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June 22, 1994

The King of California

Dave AlvinDave Alvin, King of California (Hightone 1994) -- King of California is the third solo release from blues-rocker Dave Alvin on Oakland-based High Tone Records. Alvin (who generally plays in Fresno twice a year) is a skilled musician and songwriter, and his talents come into full flower on King of California. With a rootsy orientation and stripped-down instrumentation, King of California is Alvin's strongest solo effort to date.

For those who don't recall, Dave and his brother, Phil, soared across the Los Angeles musical firmament in the early 80s with their band, The Blasters. Fronted by the earnest playing and songwriting of Dave and Phil, and with a determination to return rock to its guitar-oriented roots, the Blasters were a critic's delight, but sadly collapsed under the weight of their well-earned acclaim.

Since leaving the group, Dave has gone his own way; he's gigged with other bands, while also pursuing a solo career. Arched midway between his Texas roots and his California power-blues leanings (and with help from ace pedal steel guitar player Greg Leisz), King of California is a change for Alvin. As he notes, "I've wanted to do a 'quieter' collection of old, new, borrowed and blue songs for quite some time. It can be difficult trying to please the people who want to hear sweaty electric rock 'n roll, as well as the fans who are more interested in contemplating the lyrics. I think King of California is mainly for the latter group."

I don't entirely agree. While King of California features songs that tell a story, Alvin has by no means abandoned his focus on strong instrumentation. The standout song on the disc is "Fourth of July" (which was previously released by Dave on another album). Backed by a subtle Hammond organ, "Fourth of July" is a lover's lament -- Dave stands in the hallway of his apartment building smoking a cigarette and contemplating his relationship with his girlfriend, while a group of kids light off fireworks in the street below. Alvin says he re-recorded this song "because, to be perfectly honest, I can sing it better now." It's hard to disagree with him - "Fourth of July" is a smashing roots-rock single.

In addition to new material, King of California features a couple of cover tunes (including Tom Russell's "Blue Wing" and Alex Moore's "East Texas Blues") which fit the mood and theme of the album. Another highlight is "Good-bye Again," a duet with his lovely labelmate, Rosie Flores (who also has a splendid album out on Hightone).

Songs like "Good-bye Again" prove Alvin's maturity as an artist -- his style matches naturally with Flores', yet each of their musical personalities remains distinct. Alvin has become a true Californian, and his albums reflect a Californian's perspective on life and rock. King of California is a relaxed and rewarding disc, and a treat for all fans of the storytelling blues.

Billy WirtzReverend Billy C. Wirtz, Pianist Envy (Hightone 1994) -- Speaking of Hightone Records, here's a plug for the latest disc from honkytonk pianist and humorist, Reverend Billy C. Wirtz. On this live album (which was recorded at The Brewery in Raleigh, North Carolina in October, 1993), Wirtz gently skewers such topics as sex, religion, and politics. With tracks like "Mennonite Surf Party" and "Big Jess" (a satire about the sexcapades of Southern senator Jesse Helms), the piano-playing Wirtz is a remarkable find.

The highlight of the disc is "Roberta," in which Wirtz delivers a side-splitingly funny description of lovemaking with a 400 pound woman. Though Pianist Envy won't get much air play (because it's a unique genre), it shouldn't be relegated solely to the Dr. Demento show. If you're looking for something funny, but not too barbed (or foul-mouthed), try Pianist Envy -- you'll soon be singing along.

Swell Swell, 41 (American 1994) -- Swell is a San Francisco-based trio that creates their own post-punk aural landscape: with elements of rock, thrash, and punk, 41 is a disc that takes no prisoners. Simply put, 41 is the kind of album Pink Floyd would cut if it still had any balls.

Frankly, one of the problems with alternative hard rock bands is that the singers often aren't worth a damn. The band may have a killer attitude and thundering guitars, but their weak vocals betray them every time (see Pavement for a painful example of this phenomena). Swell happily breaks this trend, as lead singer David Freel has a strong, reliable voice.

Swell's new album derives its name from the street number of the building in San Francisco in which it was recorded. Featuring the swirling vocals and guitar of Freel, the solid bass of Monte Valier, and the spacey drums of Sean Kirkpatrick, 41 is alternative with an edge -- these guys know what they like, and won't take any sh*t about it.

Though the rap/poem that ends the disc ("Down the Stairs, Out the Door") is forgettable (apparently every artist that lives in San Francisco qualifies as a street poet -- it must be something in the water), the rest of the album is filled with solid grooves and terrific sonic effects. Grab a six pack of Hamms and put on your torn jeans -- 41 is here to rock you.

By the way, Swell's fan magazine, "Swollen," is a treat onto itself. This magazine should be included with every copy of the disc (don't we all miss the packaging flexibility of the LP?), but since it's not, be sure to write the band at their San Francisco address (as listed in the album) to request a copy.

Prisoner's Rights? -- A recent story from Missouri said that lawsuits by inmates in the state prison system have reached epidemic proportions. According to the Missouri Attorney General, prisoners have sued for such constitutional violations as the failure of prison authorities to provide them with unlimited refills of Kool-aid, and for serving them melted ice cream. No kidding. Is this the true legacy of the law-and-order movement?

-- Randy Krbechek

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