You, me, the music, and me.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Slash/Warner Bros. 92 38181 (1983)

One red rose on a new black dress
Crushing it between our chests
Tonight I wonder where you'll be
One dead rose is all I see

- "Red Rose", Dave Alvin/The Blasters

The Blasters were one of the bands associated with the American "indie-rock" scene of the early eighties. One of the things these bands had in common was that, sonically, they didn't have much in common; the Blasters didn't sound much like Camper Van Beethoven, who didn't sound much like Husker Du, who didn't sound much like X, who didn't sound much like the Replacements, etc. At one point or another, however, all of these bands were labelled as "alternative", a term that was still relatively new in the eighties and hadn't yet become an official "genre". In those post-punk, pre-grunge days, these bands were popping up in various parts of the country; separated by geography, they concentrated not on copying their neighbours' sound but on inventing their own. As a result, the "alternative sound" of the eighties is a lot harder to pin down than that of the nineties and beyond, and probably better for it.

Of all the aforementioned bands, the Blasters were far and away the most traditional, both in sound and style. They dressed in leather and denim, hair combed back in pompadours, looking like your typical rockabilly/boogie-woogie bar band, but without the mannered affectations of certain other bands. On the surface, the music was competent, hard-driving rock and roll; it had a good beat and you could dance to it. Listen closer, though, and you'll hear some of the most perfectly-woven tales of love and heartbreak this side of Hank Williams. Like Williams, songwriter/guitarist Dave Alvin had a knack for writing tightly constructed songs in which not one word was wasted; the haiku-like "He lies to her, she kisses him/Getting tired of love" from "Bus Station" tells you all you need to know about the intricacies of the relationship between its youngish lovers, and the way that the band bears down just a little harder on the instrumental breaks between singer (and Dave's brother) Phil Alvin's impassioned yelps drives every verse and chorus home. The band dedicate "Long White Cadillac" (later covered by Dwight Yoakam) to Hank; like many of the other songs on the album, it sounds exactly like something Williams would have written without sounding like a copy. The band (and Alvin) were just that good.

The cover of the album is one of my all-time favourites. A man in grime-covered overalls, perhaps a service-station attendant or a miner, his hair slicked back, stares into the camera while clutching a single red rose. That image, with its mix of macho cool and romance, gruffness and sensitivity, really says it all about the music of the Blasters. Like their songs, it conveys the maximum amount of information and emotion with the simplest of messages, and the harder you look at it, the harder it seems to look back.

Dave Alvin left in 1986 for a solo career after recording one more album with the band (Hard Line) and the group continued off-and-on in various incarnations under Phil's leadership. Sadly, most of the group's original albums are out of print and unavailable on CD, but various compilations exist and are well worth your time. Pick one up; Hank would've wanted it that way.


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