Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women,
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women
(Yep Roc, 2009)

Steve Earle,
(New West, 2009)

Steve Earle and Dave Alvin both debuted as recording artists in the early 1980s. Earle attracted notice first as a country artist working out of Nashville, during a short period when Music City was open to non-formulaic approaches. Alvin and his brother Phil, working out of Los Angeles, participated in another lamentably brief popular-music moment, the rockabilly revival, as leaders of the fondly remembered Blasters.

Earle and Alvin have had their ups and downs since then, Earle in particular with a much-publicized substance-abuse flameout that landed him in jail in 1994. Clean and sober for years now, living these days with wife and fellow singer Allison Moorer in New York City, he has been astonishingly active. He's released CDs, written books and plays, acted and worked as a political activist. Alvin's course has been steadier and less dramatic, but just as artistically fulfilling. The work of both grows out of the grassroots sounds of folk, country, rock 'n' roll and blues. Their current releases are straightforward folk records with some rock and modern studio touches.

As the title suggests, Townes bows to Earle's early hero and mentor, the late Townes Van Zandt, the Texas cult-figure/singer-songwriter who died before his time, after too much drinking and drugging, on Jan. 1, 1997. Owing to those distractions, Van Zandt's recorded output is iffy and uneven. Most of his albums have a tossed-off quality, and not every song on them deserved to be preserved. Some good songs, too, fell victim to indifferent or lousy arrangements. Till I listened to Townes, I didn't know that "Colorado Girl," "Brand New Companion" and "Delta Momma Blues" are far from the mediocre exercises I'd always taken them to be.

Earle does remind me, though, that "(Quicksilver Daydreams of) Maria" -- why the parentheses, by the way? -- has one of the most hypnotic melodies ever. The old-time stringband setting of "White Freightliner Blues," which most covers treat as a hard-driving electric blues, is truly inspired. I am reminded, if it ever occurred to me at all (I haven't listened to Van Zandt himself in quite a while), how much "Rake" calls up the spirit of eerie ancient ballads. Less happily, the superbly crafted but perhaps over-recorded "Pancho & Lefty" seems a strange choice for an opening cut, even more so when done in a droning vocal and at a slo-mo pace. Nonetheless, this is a very satisfying album that does Van Zandt's music justice in ways that Van Zandt himself often -- well, usually -- failed to manage.

Alvin has toured and recorded with a band called The Guilty Men. After one of its members, Chris Gaffney, also an old friend, died, Alvin decided he needed a break. Instead of retreating into grief-stricken hibernation, however, he put together a band of Guilty Women, who are a bunch of talented, mostly West Coast roots artists, among them Christy McWilson, Cindy Cashdollar, Laurie Lewis and Nina Gerber. The results are exquisite.

Half the songs are Alvin originals. The disc starts with the classic "Marie Marie," which also introduced the first Blasters album in 1981, and closes, oddly though -- to my surprise -- delightfully, with the cornball early-1950s pop hit "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)." He and McWilson turn in a sizzling duet performance of Tim Hardin's "Don't Make Promises."

Alvin's pulsing "California's Burning" -- ostensibly about one of the state's countless fire disasters, but really about its financial and cultural implosion -- is loaded, Dylan-style, with allusions to old apocalyptic folk songs. "Boss of the Blues," unmistakably a true story, recounts Alvin's experience as a very young musician touring with the fading blues-jazz-r&b legend Big Joe Turner and listening to his stories. A song of extraordinary power, it takes its name from the title of Turner's most famous album. I had it in vinyl and played it down to the grooves.

Earle and Alvin are hard-working pros who, years down the road, still love the music and keep finding innovative ways to express it. These guys have always had it, but as time goes by, they just have more of it.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 June 2010

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