Dave Alvin is a California born-and-bred songwriter who has built a career out of creating tunes which brilliantly reflect the cultural melting pot of his home state as he fuses blues, rockabilly, folk, country, jazz and R&B influences with the passion of an archivist and the fire of a born rock & roller. Alvin is a better songwriter and guitarist than a singer, but he's opted to play the role of interpreter on his 2006 album West of the West, in which he pays homage to a dozen other tunesmiths from the Golden State while tossing in one of his own compositions for good measure. Beyond the fact they're all the same state, one might wonder just what it is that Tom Waits, John Fogerty, and Brian Wilson (among others) are supposed to have in common, though in their own way each writer here offers a thumbnail sketch of one side of California. Merle Haggard's "Kern River" is a compassionate but tough-as-nails memoir of life in the West Coast labor camps, Jackson Browne's "Redneck Friend" is a witty portrait of the decadence and ennui of El Lay in the '70s, Wilson's "Surfer Girl" is a man-child's daydream of the beach as a place where summer vacation never ends and true love is always rewarded, and the contributions from Fogerty, Kate Wolf, and Los Lobos all examine the stakes of life at the bottom of the ladder in a culture built on dreams. Thematically this is heady stuff, but Alvin has the sense not to force the issues too hard and he goes for a tough but easygoing blues groove on most of these 13 cuts, wringing an understated passion out of even the least likely material. While in many respects Alvin is still best described as a songwriter who sings, he knows how to tell a story, and he's picked some great ones for this album. Alvin understands the drama of "Sonora's Death Row" just as well as the yearning of "Surfer Girl," and his performances are absorbing from front to back. It's hard not to wish Alvin had a whole album of new songs to offer (his "Between the Cracks" stands tall among some very distinguished company here), but West of the West finds him honoring a stellar pantheon of California songwriters while showing that he can stand side by side with them on a good day.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming