Record Review - 4 July 08 2004
Besides Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes, there aren't many roots rockers as busy as Dave Alvin. In the past year, Alvin found time to: wrap up a tour and release a DVD/live recording with a reformed version of his first band, '80s L.A. roots ensemble the Blasters; lend a hand to east L.A. Tex-Mex-flavored grit 'n' groove rockers Los Lobos' new disc; co-write with New Orleans' multitextured/cultural melange masters the Iguanas; contribute to collections of Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck covers; as well as produce country singer/songwriter Amy Farris. At some point, Alvin also recorded his seventh solo album, Ashgrove, his first disc of original tunes in seven years.
Since Alvin's on the road relentlessly and not exactly idle during his down time, the long wait is disappointing but not surprising. Thankfully, the results meet and often exceed expectations from one of Americana's most literate, descriptive and honest songwriters. With his gruff, flinty voice singing detailed lyrics that explore the lives of the down, but not necessarily out, Alvin champions the folks others take for granted or just ignore.
Alternating tensile, ominous swampy rockers with softer but no less edgy acoustic fare, the singer/songwriter travels dusty musical backroads soaking up the sweat and grime of the natives. From the delicate yet sharp folkie reminiscence of "Everett Ruess," which crams an entire lifetime as told by the deceased narrator in less than five minutes, to the reluctant stalker/observer of "Black Haired Girl" echoed by the song's stealthy rhythm, Alvin's music emerges from and hovers around the shadows and recesses of the heartland. His stabbing guitar slaps exclamation points on subtle, remarkably concise songs whose poetic memories float through the delicate "Somewhere in Time," the gauzy "Nine Volt Heart" and the darker title track.
Although Alvin might still be "trying to figure out where" his life went, as articulated in the opening tune, the years of studio and roadwork have only sharpened his revelations. That provides Ashgrove with a vision, direction and tough guy charm to make it the quintessential Dave Alvin statement.