Friday, September 01, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: BROWN & ALVIN

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 1, 2006


Two artists with impossibly deep voices and a ruggedness not usually associated with the often precious and wimpy singer-songwriter and folk genres are appearing this weekend at the Thirsty Ear Festival.

Greg Brown, surely the finest songwriter to emerge from the jungles of Iowa, is playing at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, and Dave Alvin, lead guitarist of the Blasters in the early 1980s, is playing at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3, with his band the Guilty Men. Both have terrific new albums and are bound to perform material from them at the festival.

Brown’s new album, The Evening Call, produced by longtime guitar crony Bo Ramsey, is a punch in the face with a velvet fist. It’s a blues-drenched collection of wry, wistful, and sometimes weary songs that might remind a listener of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. That’s most obvious on Brown’s song “Bucket” (“Write it in your journal or prop it in a nook/It oughta be illegal when you give me that look”). With its recurring guitar blue note and standup bass, this song is a musical grandchild of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.”

A real sense of foreboding runs through the album. “The world we’ve made scares the hell out of me,” he confesses in “Eugene,” a spoken-word song about getting away from civilization and fishing in places where cellphones don’t work.

This existential dread is apparent in songs like “Treat Each Other Right,” which has some horrifying images (“Somebody killed a bunch of children, said it was about their godly way”) but ends on a note of uneasy hope (“My friend had a dream, it about made me cry/He said he saw two stone Buddhas rising where those towers had filled the sky.”

In “Cold & Dark & Wet,” Brown puts himself in the role of worried man and political cynic. “Jobs I guess are like wild geese/They went flying overseas ... Morning in America is cold and dark and wet.” But his humor is never far away. The song starts out with bitter memories of a “twisted girl” he’d loved. “She found a new man on the Internet/Wham I’m spam and it’s cold and dark and wet.”

“Kokomo” is a contemporary hobo ballad. Over a musical backdrop reminiscent of James McMurtry’s “Too Long in the Wasteland,” Brown growls, “With a payday loan and a migraine I crossed Contrary Creek/Looking for a gal that I knew as Sal, we were married once for a week.” Later in the song he sings of another woman. “You know she was just my type: deranged, middle-aged, and crude.”

In several places Brown is looking back on his rough and rowdy days. “I had my fun, my fun had me,” he sings in the title song. In “Pound It On Down,” he’s having a “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” moment. “I’m drinking one drink for each one tonight,” he sings.

One verse in “Joy Tears” just has to be about Brown’s wife, Iris DeMent. “When you start your singing, honey, the heavens open up with grace.”

But the album ends on a sweet if somewhat uneasy note. “Whippoorwill” is a love song, but it starts out on a pessimistic note: “If you ever leave, and I imagine you will ...”

Jolting, yes. But it’s that unpredictable quality in Brown’s lyrics that makes fans love him.

Dave Alvin’s new CD, West of the West, is a tribute to songwriters from his home state of California. He covers a lot of ground here, from Merle Haggard to Brian Wilson. There are songs by Alvin pals like Tom Russell and David Hidalgo and icons like Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia, Jackson Browne, Kate Wolf, and John Fogerty.

Fittingly, one of the best tracks here is “Between the Cracks,” a conjunto-flavored tale of crime and poverty co-written by Alvin and Russell. It’s the only songwriting contribution Alvin makes to this project. Although his skills as a songwriter have been impressive in recent years, Alvin seems to be conserving his original material. In the past decade he’s released two live albums, two cover albums (this one and Public Domain, a 2000 collection of old folk songs) and two albums of mainly original tunes (2004’s Ashgrove and 1998’s Blackjack David). But what an original idea it is to honor songwriters from a single state. (Someone should do that for New Mexico.)

My favorites are Alvin’s cool-blues-shuffle rendition of Browne’s “Redneck Friend” and a snazzy, doo-woppy “I Am Bewildered,” written by Los Angeles R & B giant Richard Berry (whose best-known tune was “Louie, Louie”) and Joe Josea.

Alvin does impressive interpretations of Los Lobos’ “Down on the Riverbed” and of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s gambling tale “Loser.”

But the best is Fogerty’s “Don’t Look Now,” which Alvin does as a Chicago blues number. Though it wasn’t a hit single, this is one of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s most poignant songs. When it appeared on Willie and the Poor Boys in 1969, it was a jab at the underlying antagonism between the self-satisfied hip and working-class reality (“Who’ll take the coal from the mine? Who’ll take the salt from the earth? ... Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me”). Now it sounds more like a cold look at globalization (“Who’ll make the shoes for your feet/Who’ll make the clothes that you wear?”).

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