Recording of August 1998: Blackjack David

DAVE ALVIN: Blackjack David
Hightone HCD 8091 (CD). 1998. Greg Leisz, prod.; Paul duGre, Dave Ahlert, engs. ADD? TT: 50:24
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

As unfair as they might be, comparisons between Dave Alvin and Bruce Springsteen are inevitable. Formerly the star of a working-class roots band (sound familiar?), Alvin, to a much lesser degree than Springsteen, set a certain standard and helped launch (or, more accurately, relaunch) a genre. And now, just as Bruce has turned to a folkier, more intimate form of musical expression, so too has Dave, albeit later in his career. About the only question left is why Alvin is stalled on an indie label—why, to use the parlance, he's not a star.

Most famous as the co-leader, along with his frenetic vocalist brother Phil, of the now-defunct late-'70s/early-'80s roots-rock band the Blasters, the California-born and -bred guitarist has slowly but surely—much more slowly than Springsteen—fashioned an increasingly rich solo career. Alvin split the Blasters in 1985 after the failure of the band's half-hearted attempt at crossover: Hard Line and its Mellencamp-written and -produced single, "Colored Lights." He then joined X, replacing departed guitarist Billy Zoom and recording one album with the group: 1987's See How We Are, to which he contributed what is arguably his best song, "Fourth of July." Alvin then moved on to a major label (Epic) and released his first solo disc, Romeo's Escape (UK title: Every Night About This Time), on which he recycled some of his best tunes, including "Fourth of July," "Border Radio," and "Long White Cadillac, the last two originally recorded with the Blasters.

It was on Romeo's Escape that Alvin flashed the strengths and weaknesses that would come to define his career as a solo performer. On the plus side, songs like "New Tattoo" and the exquisite ballad "Every Night About This Time" (later covered by Joe Ely) showed that he'd continued to grow as a songwriter. On the potential-fatal-flaw side was his voice: the kind of ragged instrument that gives credence to opera buffs, amateur musicologists, and jazz snobs who react to rock vocalists with a not-unjustified roll of the eyes and a disgusted snarl of "You could get away with that only in rock'n'roll."

After Romeo's Escape failed to chart, Alvin and Epic parted ways. Since then he's recorded for Hightone, an indie label based in Oakland, California that has released Blue Blvd., Museum of the Heart, King of California, and Interstate Highway. As Alvin's career has continued, his singing, still no threat to the aging Pavarotti, has grown deeper, mellower, more nuanced. It's become increasingly obvious that Alvin has put an enormous amount of work into honing his voice and being comfortable as a frontman. He's also learned to write choruses and refrains that support his salient vocal strength: passion. Now, on Blackjack David, Alvin nearly overcomes his vocal limitations entirely. That, and the surprisingly warm and intelligently rendered recording quality, are why this disc rates as August's "Recording of the Month."

Produced by the extraordinarily gifted string player, well-traveled studio ace, and longtime Alvin collaborator Greg Leisz, Blackjack David is in many ways Alvin's Nebraska. Stripped-down and acoustic like his last several albums—"unplugged" in MTVspeak—it features his best singing and songwriting so far. Opening with Alvin's arrangement of the traditional title tune, the album then moves on to the tuneful "Abilene," yet another entry in the canon of emotional, tellingly detailed, running-from-the-past songs that Alvin is a master at writing and singing. Like "Halley's Comet"—Alvin's upbeat yet tragic tale of early rocker Bill Haley on Blue Blvd.—"Abilene" lopes along here at medium tempo. In concert, this one will become an aggressive anthem.

The easy, very Steve Earle-esque blues "New Highway" is followed by the inevitable less-than-paradise paean to the left coast, "California Snow"—a collaboration with another criminally underappreciated songwriter and labelmate, the great Tom Russell. The funky "The Way You Say Goodbye," with its short guitar solo, points out the one possible fault of Alvin's now three-album-deep acoustic trend: he never plays electric guitar anymore. In live shows, where he plays a greatest-hits set that usually includes a number of guitar-heavy Blasters-era tunes, the lack of fretwork is not a problem. But in the studio, Alvin has abandoned his own distinctive way with a Telecaster in favor of placing the songs front and center.

In "Mary Brown," Alvin takes another step toward Woody Guthrie-styled Americana as he grimly recounts the tale of the doomed man dreaming of the woman who sold him down the river. "1968" is another tune for the ever-growing subgenre of Vietnam-vet sagas. And "From a Kitchen Table" is a first-class ballad that tells a classic story (think Bruce) of a working-class loser dreaming about a girl "from the old neighborhood."

Storytelling rather than rocking is obviously where Alvin's going these days, and fortunately his songwriting is strong enough to make this direction work. Like the characters who populate Springsteen's lyrics, the subjects of Alvin's songs are good-hearted, regret-filled losers who always end up hurting themselves worst of all. Unlike them, however, their creator is on the move, making a musical reputation for himself and proving with patient craftsmanship—on albums like Blackjack David—that he's anything but his own worst enemy.—Robert Baird