Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Once upon a time there was a "new wave" "roots-rock" group led by two brothers--guitarist Dave Alvin, who could write songs, and singer Phil Alvin, who could sing them. Unfortunately, the brothers feuded, the Blasters never took off, and in 1987 Dave set out on his own. His songs were as pithy as ever. But he didn't have the lung muscles to blast anybody, and after three solo albums it was obvious that his pen had always been mightier than his axe.

So if Alvin's fourth solo album isn't a miracle, it's certainly a gratifying surprise. Formatwise, King of California (HighTone) is what they call "unplugged," showcasing acoustic versions of old songs, new songs, and covers, and the gimmick, which with most artists is redundant or worse, helps Alvin find his voice. Instead of trying to shout over the music, he breathes and murmurs and croons and generally talk-sings through it, rendering his lyrics not only audible but believable. Not many roots-lovers romanticize losers with Alvin's eye or quality of feeling--empathy is his specialty. And for that reason his quiet remakes of Bus Station, about a struggling couple bound for one more town, and Little Honey, about a guy who'll blow his stack if his girl steps out again, cut even Phil's powerhouse originals. I know folkies should evolve into rock and rollers, not vice versa. But Dave Alvin sounds like an exception.

Fast Cuts: On David Byrne (Warner Bros./Sire/Luaka Bop), another old new waver trades in his band, this time on a quartet featuring mirimba and vibes, and produces his best-realized songs in almost a decade. On My Life (Warner Bros.), Iris DeMent offers glimpses of what life might be like for the wife at Alvin's bus station--and for a folkie whose major label hopes she gets bigger if not louder.

Playboy, May 1994

Apr. 1994 July 1994