The heart of the country
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men
Dave Alvin manages a neat feat here, producing a live album (recorded in Austin at the Continental Club this June) with backing band the Guilty Men that is unique enough to avoid boring those familiar with his work, yet true enough to that corpus that sufficiently interested newcomers won't be disappointed when they trace these songs through his past.
These are songs cut whole from the fabric of losers, truck stops and anonymous hotel rooms noted in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, places where dreams still kick--however feebly--against circumstance and a sky so vast that it seems to push you down into the asphalt. Given new flavors from Alvin's encyclopedic love of Americana--N'awlins jelly-roll piano, the acoustic guitar of Woody Guthrie, and the electric bluster of Chuck Berry--songs from his solo career ("Museum of the Heart") and his founding stint with the Blasters ("Look Out It Must Be Love," "So Long Baby, Goodbye"), plus four new cuts, are propelled by an accomplished conviction that never sounds forced.
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States with a certain mythology--Texas and California (heck, even Florida)--are easy to write and sing about; the big themes are laid out right in front of you. It is far harder to capture the feel of life in one of the more anonymous states, but Rees Shad has done the best job since John Mellencamp's Blood on the Scarecrow of evoking life in the Midwest--a region that went from raw frontier to Rust Belt in less than 300 years. Inspired by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Shad created a series of vignettes--the family farm on the block, a man who strangles his strung-out love--that might at first glance seem unconnected but, like Winesburg, gradually emerge as threads in a broader tapestry.
Liken it to Counting Crows without Adam Durwitz, his silly hair or obtrusive smugness, but it's really unfair to describe this work in terms of another--it's that personal, that complete, and that well-done. Shad has an expressive voice that bends around the emotions of a song while aural textures change from the gray foreboding of a sky about to snow to the ruddy light of a neighborhood bar. The album's high point is "Hero's Son," a moving tale of a draft dodger's reconciliation with his family that features Guy Clark and Graham Parker; guess they know a good thing when they see (or hear) one.