Dave Alvin

TrackAlbum
Border RadioRomeo's Escape
Haley's CometBlue Boulevard
King Of CaliforniaKing Of California
Fourth Of JulyKing Of California
Every Night About This TimeKing Of California
Blue WingKing Of California
The Man In The BedAshgrove
Johnny Ace Is DeadEleven Eleven
Black Rose Of TexasEleven Eleven
Run Conejo RunEleven Eleven

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

One of the difficulties in writing a Toppermost is sometimes the definition of what exactly should be open for inclusion on any artist’s catalog is really up to interpretation. Take Dave Alvin, do I include Blasters songs? Knitters songs? Pleasure Barons songs? What about the album he did as a member of X? Or his recent release, billed as a Dave and Phil Alvin album? Or the album he did with Sonny Burgess? Or are the 15 albums he released as simply Dave Alvin all I should consider? You get the point. There isn’t a clear answer. I’ve been working on another piece where the musician’s work with his band, who he wasn’t the leader of, clearly has to be included. Here it isn’t as clear cut.

Ultimately it boiled down to two things. If I only include Dave Alvin albums I’ll have at least 16 less albums to listen to, and I might be able to get an entry out of The Blasters down the road.

When you add in that a third of Alvin’s solo albums are live, he tends to record songs he likes over and over again, and since he was often the primary songwriter of the bands he was in, if he feels like recording a Blasters song as a solo effort he’s going to do it. Well, he makes things a little tough.

I’m just saying that coming up with a definitive Toppermost wasn’t so easy. But what the hell, let’s give it a shot.

For whatever reason Alvin, 35 years into his career, seems to be at his commercial peak right now. He recently recorded an album with former Blaster bandmate and brother Phil Alvin covering the songs of Big Bill Broonzy that is doing pretty well for an Alvin album. Maybe he had to be pushing sixty to grow into possibly the deepest and often most introspective singing voice in music. Who knows, but the voice is unique, the guitar playing stellar and the man can write a song that rips your heart out. That usually isn’t my thing, but with him I’m OK with it. Even sort of enjoy it.

Right out of the gate, if you ignore he had already recorded with three bands over seven albums I mean, Dave Alvin scored a home run with his first album. On it he recorded some of my favorite songs in his songbook, although maybe not the definitive versions of those songs. Regardless, Romeo’s Escape is a solid album with standouts songs like Fourth Of July, Every Night About This Time and Border Radio. Alvin excels in a couple of different styles, but I prefer him as a blues balladeer. Even though he is often described as an Americana or Roots musician Alvin has always identified himself as a bluesman, which I definitely agree with. Fourth of July is a melancholy piece about a man who knows his marriage has fallen apart, has no idea why and has no idea how to fix it. Every Night About This Time is an oddly sentimental song about how to treat, and ultimately hook-up with, that desirable lady at the bar who also happens to be an emotional trainwreck. Border Radio is another love gone wrong tune about dedicating a song to someone who you still don’t quite know why they left. It had originally been a Blasters’ song, although Alvin has recorded it twice as a solo musician, not counting live versions that is.

Haley’s Comet from his second album Blue Boulevard takes a fair amount of liberties with history but certainly captures how sad the final days were of one of the first great rock stars.

Alvin’s fourth album King Of California has remakes of a couple of songs I’ve already mentioned, and if push comes to shove I prefer the versions on this album and think I’ll list these versions on this Toppermost. The title track is also a stand out. At first it seems that Alvin has actually written a song with a somewhat happy ending. Luckily though by the end of the song the man telling his love he is coming home to claim her as King Of California mentions he has killed a man and the bullet in his chest is burning. Blue Wing from the album is also a standout, just a song about an old man who gets drunk, looks at his blue wing tattoo, and lets it fly beyond walls, above the clouds where he can still dream. Normal stuff, ya know.

I really thought about skipping this next song, but it’s so damn good. Maybe it just speaks to me now, who knows. “And these tremblin’ hands, they’re not mine/Now my hands are strong and steady all the time/they can swing a sledge hammer or soothe a baby that’s cryin … No the man in the bed isn’t me.” The Man In The Bed is sung from the perspective of a man at the end of his life who doesn’t see himself as “some helpless old so-and -so”. I can’t listen to it these days without tearing up, those of you who have walked the road I’m walking right now with my Dad understand what I mean. Sometimes a song transcends just being a song, sometimes too much.

Alvin’s last solo album Eleven Eleven joins King Of California as one of the two albums in the conversation for the best Alvin album in my opinion. Johnny Ace Is Dead is another early days of rock ‘n’ roll star gone wrong song, especially in how the record company made sure to make some money from his death. Black Rose Of Texas is extremely poignant, even for an Alvin song, as it’s about Alvin band member Amy Ferris who died of an apparent suicide in 2009. It’s another rip your heart out song, especially if you hear it live when Dave talks about Amy before he sings the song (see above video). Run Conejo Run rounds out my top ten, and it’s just as depressing as the other songs on this list as Alvin sings “Well, it’s three hours past midnight and I’m driving interstate Ten/A hundred miles out of El Paso and I’m thinking of my old friend/I know that I can’t see you but I feel you by my side/So, light up a cig, Conejo, and let’s go for another ride/Run Conejo Run.” It’s the most hard driving song in this bunch and shows that Alvin can crank it up and rock out just as successfully as he can take up the mantle of a blues balladeer.

When I went through Alvin’s ten studio albums from 1987-2011 I came up with a short list of 23 songs. As I’ve cheated far too often on the Top Ten premise of this site I made a real effort to get down to ten. Still, if you like what you hear look for Andersonville, Between The Cracks, Little Honey, 1968, California Snow, From A Kitchen Table and so many more.

I’m not quite sure why I love Dave Alvin so much. I know I’m usually not a fan of his covers. Which is odd as one of his two covers albums focuses on old folk songs. And that’s something I would usually like. The man can play the guitar, but there are very few songs on this list where he really rips out a great Alvin solo. And I’m not the kind of person that likes woe is me songs. I guess I like Alvin because his sad gut-wrenching songs aren’t woe is me, instead there is a stoic acceptance that it is what it is, and you got to just deal. He reminds me a little of Johnny Cash in that sense. A pretty sad world view really, but that deep voice just nails it for me.

Dave Alvin’s website

Dave Alvin/The Blasters pages

Dave Alvin biography (iTunes)

This is Calvin’s 22nd Toppermost, so clearly he enjoys writing them and telling people what he thinks. Even more so it allows him to dive into procrastinating and avoiding the writing he is supposed to be doing. As such he has no shot in hell in completing his next book when he told his publisher he’d have it done. If you’re so inclined to read any of his real books, and have an interest in the History of Northeast Ohio, you can find them here. P.S. The three books not written by him which show up when you search his name on Amazon.com are by another writer from his hometown. This writer tells a story in which Calvin was supposedly involved in 1980-81 that he has absolutely no memory of.

TopperPost #408

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 9, 2015

    Calvin, thanks for this superb list. Went to see Dave and Phil play here in Sydney last night – a great gig and Phil’s voice was in superb shape throughout, even after all his health concerns… As for myself, I would probably have to have something from ‘Blackjack David’ in my top ten, probably either the title track or ‘Abilene’.

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