King of California (Reissue)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
King of California wasn’t Dave Alvin’s first solo album, it was his fourth. But the 1994 release found the ex-Blasters/X guitarist/singer/songwriter unplugging and scaling back his once ferocious electric guitar driven attack to that of a folkie, presenting his name to those who may not have previously known his already extensive career.
It also introduced his deep, baritone voice as an integral aspect in the music. At least some of these changes in approach can be traced to producer/guitarist Greg Leisz who insisted on Alvin recording the basic tracks live in the studio. The result was not only his bestselling disc, but his warmest and most expressive. All good enough reasons to reissue the set (now available for the first time on vinyl) as it hits the 25th anniversary mark. It has also been expanded with one previously unreleased track (the sprightly instrumental “Riverbed Rag”) and two songs that featured Alvin only available on other albums (Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” and “The Cuckoo,” the latter sung with Katy Moffat from her 1999 Alvin produced Loose Diamond), all of which fit perfectly with King of California’s predominantly folkie/troubadour vibe.
Perhaps most impressive is how Alvin reinterprets and strips down songs originally performed by both the Blasters (“Little Honey,” “Barn Burning,” “Bus Station,” “Leaving,” “Every Night About this Time”) and X (“Fourth of July”) in far more visceral arrangements, showcasing lyrics that many hadn’t heard clearly or in quite the same way. His heartrending ballad version of “Border Radio” brings depth and sincerity to the poignant story of a single mother requesting a song that she and her ex-lover “used to know” and, as the DJ says, is “dedicated to a man who’s gone.” It’s a wrenching, affecting performance, arguably Alvin’s finest moment, and a perfect example of how the less-is-more concept of this album paid off.
Alvin’s gruff, flinty voice wouldn’t seem to work well in a duet with a sweet singing female partner. But his track with Moffat and especially the Tex-Mex “Goodbye Again” featuring Rosie Flores show that is not the case as both women expose Alvin’s tender side.
The blues that underpin much of Alvin’s music appear in covers of the Delta-styled “East Texas Blues” and a driving shuffle arrangement of Memphis Slim’s “Mother Earth,” the latter with the timeless lyrics “I don’t care how big you are and I don’t care what you’re worth/ When it all comes down you got to go back to mother earth.”
Even considering the quality of everything that Dave Alvin has released, the stunning and intimate performances on King of California make it his finest hour. It’s a near perfect album and in this remastered/expanded edition, even better than when it was first released a quarter century ago. If you haven’t already been exposed to its subtle yet enticing charms, now’s your chance.