Release Date: 06.16.98
Record label: Atlantic
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
by: steve rostkoski
Singer-songwriter Dave Alvin was a founding member of the Blasters, a Los Angeles band that took the energetic bop of rockabilly and infused it with punk rock's aggressive attitude. When I picked up Alvin's latest solo album Blackjack David, I expected Blasters-style slash-and-burn rock 'n' roll. Well, this album is far from the musical firestorm of Alvin's earlier group. It's something even better. Blackjack David is more like a smoldering ember that quietly burns its way into your soul.
The title song sets the album's tone. Alvin gives the ancient traditional folk song an eerie, almost autobiographical feeling as he sings, "Hey, hey lass my name is Dave." Hushed acoustic guitars and the low moan of Alvin's vocals add to the song's already mysterious nature. The lyrics tell the barest of stories. The lass Alvin addresses decides to leave her husband and baby to run away with an enigmatic stranger named Blackjack David. In the end, we learn only that she "lies on the cold, cold ground beside Blackjack David." What happened? Is she so in love with David that she gave up her husband's fine bed to sleep under the stars with him? Or did her husband kill both her and Blackjack in a jealous rage? We never find out.
People looking back on their lives and asking, "what happened?" populate Alvin's songs. In the effortlessly melodic "Abilene," a woman escapes her abusive life by hopping a bus back to Texas. The border patrolman of "California Snow" comes upon an illegal alien couple trying to cross the mountains in the dead of winter and reflects on his own failed marriage. The song "1968" shows a Vietnam War veteran who realizes the hero everyone thinks he is was left behind in the jungle many years ago. And the nasty blues romp "The Way You Say Goodbye," wryly chronicles a crumbling relationship with a dirty laundry list of everything the singer hates about himself and his mate.
Perhaps the most affecting character is in the poignant ballad "From a Kitchen Table." In a recent interview, Alvin commented that Sunday nights represent death to him. Friday nights are full of promise and celebration but as the weekend draws to a close, the realization that nothing has changed sinks in. The man in "Kitchen Table" knows this feeling of desperation all too well. He sits writing a letter to his high school sweetheart, long since gone and married to another man, explaining that he still lives with his mother in the same small town and goes to the same job everyday. A gently strummed acoustic guitar and the surprise entrance of a sweet sounding clarinet mirror the pathos of the simple slice of life story.
So if you want to bring in the weekend by burning up the dancefloor, go seek out a Blasters album. But once Sunday night arrives, if you need someone to commiserate with, put on Dave Alvin's Blackjack David. You'll be in fine company.