His latest studio effort, “Ashgrove,” released by Yep Roc Records, is full of looking back and longing: for a simpler time, for lost friends, lost love, and lost youth. And as a little bonus, it boasts another one of his patented narratives from the grave.
Let me start by saying I credit Dave Alvin with really turning me onto country music in the first place. His 1986 release, “Romeo’s Escape,” probably influenced my own current musical taste more than any other record I can recall. When I first heard “Every Night About This Time,” it marked a sea change in my music listening habits.
Sure, as a kid I loved The Byrds and Gram Parsons and Neil Young, all of whom were heavily influenced by country music, but when I heard that mournful baritone voice over that pedal steel guitar, that detached, sad, and at the same time opportunistic narrative, well, something clicked. It wasn’t country rock, it was country straight up, blatant and unapologetic.
He’s come a long way since that first solo album, forging a roots rock sound that’s really all his own while seamlessly blending the genres. Ashgrove mixes sizzling blues guitar riffs with melodic acoustic instrumentation.
The lyrics are almost entirely about looking back. The title cut is a tribute to the blues singers of his youth. “Black Haired Girl” is a direct confrontation with aging – summed up in an encounter with a disinterested attendant at an all night selfserve gas station. “Nine Volt Heart” chronicles his protagonist’s escape to the world he finds in a transistor radio. In the most countrified song, “Rio Grande,” he’s chasing down a runaway lover through the deserts of South Texas.
The tracks that really stand out to me are:
“Sinful Daughter”- both musically and lyrically – he gets downright biblical here with this little ode to a young harlot and those who would condemn her:
“But let the one who is not sinful
Yeah, they can throw the stone.”
“Everett Ruess” is a story within a song that chronicles a free spirited drifter from a bygone era. The dead man telling the story does so without the slightest hint of bitterness or pretension and it comes off as a celebration rather than a eulogy. The recurring chorus of “They never found my body, boys, or understood my mind” drives home the narrator’s lack of concern with the rest of society. It’s a song anyone who’s ever felt out of place in the modern world can surely relate to and, musically, it’s very pretty to boot.
“The Man in the Bed” is the real stunner here. A downright beautiful melody that sounds like it could have been written as an homage to deceased older relative as well as a straight ahead look at his own mortality, the lyrics convey the helplessness and frustration of someone lying infirm and dying in a hospital bed.
With verses like…
“Now the nurse over there doesn’t know
That I ain’t some helpless old so-and-so
I could have broken her heart not that long ago
Now the nurse over there doesn’t know.
That the man in the bed isn’t me . . .,”
this one could have easily gone over the top in false sentimentality, and no doubt would have had any Nashville songwriter taken a stab at it. Alvin manages to pull it off with just the right amount of sincerity and never gets smarmy or sounds a false note.
That’s pretty much true of the entire album. The only songs that don’t work almost perfectly are “Out of Control” – only because it sounds too much like a rewrite of his previous “One More Guilty Man” and “Somewhere In Time” which does manage to redeem itself with the all-too-brief, bluesy instrumentation at the very end.
It sounds kind of cliché to say so but Dave Alvin has matured as a songwriter and proves it with this one.
Like the subject of “Nine Volt Heart,” you get the idea that when he was growing up, the radio was indeed his toy. It left me pretty anxious to hear what he does next.