After releasing two strong albums for Slash, the Blasters had plenty of critical acclaim and a sizable hometown following, but they hadn't come especially close to landing a hit record, and on the 1985 album Hard Line, they overhauled their approach in the studio in hopes of creating something that sounded more contemporary (and saleable). Producer Jeff Eyrich pumped up the sound of Bill Bateman's drums (and for a few tracks replaced him with Stan Lynch of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), Dave Alvin's guitar tone got thicker and harder, the horn section of Lee Allen and Steve Berlin sat out the sessions, and the emphasis was put squarely on new songs which owed less to rock & roll's past than on the Blasters and Non-Fiction. The Blasters certainly hadn't turned their back on their influences: the Jordanaires, the vocal group that added harmonies to several of Elvis Presley's biggest hits, contributed backing vocals to four cuts, while an impassioned version of "Samson and Delilah" kicked off side two with raw gospel fervor, and "Trouble Bound" and "Help You Dream" showed Dave Alvin's gift for writing in traditional styles was as strong as ever. The album's biggest gesture toward the mass market was bringing in noted fan John Cougar Mellencamp to write and co-produce one tune, but "Colored Lights" doesn't significantly lower the album's batting average, and it hardly sounds like a creative compromise, even if it isn't as good a song as those Dave Alvin brought to the sessions. Alvin's songs took on a darker tone on Hard Line, especially the tale of a small town lynching, "Dark Night," the anti-Reagan rant "Common Man," and the busted romance of "Just Another Sunday," while the fiddle-led acoustic arrangement of "Little Honey" serves the tune far better than the version X recorded on Ain't Love Grand (with co-author John Doe on vocals). Phil Alvin rarely had a better run as a singer as he did on this album, which finds him better controlled but just as impassioned and expressive as ever. And the closing track, the rollicking "Rock and Roll Will Stand," is a darkly funny appraisal of the music biz that shows the Blasters knew just what they were getting into by trying to scale the charts, and were prepared for the consequences. Hard Line proved to be the Blasters' final studio album with their original lineup, and while it sounds like an experiment that only partially succeeded, the best moments revealed they could move forward without losing what made them special, and if this is as close to a sell-out as they got, they held on to their principles far better than the vast majority of roots rock bands who figured a different producer might get them on the radio.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming