LAST YEAR, a lot of people thought the best American rock band was X, the king pins of Los Angeles' burgeoning hardcore punk scene. But X's relationship with punk was like the early Stones' relationship with blues -- it was a starting place and an inspiration. X cracked open punk's tough stylistic and lyrical shell and filled it with creative flourishes drawn from psychedelia, folk rock and rockabilly, and even added blunt dissections of male-female relationships without denying that the power of punk was with them. The success of X's second album, "Wild Gift," and their recent signing to Elektra-Asylum are all the more remarkable considering it was Slash, a small independent label of limited clout and bucks, that helped raise the band from the cramped bar circuit that barely supports so many punk and new wave acts.
X's success suggested that somebody at Slash Records heard not only a creative band, but one (like the Clash) whose musical spirit was restless and big enough to reach for bigger promises in terms of the music and audience they could fashion. Now the label is pushing a five-man band from the L.A. suburbs of Downey and Norwalk called the Blasters. Their second album, "The Blasters" (Slash SR-109), marks the emergence of Dave Alvin, the most promising traditionally based rock 'n roll songwriter since John Fogerty.
The band's first album, "American Music," was released on the L.A. rockabilly label, Rolling Rock, and unfortunately lumped the Blasters with hordes of exotically coiffed and highly stylized bands emerging on both sides of the Atlantic as part of the rockabilly revival. The band escaped rockabilly's stylistic deathtrap in the same fashion that X went one-up on the whole punk scene. On record and especially live, the Blasters are impossible to reduce to anything less than the robust and proudly heralded label, "rock 'n' roll band." Even that appellation is off the mark insofar as it dredges up the Sha Na Na specter of nostalgic duckwalks, doowops and hiccups.
Dave Alvin's rollicking "American Music" is the band's signature song, featuring a proud and literal recitation of the band's roots (e.g., Louisiana boogie, Delta blues, country swing, rockabilly, etc.) in brother Phil Alvin's tight and anguished vocal style. But Dave Alvin is so much better in the same song when he elegantly evokes all of the above with nary a reference: "It's a howl from the desert, the screams from the slums, the Mississippi rolling, to the beat of the drums." The evocative power of the Blasters' music is even better realized on "Border Radio," Alvin's paean to the Mexican radio stations that blasted blues, country and rock 'n roll all over the Southwest in the '50s. Opening with a Berryesque guitar lick, the band sets itself in motion behind Gene Taylor's pounding piano, achieving the kind of mid-tempo chugging rythm that Creedence calls chooglin'. It's the ultimate bar-band beat, an irresistible democratic force, defying anyone to resist moving.
With the exception of Phil Alvin's rock 'n yodel rendition of Jimmie Rodgers', "Never No More Blues," the other four covers on "The Blasters" are drawn from rhythm and blues. The best of these is "I'm Shakin'," a dramatic, stop-and-go exorcism of sexual desire that pants and sweats its way right out of the grooves. There's nothing secondhand about the Blasters' familiarity with R & B. Since their teens, they have been hanging out with such famous bluesmen as Lowell Fulsom, T-Bone Walker and Lee Allen, who moved from Louisiana and Texas to L.A. Allen, the legendary New Orleans sax man, appears on two cuts. One is Alvin's "Hollywood Bed," full of the kind of second-line drumming made famous by another ex-New Orleans, now L.A., musician, Earl Palmer.
"The Blasters" is not a brilliant album, but it is an excellent one full of brilliant songs. It is Alvin's originals such as "Border Radio," "So Long Baby Goodbye" and the sensationally catchy "Marie Marie" (a huge hit in England for Shakin' Stevens), with their seamless integration of all those American musics, that make Creedence comparisons inevitable. The Blasters, with only two years as a unit under their belt, have yet to achieve the simple instrumental precision of John Fogerty's guitar work or that of Creedence's steamrolling rhythm section. But the prospect of another great and popular America rock 'n' roll band is enough to make a lot of jaded hearts jump again. And the Blasters may be just a shot away.