Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dave Alvin

  • Romeo's Escape [Epic, 1987] B+
  • Blue Blvd [HighTone, 1991] ***
  • Museum of Heart [HighTone, 1993] Neither
  • King of California [HighTone, 1994] A-
  • Blackjack David [HighTone, 1998] B+
  • Public Domain [HighTone, 2000] C+
  • West of the West [Yep Roc, 2006] Choice Cuts
  • Eleven Eleven [Yep Roc, 2011] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Romeo's Escape [Epic, 1987]
Alvin's hoarse timbre, bellowing passion, and approximate pitch call up other songwriter front men--such dubious predecessors as John Prine and Guy Clark, who at least can claim to sound like themselves. Nevertheless, he's a born songwriter--guitarist, too. The country demos and Blasters covers hold their own. The X cover is why he moved on. B+

Blue Blvd [HighTone, 1991]
voice a little better, corn a little worse ("Guilty Man," "Haley's Comet," "Wanda and Duane") ***

Museum of Heart [HighTone, 1993] Neither

King of California [HighTone, 1994]
A closet folkie since the Knitters were the Unravelers, Brother Dave isn't just marking time with this unplugged job, he's figuring out how to sing--quietly, like maybe John Prine, who croaked as a rockabilly himself. Yes his own songs top the covers, only there's a Tom Russell vignette you'd swear he made up; yes the old songs top the new ones, only check the Nashville-simple Rosie Flores duet. As for the old ones, his gravelly sprechgesang conjures more from most of them than Brother Phil or John & Exene ever did. If words are his gift, empathy is their secret, and empathy blooms in the stillest moments. A-

Blackjack David [HighTone, 1998]
Fronting an acoustic band that gives his voice the breathing room it needs, Alvin brings off the quiet despair of "Evening Blues" and "From a Kitchen Table." But making the personal historical is still his metier--the border patrolman of "California Snow," the Vietnam casualty of "1968." He also knows how to make rootlessness historical. But I say he just likes the road. B+

Public Domain [HighTone, 2000]
If Harry Smith is what some people love about folk music, this is what other people hate about it, summed up by a title that claims humility as it sneaks presumption in the stage door--a title worthy of a brilliant record and dishonored by this dull one. Alvin can be a deft lyricist in the colloquial-songpoet mode, pinning the kind of homely literary detail the folk regularly established or bypassed with commonplaces, absurdities, generalizations, and luck. But it took him years to learn to sing his own stuff, and interpreting the canon he's worse than hopeless. It's not that these songs are all obvious or overdone--this nonfolkie had never heard a few of them. It's that they're so soft they squish even when Alvin tries to rev one past you, which usually he doesn't. C+

West of the West [Yep Roc, 2006]
"Don't Look Now" Choice Cuts

Eleven Eleven [Yep Roc, 2011]
To call this the best record of his solo career isn't to claim it's great, it's to reckon that it's pretty darn good. At 55, young Dave has found his voice, which echoes somewhere on the outskirts of Johnny Cash territory, and the songs strike old notes so truly they could be new: loner quests (a half-blind Golden Glover, a bounty hunter with nothing to lose), lost bard (Johnny Ace this time), union man (he beat U.S. Steel and got beat anyway), sex in the present (he loves her dirty nightgown) and past (one inamorata was a union maid on the side). He even hooks up with his brother for some forced jocularity that's the truest note of all. Remember when Phil was supposed to be the singer? A-