Americana punk pioneer revisits his best solo album for its 25th anniversary
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Dave Alvin is an American music icon. During a career that has now spanned five decades, Alvin was a founding member (with brother Phil) of roots-rock legends the Blasters, with which he recorded four albums.
Leaving that band in 1986 to pursue other musical avenues, Alvin was a member of L.A. punk stalwarts X as well as that band’s musical side project, country-folk outfit the Knitters. Alvin played alongside fellow Blasters members Steve Berlin and Bill Bateman as part of Chris D’s notorious band the Flesh Eaters and, with the equally notorious Mojo Nixon and Country Dick Montana (The Beat Farmers), the trio toured as the Pleasure Barons.
AUDIO: The Pleasure Barons Live in Las Vegas
Alvin has also lent his six-string skills to recordings by the Gun Club, blues singer Candye Kane, Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Gos, and rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess, among many others. Plus, as a songwriter, he’s had material recorded by artists as diverse as Townes Van Zandt, Dwight Yoakam, Jo-El Sonnier, Willie Nelson and Marshall Crenshaw. Alvin launched his solo career with the 1987 major label release of the critically-acclaimed Romeo’s Escape (titled Every Night About This Time in England) but, when the album failed to sell sufficiently in an era of multi-platinum country artists (rising to #60 on the country chart), Columbia Records released him from his contact.
AUDIO: Dave Alvin Romeo’s Escape
Signed to the roots-rock oriented indie label HighTone Records (also home to artists like bluesmen Robert Cray and Joe Louis Walker and Americana pioneers Joe Ely and Chris Smither), Alvin delivered a pair of albums – 1991’s Blue Blvd. and 1993’s Museum of Heart – that enjoyed modest sales but received mixed critical response. Stepping back from the heavy production and electric instrumentation of his previous two albums, Alvin whittled his songs down to their gnarled, raw-boned roots for King of California. In the original label press release for the album, Alvin wrote “King of California is my 3rd solo album for HighTone, and it’s a bit different…for one thing, I stripped down the instrumentation. In addition to some new original songs, I’ve included a few covers, and some songs I previously recorded solo, or with my first band, the Blasters.”
Released in May 1994, Alvin’s King of California album celebrates its ‘silver anniversary’ this year with a long-overdue deluxe reissue on vinyl (with bonus tracks!) by Craft Recordings. Widely considered as an influential classic album of Americana, Alvin recorded King of California with mostly acoustic instrumentation, joined in the studio by many of his usual cohorts including bassist Don Falzone, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, who played slide and pedal-steel guitar, mandolin as well as producing the album. Longtime friends like Syd Straw, Rosie Flores, and Chris Gaffney added backing vocals to several songs. As critic Mark Deming wrote for All Music Guide, “While King of California was often lumped in with the then-fashionable unplugged craze, in retrospect it was the album where Dave Alvin’s abilities as a performer began to catch up with his gifts as a songwriter…”
The results were stunning, the predominantly acoustic soundtrack behind the songs placing a greater emphasis on Alvin’s lyrical skills and underrated vocals. “Current trends and fads aside,” Alvin writes in the liner notes, “I’ve wanted to do a ‘quieter’ collection of old, new, borrowed, and blue songs for quite some time. It can be difficult trying to please the people who want to hear sweaty, electric rock ‘n’ roll, as well as the fans who are more interested in contemplating the lyrics. I think King of California is mainly for the latter group.”
Alongside the new songs on the album, Alvin also re-recorded several songs. He explains why in the press release, writing “I wanted to re-cut songs like ‘Fourth of July,’ from my first solo album Romeo’s Escape because, to be perfectly honest, I can sing ‘em better now.”
The album kicks off with the title track, introduced by lush six-string work which blends into Alvin’s warm, sonorous vocals. The spry backing soundtrack provides the perfect accompaniment to Alvin’s romantic tale and wistful lyrics. The melancholy “Fourth of July” benefits greatly from the more subdued setting, Alvin’s brilliant imagery coming to life above the jangling guitars and rolling rhythm. One of the album’s better original tracks, “Goodbye Again” is a duet with the talented Rosie Flores, an Americana legend in her own right. Opening with Mexican-styled fretwork, Flores’ lighter, pastel-colored vocals provide a sparkling counterpoint to Alvin’s deeper, darker-hued voice. The natural chemistry between the two is remarkable, their performance a pure joy.
