is especially the case with Dave Alvin as I have yet to locate an album with which he is associated that can be described as poor or sub-standard. So what didn’t make the cut?
In 1982, whilst still in The Blasters, Dave Alvin joined a side project of the Californian alternative rock band X. The Knitters played country-folk and recorded an album ‘Poor Little Critter on the Road’ which was released in 1985. Other than one co-write with John Doe, Alvin contributed only guitar to the album. Twenty years later those involved in The Knitters got together again to record a second album ‘The Modern Sounds of The Knitters’ released in 2005. To this follow-up Alvin contributed just one song and another co-write with Doe. Alvin also briefly joined X after the first Knitters album, playing guitar on their 1987 album ‘See How We Are’. Alvin’s song ‘4th of July’ was the only one of his compositions included on the album. It is because of Alvin’s largely supporting role in each of these projects that I have not considered them for inclusion in this list – but hey they are all great records. Similarly the album that Alvin made with Sonny Burgess in 1992 ‘Tennessee Border’ is fabulous, with Alvin doing a superb production job, playing guitar throughout and even chipping in with a song credit. However, the album is largely a showcase for Burgess and has therefore also not been considered for inclusion. Finally, Alvin’s association with Californian punk band The Flesh Eaters should be noted as he contributed guitar to their 1981 (and best) album ‘A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die’ but that work, for similar reasons to those above, has not been considered for inclusion.
That leaves five Blasters albums, sixteen solo albums (including live ones) as well as two collaborations with brother Phil and one with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. I make that twenty-four in total. So just 10 you say…oh heck!
Number 10: ‘Romeo’s Escape’/’Every Night About This Time’(1987)
Dave Alvin’s first solo album was released under different titles in the US and Europe. All eleven tracks were written by Alvin including ‘Long White Cadillac’, ‘Jubilee Train‘ and the classic ‘Border Radio’ – three reworkings of songs that had previously been recorded by The Blasters. Another of Alvin’s best-known songs ‘4th of July’, opens the album which also features ‘Every Night About This Time’ and ‘I Wish it was Saturday Night’ which were also destined to become amongst Alvin’s best-loved songs. Whilst the album finds Alvin still finding his feet as a vocalist, the quality of the songwriting is indisputable and his guitar playing ain’t bad either. Guests appearances from Al Kooper, David Hidalgo and Katy Moffatt add seasoning to the mix.
Number 9: ‘Ashgrove’ (2004)
The title of the album refers to The Ash Grove Folk Club in Los Angeles whereas a young man Dave Alvin saw many of his blues heroes perform, Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner amongst them. Consequently ‘Ashgrove’ is the most overtly blues-inspired album of his solo output. The tempo is relaxed and the mood is laid-back on much of the album. Six of the ten songs on the album are Alvin originals, the other four being co-writes, including ‘Rio Grande’ with Tom Russell. The pick of the songs though is the intensely moving ‘The Man in the Bed’ written in response to the death of his father.
Number 8: The Blasters – ‘Hard Line’ (1985)
The Blasters’ fourth studio album was the last before Alvin left. By this stage the band had grown beyond their rock and roll roots to encompass a broader range of sounds. The songwriting was becoming more sophisticated with melodies coming to the fore to take their place alongside the band’s catchy rhythms and with the lyrics taking on a more folk-like narrative. The Blasters could always bang out a great tune but on ‘Hard Line’ they showed they could also provide a more creative approach that allowed Alvin’s songs breathing space and brother Phil’s vocals to show their full range.
Number 7: ‘Public Domain’ (2000)
With ‘Public Domain’ Alvin demonstrated that not only was he a great songwriter but that he could also interpret songs and place his own stamp on them. The album consisted of sixteen public domain songs – those not subject to copyright laws, which Alvin then puts his own slant on, giving them a new lease of life in the process. His efforts were rewarded with a Grammy Award for ‘Best Traditional Folk Album’ as well as widespread critical acclaim.
Number 6: The Blasters ‘American Music’ (1980)
This is where it all began. The Blasters debut album was released in 1980 on the small independent Rollin’ Rock label. Only around 2000 copies were pressed (which fetch very good money now). Fortunately for those of us with less deep pockets it was re-issued by Hightone Records in 1997. Even though it’s pretty raw and the majority of the songs are covers, the title track and ‘Marie, Marie’ offer a glimpse of what is to come. These early Alvin compositions have stood the test of time and remain firm favourites amongst his fans. The album is the seed from which Alvin grew as a musician and songwriter. With its energetic fusion of traditional rock ‘n’ roll sounds and punk attitude it’s also an album that still never fails to set the pulse racing, the feet moving and the face beaming.
