"Screwed Blue"/"Halfway There (I'm Gone)"
From Welcome to Porter Hall Tennessee
Porter Hall, Tennessee (Slewfoot Records)
The first song on Porter Hall, Tennessee's debut is a catalog of the things a rambunctious fella might do to forget his gal ("I been drunk insane/And forgot my name/Stood there naked in the pouring rain") — none of which, the singer claims, have worked. But listen to the way he sings it: There's a smile in that drawl, and a jaunty drum part keeps things moving along with no time to cry. You get the feeling that the guy's been enjoying his misery too long to remember the woman who caused it. The Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved," was a classic of this genre — those songs which, though ostensibly laments, are a tacit romanticization of loneliness.
Track two tells another story: Sung by the group's other singer/songwriter, Molly Conley, it betrays its text in the opposite direction. Conley, whose voice has been marinated well in Lucinda Williams' lonesome diphthong, is singing about deliberately leaving a bad situation. She ought to be optimistic, but her singing (and the violin and mandolin parts supporting her) makes it clear that, while she has done the right thing, it's going to be a long time before she's happy about it. "I'm gone, like the comfort in your voice/I'm gone from the thought I had no choice/I'm gone from being caught in your dead stare/I'm gone and I'm halfway there." Through the rest of the disc, she and her bandmate/boyfriend take turns singing their own songs — his honky-tonk romps met at every turn by her plaintive poetry. It's a match made in country heartbreak heaven. — John DeFore
Out in California
(CD, HighTone Records)
In 1978, Dave Alvin was a fry cook at a diner in Long Beach, California. He quit that job so he could be free to ride around the country in a van, playing his music in bars and nightclubs. That was Alvin's last day job. Since then, he has spent his time writing and singing songs about an imperfect world haunted by bittersweet characters whose painful flaws turn out to be suspiciously familiar.
Twenty-some years later, Alvin went back to Long Beach to make the live recording for Out In California — his seventh CD for Oakland-based HighTone Records — a collection of old familiar songs from every corner of Alvin's career. What makes this album worth having are the live performances turned in by Alvin and his longtime band, the Guilty Men.
Live performance recordings are not something that every musician can do well. A lot of entertainers these days have to lip-synch live performances, in front of tens of thousands of fans, just so they can get through their dance routines. Fortunately, Alvin doesn't dance.
Alvin arranged the disc well, launching it with an electric set of six songs: A blistering version of the title track illustrates the Guilty Men's ability to bring a song to life in front of an audience; "Little Honey" morphs into the Bo Diddley beat of "Who Do You Love." Alvin eases up with a trio of acoustic numbers including "Andersonville," a story about Alvin's great-great-great uncle; and then finishes with four more electric songs that allow the listener to hear both sides of Alvin.
The Guilty Men have a cohesiveness that could only be attained after years of performing and rehearsing together: Rick Shea, who alternates among mandolin electric guitar, pedal, and lap steel, shares the spotlight with Alvin, while fiddler Brantley Kearns (formerly with Dwight Yoakam) adds several fine solos on both ballads and uptempo numbers. Chris Gaffney, who performed on accordion with Alvin at Casbeers last month, isn't as visible on this record, and primarily serves as a harmony vocalist.
And Alvin, always an outstanding raconteur, uses his classic, baritone voice to tell a tale to begin "Blue Boulevard":
"I had a cousin Donna who was about 10 or 12 years older than me and my brother. She was into hard R&B, and hard rock 'n' roll. When she was a teenage girl and into her early 20s she used to cruise all the old cruisin' streets on the southeast side of LA ... She had a 45 player, looked like a toaster, and it was in her car. ... Sometimes she'd let my brother and I sit in the back seat, and we'd just stare at her — she had this very sharp beehive hairdo and she wore, I guess they're called pedal pushers ... the real skintight ones. When I think about music ... I think about my cousin Donna 'cause ... she passed away about 12 years ago. I wrote this song for her, thinking about some guy that comes down to Tweedy Boulevard, or Bellflower Boulevard, or Whittier Boulevard — 30 years too late. And he's lookin' for my cousin Donna ..."
On the brilliant Out in California, is where we'll find her — and other Alvin characters that inhabit his songs and our lives. — Dennis Scoville