"King of California" / Dave Alvin
Anybody remember the Blasters? Yeah, me neither.
That was Dave Alvin's first band, with his brother Phil (love those brother bands), Phil Alvin being the lead singer and Dave the guitarist and songwriter. I've now got a couple albums by the original Blasters, a power-fueled rockabilly shot of adrenaline; though released in the 1980s, their musical roots were set deep in the 50s, like something you'd find on an ancient roadhouse jukebox. Eventually, I gather, Dave and Phil couldn't work together anymore (love those brother bands); Phil kept hammering away at the Blasters, while Dave went solo. So it goes.
This 1994 solo album, King of California, was the first I knew of Dave Alvin, though, and it's hard for me to backtrack to the Blasters after falling in love with this. This release shows Dave exercising his acoustic chops and exploring where his own gravelly voice could take a song. "King of California" is particularly heartfelt -- the Alvins are not only Californians, they're fourth-generation Californians (not too many of those around), connected to an old gritty California that has nothing to do the beach/mall/freeway culture. Dave may not have his brother's great yelping voice, but he does have a rough, sincere vocal edge that makes me visualize sagging barbwire, a sunbleached cow skull, a snarl of tumbleweed. This stuff may be classified as "country", but it's far from Nashville and NASCAR; it's a pipeline into the authentic West, and I love it.
There's a tender, yearning quality to this track , with sweet slide guitar fills and a deft mandolin twanging alongside Dave's acoustic strum. Though Dave wrote it himself, it's basically a pioneer folk ballad : "Well I left my home and my one true love / East of the Ohio River / Her father said we'd never wed / For I had neither gold nor silver / But my darling dear please shed no tear / For I think that it's fair to warn ya / That I return to claim your hand / As the King of California." Maybe it's just me, but I love that "warn ya/California" rhyme. He crosses the Indian country and desert (dreaming of his girl), prospects in the Gold Country (dreaming of riches and his girl), and . . . er, is killed in a gunfight (dreaming of her kiss as he sinks to the floor). Killed? Yup, a tragic ending.
We've been so seduced by that loping melody, buoyed by that earnest gruff voice -- that melancholy ending devastates me, especially the way Dave groans and heaves on the line "His bullet in my chest is burning" (inverted syntax, a perfect 19th-century touch). For some reason I picture the ending of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, my favorite Robert Altman movie. "My darling dear please shed no tear," he pleads -- too late, I'm already choked up -- then adds, "'Cause I think that it's fair to warn ya / That I return to claim your hand / The king of California." Okay, possibly he survived that gunfight; but I think he's coming back as a ghost to haunt her, in classic folk-ballad manner. The mandolinist plucks an unsettling riff, the guitar strum gets louder, almost frantic . . . and for just a moment, we feel the sadness at the heart of things. That's what I call striking gold.
Check it out at http://www.mp3.com/albums/157017/summary.html?from=2955