Number 5: ‘West of the West’ (2006)
Like ‘Public Domain’ six years earlier, ‘West of the West’ captures Alvin the curator, the collector of songs and the interpreter of them. The theme here is a celebration of Californian songwriters. The songs are carefully and thoughtfully chosen and then Alvin makes each one his own. The respect for and appreciation of the originals is clear in his empathetic arrangements and his sympathetic voice. The range of songs and artists covered is wide, but each one is treated like the crown jewels Alvin clearly judges them to be. He picks them up, gives them a little polish and sets them down again somewhere slightly different. it’s a masterclass in how to do not one cover version, but thirteen of them.
Number 4: ‘King of California’ (1994)
Up to this point Alvin had in some quarters been labelled as a guitarist who could write songs. Here he sets the record well and truly straight by recording an acoustic album of his own compositions along with three covers. Most of them had already previously been released in different forms, but here, with sparse accompaniment, the songs were pushed firmly to the front, stripped bare and opened up to scrutiny. The album underlined perfectly what an accomplished songwriter Alvin was as his songs not only passed the test, but did so with flying colours. The album marks the maturing of Alvin as not just a writer but a performer. His vocals are more confident than on previous solo albums and his voice is beginning to form it’s own character, rather than being just a functional tool to deliver his words.
Number 3: ‘Blackjack David’ (1998)
Nine years after his solo debut Alvin’s sixth album ‘Blackjack David’ finally killed off any debate about his status as a major player in the field of americana music. The album draws on numerous genres, each of which Alvin is not just comfortable with, but positively thrives on. Whilst predominantly folk in its styling there are elements of country, blues, cajun and rock evident too. ‘California Snow’ co-written with Tom Russell offers an indication of the influence that his friend had on the development of Alvin’s writing. The songs on ‘Blackjack David’ are adorned with vivid characters, a rich narrative and insightful social observations. This is the album that elevates Dave Alvin out of the ‘important’ category of americana artists and firmly into the ‘vital’ classification.
Number 2: The Blasters ‘The Blasters’ (1981)
I hope that readers will forgive me some indulgence over this choice. Fans of any artist will have an entry point and for me this was it. The first Blasters album was so obscure that I didn’t actually hear it until its reissue in 1997. This, their second album though was like being hit by Mike Tyson, it floored me completely, a blow from which I have never recovered, nor indeed do I wish to. By 1981 punk rock, which had been the soundtrack to my teenage years, had run its course to be replaced by an art-school post-punk movement to which I felt no affinity. The Blasters delivered the energy of punk but with thoughtful and intelligent songwriting and two feet firmly planted in America’s musical heritage, something that I was beginning to understand, to appreciate, and to love. I have no hesitation in placing this album at number 2 in this list. Quite apart from my own personal love of it, the record was widely acclaimed on its release, even making Time magazine’s top 10 albums of the year. More importantly though, it still sounds great 40 years later – a timeless masterpiece.
Number 1: ‘Eleven Eleven’ (2011)
Dave Alvin’s self-produced eleventh album consisted of 11 songs, all bar two written by Alvin. One of the other two, ‘No Worries Mija’ was written by Alvin’s long-time friend and collaborator Chris Gaffney who died in 2008. On ‘Two Lucky Bums’ Alvin duets with Gaffney in the latter’s last recording before his death. The album also contains two other duets, one ‘Manzanita’ with Christy McWilson who had played in Alvin’s Guilty Women band and who wrote the song, and the other ‘What’s Up With Your Brother’ with brother Phil which was the first time that the siblings had sung together on a record.
The remaining eight compositions are all Alvin originals and represent the creative peak of his songwriting. The characters that he creates are all brought to life in tales of death, seduction, adversity and friendship. ‘Johnny Ace is Dead’ delves into the murky circumstances of the singer’s 1954 death, whilst ‘Gary. Indiana 1959’ sees an old man reflecting on days gone by and a hard-fought, but ultimately lost fight to save the local steelworks. He goes on to relate the devastating consequences for him, his family and the local community.
It would be possible to similarly highlight every song. Each one beautifully written and expertly crafted. There’s not a weak link amongst them, but it’s better that you listen to them for yourself. On this record Alvin’s voice sounds better than ever, with a rich tone that was missing from his earliest solo works. His guitar playing is as sharp and crisp as ever and his own production is a triumph, giving just the right sound and texture to every song. For this writer and fan ‘Eleven Eleven’ is not just Dave Alvin’s most complete work, but its right up there with any album that has been created within the americana genre.