There are only two things you need to know about Dave Alvin before approaching his newest recording projects. Well, that's excluding the essential bio info — namely, that he is a founding member of the Southern California post-punk roots rock brigade The Blasters, a charter member of X and The Knitters, and an Americana songsmith with two decades' worth of exemplary solo recordings to his credit.
For the purposes of Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women and Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney, you need only know that Alvin's usual touring band is The Guilty Men and that Gaffney, aside from being a bandmate and a quietly literate songsmith, was Alvin's best friend. He died last year of liver cancer.
There. We're all set. Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women teams Alvin with a roster of female country and Americana players who maintain the rootsy intent of The Guilty Men. But the focus here is less on overt rock 'n' roll and more on acoustic drive.
Those expecting a folk exercise should still be prepared to fasten their seats belts, though. On Nana and Jimi, Alvin tells of being dropped off by his mom as a child at a Jimi Hendrix concert. The tune struts along with '60s pop flair, a touch of psychedelia and a little whammy-bar distortion that gives the music ample twang. Guess that means Ma Alvin is, in her own way, a Guilty Woman, too.
There is also a nice bridge to Alvin's past with a Cajun reworking of the seminal Blasters tune Marie Marie. Violinists Amy Farris and Laurie Lewis orchestrate and propel the modest groove while veteran steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar adds winding, Western color that borders on swing.
The real curiosity here, however, is a revision of the 1956 Doris Day hit Que, Sera Sera with piano queen Marcia Ball pumping the fun full of boogie-woogie gusto while Christy McWilson serves as a prime duet foil for Alvin's sleek vocal cool.
Man of Somebody's Dreams gets an early vote for country album of the year even though it veers too deeply into serious honky-tonk turf for country radio to ever warm to it. What a shame. Robbie Fulks makes King of the Blues sound like a Bakersfield-bound Faron Young, and Joe Ely gives Lift Your Leg some serious Lone Star swagger.
Alejandro Escovedo offers a lovely string-laden waltz reworking of 1968, which Alvin co-wrote with Gaffney years ago (it was featured on Alvin's album Blackjack David in 1998), and Alvin himself, who is listed as "curator" for Man of Somebody's Dreams, offers a snapshot of the Southern California youth he and Gaffney shared on Artesia that is devoid of sentimentality.
But even with other killer tracks by John Doe, Calexico and Peter Case, the hands-down highlight is the album's title tune as interpreted by Los Lobos. With David Hidalgo softly singing lead, the tune has a light '60s twilight air with chiming keyboards offsetting acoustic guitars. The tune is a mini-memory play of sorts, where a lover of two women becomes a loner with none in a wondrously understated performance.
One project is a requiem, the other charts a new beginning. Together they make up the two newest chapters in Alvin's continually appealing Americana saga.