Some of the most intriguing rock 'n' roll stories are family stories: Elvis Presley and his mom; Marvin Gaye and his dad; Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart; Brian Wilson and his dad, brothers and cousins; Michael Jackson and his whole family. The latest family drama comes out of the blue-collar suburb of Downey, Calif., where the Alvin brothers, Dave and Phil, formed the Blasters in 1979.
Dave Alvin ranks right up there with Bruce Springsteen and David Hidalgo as one of America's best rock songwriters of the '80s, but he's not much of a singer, which didn't matter much as long as Phil Alvin was there to belt out the songs with authority. Like most little brothers, though, Dave eventually wanted to step out from his big brother's shadow and prove he could make it on his own.
So he left the Blasters last year and joined his cross-town friends in X, only to find he had traded in one big brother for a surrogate in John Doe, who wrote and sang the songs for X and did so very well. But what Dave Alvin really wanted was to sing his own songs -- he left X and formed Dave Alvin & the Allnighters. It was a big gamble, especially because the results are displayed in public for everyone to judge.
Now the results are in. Alvin played guitar on the new X album, "See How We Are" (Elektra 9 60492-1), and he wrote the first single, "4th of July," the best song on a very good album. He also wrote all 11 songs on his debut solo album, "Romeo's Escape" (Epic BFE 40921), a fascinating collection fundamentally flawed by the vocals and arrangements.
Alvin also assembled the assorted performers and tracks for "Border Radio: Original Soundtrack Recording" (Enigma SJ-73221), which is rather disappointing. The inescapable conclusion is that even if you took his best contributions from all three albums, they still wouldn't approach the achievements of the Blasters' last album, "Hard Line." One can only hope that he'll find his way back to that band, where he belongs.
"4th of July," which appears on both the X and Dave Alvin albums, is a brilliant song about a couple who have become so cut off from the rest of the world that they can't tell if their romantic problems have caused their isolation or if their isolation has caused the problems. The singer goes out on the apartment stairway to smoke a cigarette, and when he hears the fireworks he realizes that he had forgotten it was Independence Day. As if rediscovering the rest of the world, he shouts, "Hey, baby, it's the 4th of July."
The songwriter's own version is a country-rock arrangement. Alvin's vocal is appealingly low-key on the verses, but on the chorus it remains stuck in low gear. By contrast, when X tackles the song in its rock arrangement, John Doe's vocal makes the romantic problems sound suffocating on the verses and makes the chorus explode with its sudden revelation.
Another song, "Border Radio," is the story of a woman listening to a Mexican country station and hoping her man will come home. It appeared on the first Blasters album as a jumping rockabilly tune brimming with optimism. Alvin has said he recut the song for his new album so he could record it the way he originally intended it -- as a fatalistic country lament.
He also produced a version of the song by the Tonys (better known as Rank and File), who give it the twangy bounce of Johnny Cash on the sound track to the film "Border Radio." All three approaches shed some light on this gem of a song, but Phil Alvin's arrangement still sounds the most dramatic, and his vocal is the only one that fully exploits the melody.
In a similar vein, Dave Alvin has remade two other Blasters songs for his solo album. He transforms "Long White Cadillac," his eulogy for Hank Williams, from the crackling rockabilly original into an overdone blues-rock number; he transforms "Jubilee Train," his tribute to the New Deal, from a rollicking anthem into a blues holler reminiscent of Sonny Terry. Neither remake touches the original.
Luckily, Alvin has written some great new songs for his album: "New Tattoo" is a boisterously sexy party song; "Brother on the Line" is a haunting plea from a picketing striker to a scab; "Every Night About This Time" is a sad song about empty sex; and best of all is "Far Away," a stunning song about a son leaving a depressed town. These make "Romeo's Escape" one of the best written albums of the year, but they also leave one hungering for Phil Alvin's voice.
The highlight of the "Border Radio" sound track is a lovely acoustic duet by John Doe and Dave Alvin on the song they cowrote, "Little Honey," which was previously recorded by the Blasters and X. Chris D. of the Divine Horsemen contributes a couple bad X imitations, but the bulk of the album is devoted to pretty Tex-Mex instrumentals by Alvin and Los Lobos' Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo. Something's wrong when instrumentals dominate an album by one of pop music's leading lyricists.
Much better is the new album by X (which will appear with Warren Zevon at Constitution Hall September 29). As if taking their cue from Alvin's "4th of July," Doe and Exene Cervenka have broken out from their Bohemian isolation to reengage the real world. The result is their most accessible music and most political lyrics ever. Though the couple's wild, wailing harmonies remain the band's trademark, the songs have a new honky-tonk tunefulness balanced by the muscular guitars of Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson.
The country flavor is most evident in the gorgeous love lament "When It Rains." The twin guitar attack is most effective on the pell-mell momentum of "Left and Right." "I'm Lost" mixes anger and despair in a first-person account of homelessness. Best of all is "See How We Are," Doe's weary, understated State of the Union address. He contrasts well-stocked 7-Elevens with shoeless Mexican kids znd ironically echoes the Reagan era motto: "Hey, man, what's in it for me?