“There are two kinds of folk music – quiet folk music and loud folk music. I play both.” – Dave Alvin.
Alvin said that his previous album, Ashgrove, was the one that sounded like him, that showed all he could do and all the aspects of it. But Eleven Eleven may be a step forward, another refinement of a musical vision and style that Alvin’s been chipping away at since the mid 80s at least (before he went solo he was the principal songwriter and lead guitarist for the band The Blasters fronted by his brother Phil).
What sets him apart, I think, from so many other superficially similar American rockers is the sense of history and mythology in his songwriting and the homage he pays to his roots. And his totally effective delivery. His half-spoken baritone vocals are coupled with a tough, no frills electric guitar style that is very much his own whilst it sounds so ancient and universal (or American universal at any rate, and American rock ‘n roll ancient). Alvin lands plenty of punches in his performance without ever being flashy.
Lyrically he’s dealing mostly with the marginalised and the desperate. The narrating voice of “Gary, Indiana 1959”, a man who once marched proudly for the union but is now resigned to the inevitable, seems to be a cue for so much else of what is on this record:
“And you can’t get ahead no matter how hard you try
‘Cause the Big Boys make the rules, tough luck for everyone else
And out on the streets, brother, it’s every man for himself .“
There’s not a great distance between that situation and the bounty hunter in “Murrietta’s Head” who doesn’t care too much if the wanted is truly guilty because the bounty is going to keep his farm from repossession. Or the down and out cast aside ex-boxer of “Run, Conejo, Run”.
What makes these songs so good are the deft strokes with which Alvin draws the characters and the restraint he shows in directing us as to how we should feel. He shows us more than tells us. We get to draw our own conclusions, or just watch.
Stylistically it’s Alvin’s entire range of Americana – from the tough rock that is his bread and butter on this album to quieter, more introspective country and folk-tinged pieces. All unified by that unfussy but quite skilful delivery. Alvin’s been doing this for years now, and he’s very, very good at it.
His guitar playing is supported and complemented by the always excellent Greg Leisz, a session player with a considerable CV and reputation. The combination (not a new one, they’ve worked together on and off since 1987) is a very strong one that delivers lots of punch and not a little finesse. Alvin’s guitar tone, like everything else about him, is strong but simple. He doesn’t add a lot of colour to his sound with effects pedals, the main effect seems to be to turn up the amp.
Alvin isn’t a household name and at this stage of his career he probably never will be. If he were maybe he’d be phoning it in by now. But he isn’t and he doesn’t.