Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women: Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women

davealvin_guiltywomenAlvin kicks up new sparks with guilty women

Having debuted this all-female backing lineup at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2008, Dave Alvin and his estrogen-packing band have waxed a gem. Christy McWilson and Amy Farris’ harmonies and duets prove compelling partners to Alvin’s baritone on an album of blues, rock, folk and a few surprises. Chief among the surprises is the Cajun fiddle and pedal steel arrangement of Alvin’s “Marie Marie,” rendered so convincingly that it will take you a second to remember the Blasters signature original. From there the group comes out blasting with the galloping electric folk-blues “California’s Burning,” an allegorical tale that provides a requiem for the Golden State’s cash-strapped coffers. Alvin and McWilson duet like Richard and Mimi Fariña here, and Cindy Cashdollar adds some fiery slide playing.

The passing of friend and bandmate Chris Gaffney was one of Alvin’s motivations for forming this alternative to his Guilty Men, and he’s obviously in a reflective, memorial mood. “Downey Girl” remembers fellow Downey high school student Karen Carpenter and in his middle age Alvin finds a sympathetic appraisal of her fame. Nostalgia for young-pup years has always threaded through Alvin’s work, and with “Boss of the Blues” he ties together a nostalgic memory of Joe Turner with Turner’s own nostalgic memories of the golden years of the blues. One of the album’s happiest and transformative memories, of being dropped off at a Jimi Hendrix concert, opens with the “Folsom Prison” rewrite, “My mother told me, be a good boy, and don’t do nothing wrong.”

Christy McWilson (Dynette Set, Pickets) sings lead on a pair of her own originals, “Weight of the World” and “Potter’s Field,” continuing the mood of struggle that pervaded her two Alvin-produced solo albums. A real standout is her up-tempo duet with Alvin on a cover of Tim Hardin’s oft-covered “Don’t Make Promises.” Alvin and McWilson have paired for ’60s covers before, notably Moby Grape’s “805” on 2002’s Bed of Roses, but this one’s extended acoustic guitar jam really hits the mark. The closing cover of “Que Sera, Sera” suggests Alvin may be ready to move past his grief, but the song’s fatalism is strangely at odds with the rocking country blues arrangement.

When he’s not fondly remembering happier times, Alvin sings low through much of the album, reaching a level of quiet introspection on “These Times We’re Living In” that brings to mind Leonard Cohen. The loss of Chris Gaffney has left a mark on Alvin, and for now at least, his music. His backing band is not just a terrifically talented quintet deeply steeped in the roots of their shared music, but a place for Alvin to rest his soul and rethink his relationship to the Guilty Men minus one. This is more than a temporary respite; it’s a revitalizing step towards artistic and personal rediscovery. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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