VIDEO: Dave Alvin with Greg Leisz performing “Bus Station” at City Winery NYC, 7/21/19
The plaintive “Bus Station” offers another brilliant performance, Alvin’s half-spoken vocals telling a sad tale of hard luck romantics as Skip Edwards’ mournful accordion plays longingly in the background. Alvin’s vocals carry the gravitas of Merle Haggard while the song’s simple, effective instrumental backdrop reminds of Doug Sahm’s Texas Tornadoes. On the other hand, a spot-on cover of prolific bluesman Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth” perfectly captures the song’s original vibe with Alvin’s rowdy, Piedmont-styled guitar-play, performed (appropriately) on a National Steel guitar. “Little Honey” features some of Greg Leisz’s best slide-guitar licks while a cover of George Jones’ “What Am I Worth,” a duet with the wonderful Syd Straw, is a hillbilly romp that displays both Straw’s show-stealing vocals and her sense of humor alongside Alvin’s equally light-hearted vox and spry rockabilly fretwork, the two coming across like a younger Johnny and June Carter Cash.
King of California closes out with “Border Radio,” perhaps the best song from Romeo’s Escape and a holdover from the Blasters’ self-titled 1981 sophomore album. Unlike songs similar in subject as Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” or ZZ Top’s “Heard It On the X,” Alvin’s song is an introspective lyrical rumination, juxtaposing the sound of the 50,000-watt radio station floating in the Southern California air against an emotional tale of love and loss. Alvin’s filigree acoustic guitar strum offers fine punctuation to his effective, somber vocals.
Overall, the album’s melting pot of rock, country, and blues music provides a shining showcase for Alvin’s immense songwriting skills and mastery of American music forms. His penchant for story-songs shines brightly in the grooves, Alvin providing a voice for the downtrodden lovers and losers in this world. “A lot of the songs on King of California have to do with people realizing that their dreams may not come true and trying to figure out just where to go from there,” he says in the album’s press release.
AUDIO: The Blasters “Border Radio”
There are three bonus tracks appended to King of California. The instrumental “Riverbed Rag” is a bluesy, bluegrass-tinted rave-up featuring a duel between Alvin’s six-string and Leisz’s Dobro that was an unreleased performance from the original sessions. A cover of Merle Haggard’s haunting “Kern River” offers up one of Alvin’s most nuanced vocal performances and elegant instrumentation while a cover of songwriter Kate Moffatt’s “The Cuckoo” is provided an equally ethereal performance. All three songs are welcome additions to King of California, fitting in nicely alongside the rest of the material. Alvin’s decade with HighTone Records resulted in six studio albums and a live set, his tenure with the label culminating in the acclaimed 2000 album Public Domain, a collection of traditional folk and country songs that earned Alvin a Grammy® Award for “Best Traditional Folk Album.”
During the ensuing years, Alvin has experienced the career ‘ups and downs’ typical of the music lifer. He signed with the similarly roots-oriented Yep Roc Records for 2004’s Ashgrove, and has been with the label ever since, continuing to release acclaimed recordings like West of the West (2006), Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women (2009), and Eleven Eleven (2011). Alvin reunited with his brother Phil for 2014’s Common Ground, an inspired collection of Big Bill Broonzy songs, and again in 2015 for the album Lost Time, a collection of classic blues and soul tunes by folks like Willie Dixon, James Brown, and Big Joe Turner. Alvin recorded with his old friend Jimmie Dale Gilmore on 2018’s Downey to Lubbock.
In a recent label press release for the vinyl reissue, Alvin says that he’s “real proud” of the album, “the whole process was a revelation, to record with everybody in the studio sitting roughly in a circle, sitting there on the edge of my chair with an acoustic guitar knowing that if I blow this chord, we have to start over. And I could use my voice; when I was recording electric my voice couldn’t lead the band. In this situation I could. That allowed a certain openness and freedom I hadn’t experienced before. And for Greg, this was his baby, his chance to produce me and get my voice right. His calmness in all of this led to the vibe of the record.”
Alvin continues to tour exhaustively, both as a solo performer and with the reunited Flesh Eaters in support of that band’s recent I Used To Be Pretty album. A quarter-century down the road, though, King of California continues to find a new audience appreciative of its earthy, no-frills sincerity; honest instrumentation; and Alvin’s intelligent story-songs and poetic lyrics. The album has proven to have legs beyond its modest indie-rock roots, influencing a generation of Americana (and country) artists and songwriters to follow.
VIDEO: Dave Alvin performs “King of California” on Austin City Limits