Dave Alvin
Blackjack David

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.

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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.

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

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.

BJM's music, however, is not the least bit excessive. A postmodern cut-and-paste collage of classic rock played on vintage instruments a la pre-'72 Stones, with jangly hooks and Floydian psychedelia, the band's sound is a throwback -- sonically and spiritually -- to the days when rock stars were exaggerated personalities. This is a good thing, if American bands are ever to reclaim their hotel-trashing, groupie and drug-connoisseur heritage.

While BJM singer Anton Newcombe may fancy himself the leader of a new revolution in pop music culture, Strung Out isn't highbrow. It leans heavily on straightforward arrangements and 12-string guitars, while droning organs, harmonica and tambourine are the real giveaways that theirs is a simple music well versed in rock's history. Strung Out is blissed out, with just enough ambiance and tension to keep it interesting and unpredictable. It never gels into cohesion, but ambles along loosely, managing to convey emotions without being direct. Standouts include "Maybe Tomorrow," with its Sticky Fingers slide and acoustic guitars and ascending vocal line, and the opening track, "Going to Hell," is a brilliant marriage of precision, Byrds-like riffs and loose-limbed drumming reminiscent of the Who's Keith Moon. All of which might easily find its way into the hearts and heads of the masses if radio cared a hoot about quality guitar rock these days. (***)

-- David Simutis

The Brian Jonestown Massacre performs Monday, July 27, at Instant Karma.

Cowboy Junkies
Miles from Our Home

If every band has its proper place in our daily lives, then the Cowboy Junkies seem most effective for those moments before sleep. Plainly put, their thoroughly flaccid roots rock has all the therapeutic value of a Nyquil/rum cocktail. But as time has passed, Canada's most somnolent musical siblings have become more adept at the old bait and switch. They lure us into their numbingly static clutches with the perfect pop moment -- maybe two -- just so they can spend the rest of an album lulling us into a coma.

On the band's latest release, Miles from Our Home, that moment is the title track, its swaying chorus, simple, strummed chord progression and Margo Timmons's poised vocals combining with the lush production of John Leckie (Radiohead, the Verve) for a near-perfect Triple-A exercise in longing. Then, of course, there's the rest of the album, moments of which try the patience in infamous Junkies fashion.

So it could effectively be argued that the most consistent Junkies release to date is a best-of collection, 1996's Studio. And why not? Frankly, it's all anyone but the most enraptured Junkies fan needs to know about the group -- and that includes two telling dual realizations. First, chief songwriter Michael Timmons does have the capacity to write compelling songs, as opposed to the percolating tone poems and restrained atmospheria that pervade a majority of the Junkies' seven-album output over the last 12 years. But for whatever reason, Timmons has a short attention span for the accessible (perhaps it has something to do with his immersion in the blues and the more fringe elements of the singer/songwriter genre). Second, Margo Timmons has neither the voice nor the emotional fortitude to wrench her brother's more ephemeral material out of its self-imposed doldrums. Her singing is sweet -- some might even say hypnotic -- but it's hardly expressive, or all that emotive. At times, it has a neutralizing effect, as when she tackles the personal and spiritual upheaval of "Someone Out There," one of the more downcast numbers on Miles from Our Home.

"But what I want to know / Before you save my soul / Is who gave this power to that fucker up there," Timmons sings in the chorus. On paper, those words amount to profound desperation. But coming from her -- and further blunted by the song's antiseptic folk-pop melody -- they have all the immediacy of a Summer's Eve jingle. No more convincing is her performance on the languid "Blue Guitar" -- a tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt that features lyrics written by both Van Zandt and Michael Timmons -- on which a wrenching lament is finessed into a harmless lullaby.

It would be wrong to heap all the blame on poor, sweet Margo. For no matter how often Miles from Our Home flirts with change, something is always there to sabotage it -- and that, no doubt, is a band thing. In the album's liner notes, the group says the new songs emerged out of a period of "sitting and walking and watching things changing." Pity those changes didn't more fully involve the Junkies themselves. (**)  

-- Hobart Rowland

Rod Stewart
When We Were the New Boys
Warner Bros.

The industry line on When We Were the New Boys is that it's his best since Every Picture Tells a Story. But don't believe the hype. Yeah, this is the raw-voiced rooster's best in a coon's age, or at least his smartest. It marks Rod Stewart's return to his spirited interpretive roots, as he covers songs written by the likes of Oasis's Noel Gallagher, Primal Scream and Skunk Anansie, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, Waterboy Mike Scott and Ron Sexsmith.

But let's set the record straight. The best Rod Stewart albums were actually his first two, The Rod Stewart Album and Gasoline Alley, both raw, funky affairs played with boozy insouciance and sung with genuine mod soulfulness. Every Picture was -- good and pivotal as it may be -- the beginning of the Big Sellout for a singer so adept he almost got away with it. And compared to some of the slick Hollywood tricks Stewart has been turning for far too long, New Boys is a darn sight more listenable -- even credible. But it's still a Rod Stewart album, where the rock and roll is always a bit too slick, and the sentimental stuff a little too gooey.

Even so, Stewart can still sing 'em pretty damn well. And even if his take on the Faces' "Ooh La La" doesn't have the drunken rugby-club charm of the original, this is still Roddo at his most heartfelt in years. Sadly, the session-sterile playing on the disc fails to evoke the good old days of beer-fueled passion -- or fully obscure his more recent Moët-drenched, stretch-limo seductions. Still, half a loaf is better than none at all. (** 1/2)

-- Rob Patterson

Spring Heeled Jack USA
Songs from Suburbia

Is it just me, or is the whole neo-ska movement so starved for originality that it's beginning to feed on itself? Not that there was much of any nutritional value there to start with -- just tired Two-Tone moves, bratty, faux-punk angst, a weak surf-rock undertow and horn sections made up of the sort of guys once bloodied by schoolyard thugs for being in marching band. With rare exception, '90s ska lacks any sense of what makes a hit worth revisiting, years down the line -- or what it takes to transcend disposability. It's like Special Beat Service never happened.

This week's log on the fire of the blazing skanker funeral pyre: Spring Heeled Jack USA, an insufferably sunny septet from Connecticut's bedroom-community wasteland -- hence, the title of its debut CD, Songs from Suburbia. The aforementioned mandatory style points are delivered in full on Suburbia, and all of it goes down as easily as room-temperature Bud Light inhaled through an Olympic-sized beer bong. Not that you won't hate yourself for the indulgence later. Hell, I hate myself now. (* 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Press Ratings
***** Historic
**** Great
*** Worthy
** So-so
* Lame

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