Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women – Dave Alvin and The Guilty Women – Yep Roc 2155, 52:08 ****:
(Dave Alvin – vocals, electric guitar; Cindy Cashdollar – National steel guitar, lap steel guitar, resonator guitar, Weissenborn guitar, baritone guitar; Amy Farris – violin, viola, harmony vocals; Nina Gerber – electric guitar; Laurie Lewis – mandolin, violin, harmony vocals; Christy McWilson – vocals, harmony vocals; Lisa Pankratz – percussion, drums; Sarah Brown – bass; Suzy Thompson – accordion; Marcia Ball – special guest on piano)
If roots rock needs an icon who brings out the best of Americana music, Dave Alvin is the man to pick. In the late seventies Alvin co-founded archival rockers The Blasters. Then he briefly joined Los Angeles’ punk veterans X, and helps with X’s country-rock side project The Knitters. Since the late eighties Alvin has released acclaimed solo outings that have included gospel, blues, old style rock and roll, folk, country, and anything else that can be lumped into the roots rock genre.
Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women is Alvin’s new, one-of-a-kind undertaking. The plan converged soon after Alvin’s friend and musical collaborator Chris Gaffney, part of Alvin’s backing band The Guilty Men, succumbed to liver cancer. Alvin enlisted multi-instrumentalist Cindy Cashdollar to assemble a one-off band for a concert, and the gig worked so well Alvin decided to take the ensemble into the studio, resulting in the debut from Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women.
The outfit includes Cashdollar, who has backed everyone from Bob Dylan to Asleep At The Wheel; guitarist Nina Gerber, who has supported Nanci Griffith, Eliza Gilkyson and several others; and violin/mandolin player Laurie Lewis, a fiddle champ and producer. Also on board are vocalist Christy McWilson (Alvin produced her group The Picketts); bassist Sarah Brown, who has toured with Alvin and Billy Bragg; and violinist Amy Farris, who has shared stages with Alvin, Alejandro Escovedo and many more. Rounding out the large group is drummer Lisa Pankratz, who has performed with Rosie Flores, The Derailers, and Alvin. This is no novelty act: the musicians complement each other in numerous ways, combining country, folk, blues, rock, and New Orleans influences.
Alvin continues his penchant of moving forward by looking backwards. He reflects on the music that inspired him as a youngster, examines several issues that persistently plague his home state of California, and observes how history affects both the present and the future.
While the grooves and songwriting style will be familiar to long-time fans, listeners will tag this record as one of Alvin’s finest to date, with some excellent surprises. One bona-fide highlight is the rowdy and electrified folk-blues "California’s Burning," a symbolic anthem concerning the annual summer fires that cause death and destruction. Alvin’s vocals are assured, resolutely emphasizing storyteller details such as howling coyotes, red flames growing on the tops of hills, rising black clouds that block out the sun, and foothills that are dry and brown. Stinging electric guitar, rollicking drums, and restive acoustic guitars maintain a rolling gait.
Another memorable track is poignant country crooner "Downey Girl," an overdue tribute to Karen Carpenter, one of the most famous musicians’ born in Alvin’s hometown. Alvin admits how he never liked Carpenter’s "sweet suburban songs" but "now that I’m older I can understand her pain/And I can feel a little pride when people say her name." The emotional epiphany that confidently comments on the human condition is underscored by somber fiddle, pedal steel, and ascending harmony vocals from the Guilty Women.
Alvin celebrates one of his musical heroes, blues shouter Big Joe Turner, during the uplifting, country-swing and boogie-woogie drenched "Boss of the Blues." While pristine steel guitar, swaying violin and beat-bopping drums keep the lively rhythm going, Alvin reminisces about a 1972 drive he took as a teenager with Turner through the empty streets of Los Angeles’s Central Avenue. With Marcia Ball’s tickling piano accenting his lyrics, Alvin recalls Turner’s anecdotes about T-Bone Walker, Duke Ellington, and other hep cats who at one time kept South Central LA sites such as Club Alabam shaking all night long.
There is a lot of talent buttressing The Guilty Women, and Alvin uses those skills to his best advantage. A notable example occurs when Christy McWilson sings lead on her two Loretta Lynn-like country originals, the independence-minded "Weight of the World" and despondent "Potter’s Field," both of which sustain the subjects of struggle and rural strife that permeated McWilson’s two Alvin-produced solo albums. McWilson’s plaintive voice is fluently balanced by steel string acoustic guitar, strings, and the Guilty Women’s backing vocals.
Alvin again ushers McWilson out front on a duet of Tim Hardin’s relationship epilogue "Don’t Make Promises." The extended acoustic guitar jam that ends the song should not be overlooked, either. The overlapping six-string harmonies are without doubt a satisfying morsel.
The biggest surprises come at the start and finish. Alvin commences with a Cajun rearrangement of The Blasters’ fan favorite, "Marie Marie," complete with pedal steel and fiddle steeped in the Louisiana delta dirt and salty marsh water. The cut is reorganized so improbably but impressively that The Blasters’ fans might not at first recognize the tale of the pretty girl who catches the eye of a guy on the prowl. Listeners may find the closing number the oddest track: a boogie-woogie/country blues interpretation of the Doris Day perennial "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)." Everyone supports the up-tempo tune with animated drums, elastic electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel, fiddles, and duet singing. Alvin and the Guilty Women furnish the time-tested tune a good-natured jounce, akin to Chuck Berry’s "You Never Can Tell," which supplies an affirmative and particular twist to the piece’s lyrical viewpoint about the circle of life.
1. Marie Marie
2. California’s Burning
3. Downey Girl
4. Weight of the World
6. Boss of the Blues
7. Potter’s Field
8. River Under the Road
9. These Times We’re Living In
10. Nana and Jimi
11. Don’t Make Promises (by Tim Hardin)
12. Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)
— Doug Simpson