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Dave Alvin
Blackjack David
Hightone

Some things get better with time and age -- like fine wine and Dave Alvin. As the chief guitarist and songwriter for the Blasters, the neo-rockabilly band he led with his singing brother Phil, Alvin helped stretch that hillbilly rock-cat genre far beyond what any other contemporary act even approached. But it's now clear that wasn't enough to satisfy his considerable artistic ambitions.

The stilted singing on his first solo recordings initially prompted questions about Alvin's viability as his own act after he left the Blasters. But ever since 1994's King of California, nobody can claim Alvin isn't a singer. Sure, he's got a raspy tone and a rather slim range, but like Lou Reed -- whose ultra-limited range makes Alvin's seem vast -- he now knows how to make every note count, coaxing the most from every nuance. With King's follow-up, the live Interstate City, Alvin recaptured his status as one of the nation's hottest club rockers, an honor the Blasters lost with his departure. So one has to hand it to the guy for starting out shaky (even if his songs and playing have always been masterful) and blossoming into one of the most visionary roots artists on the current landscape.

Blackjack David, Alvin's ostensible "folk" effort, only reinforces his primacy in the realm of honest American music. Like the best folk music, it's primarily a work of subtle and simple intensity. Proving again how some of the best things grow better with time, Alvin revives some of the (near-moribund) basic tenets of the genre and breathes new life into them. Witness his take on the old highway song "Blackjack David" (also known as "Blackjack Davey"), an age-old tale sung by countless folks through the years. Yet in Alvin's capable hands, it sparkles anew.

The remainder of Blackjack David touches on acoustic country blues ("New Highway" and "Evening Blues"), the populist and naturalistic bents of Woody Guthrie ("California Snow," penned with pal Tom Russell), neo-Appalachian balladry ("Mary Brown" and "Tall Trees"), even Cajun music ("Laurel Lynn"). And, of course, Alvin can't resist tossing in a rocker, the catchy "Abilene." Just as he did in the Blasters, Alvin uses the notion of folk as a launching pad to greater heights. (****)

-- Rob Patterson

Dave Alvin performs Saturday, July 25, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge.

DMX
It's Dark and Hell Is Hot
Def Jam

It's been, what, a couple of years since Tupac Shakur took a bullet for the Death Row team. (Personally, I think Tupac is still alive, living in Puff Daddy's basement, making his own The Phantom of the Hip-Hopra; but that's neither here nor there.) Now, it seems like every mumble-mouthed, light-in-the-ass rapper is jumping at the chance to revitalize the barren gangsta-hunk landscape.

That brings us to East Coast rap sensation DMX. The Yonkers, New York, native has been making trouble for years, but since DMX's appearances on tracks by Ice Cube, Mase and the LOX, the buzz on him has circulated faster than nude photos of Bea Arthur on the Internet. His debut album, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, entered the pop charts at number one -- which is dangerous in itself. Then, last month, DMX was arrested on charges of rape, sodomy and unlawful imprisonment of a woman in New York City. Heck, all this negative press might even keep him in the Top 20 for another month.

But does It's Dark stand on its own nasty merits? It would appear so. Dark and pungent (damn near every track ends with a gun blast or an explosion), and saddled with enough gloom to make Marilyn Manson sit up and take notice, DMX makes like he's the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. And his acidic ghetto growl is well served by lyrics like "Burning in hell / Even though I shouldn't be / They got niggas I don't even know / Wanna murder me."

Still, rap's been through all this before. As a matter of fact, apart from the obvious Tupac touches, much of It's Dark suggests Houston's Geto Boys. The brutal "X Is Coming" and "Damien" (a Devil's Advocate-style parable in which Satan acts as DMX's agent) bring to mind the horror-core rap of Bushwick Bill's "Mind of a Lunatic," while "Crime Story" -- its bass line lifted from an old Edwin Starr jam -- sounds like a Scarface leftover.

Don't get me wrong, DMX knows how to play the role -- sort of like Craig Mack with a clear complexion. But there's gotta be more to this guy than Tupac Part Two. If he's not careful, he may end up living out the answer to one of his own questions: "Why is it that every move I make / Turn out to be a bad one?" (** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Strung Out in Heaven
TVT

Rock and roll excess is the norm for the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Aside from boasting more than 30 members in its eight-year existence, the group has just released its seventh album in three years. On-stage fist fights between band members are not uncommon, and they've been known to run up $5,000 room-service tabs on champagne.

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