Dave Alvin's last few studio albums - 1998's splendid Blackjack David, and 2000's Grammy-winning anthology of folk-blues covers, Public Domain - have showcased the acoustic leanings of this multifaceted Americana artist. The tougher, electric blues-rock sound with which he first came to prominence as leader of The Blasters has tended to be reserved for live outings such as 2002's Out in California, but with Ashgrove, Alvin has managed to combine all the different shades of his musical personality on the one album. The result is the most rounded work of his career, a collection that blends insightful observation, personal reminiscence, vivid storytelling, wistful country-rock and biting blues guitar within a coherent and compelling whole.
The most immediate songs are probably Alvin's reminiscences of his musical upbringing - first as a child left in a truck outside a bar with only a radio for company in "Nine Volt Heart", later on as an adolescent frequenting the "Ashgrove" club in California, where he saw and learned from a previous generation of bluesmen: "Big Joe and Lightnin' and Reverend Gary, too/ Well, I'd sit and stare and dream of doin' what they could do." That he can now do what they did is most evident on tracks such as "Black Sky", marked by a stinging blues guitar solo, and "Black Haired Girl", where furtive slide guitar snakes through an account of a man spotting an old flame working at a gas station and wondering, "Should I ask her name, or warn her about the tricks time can play?"
The album's most flamboyant character is undoubtedly the narrator of "Out of Control", an ageing reprobate still stalking life's seamy underbelly - shooting speed, smuggling drugs and pimping his girlfriend while he waits outside with his "9mm muscle in the car". Growing older but no wiser, he draws meagre solace from staying true to his own soiled principles.
The two most striking songs, however, are haunted by much calmer, wiser spirits - quite literally in the case of "Everett Ruess", sung in the character of a long-dead Thoreauesque backwoods outsider, who gave up the city for the wilderness, never to be seen again. "I hate your grand cathedrals where you try to trap God," he claims, "'cause I know God is here in the canyons with the rattlesnakes and the piñon pines."
Equally moving is "The Man in the Bed", a song inspired by Alvin's father's struggle with Parkinson's disease, in which a bedridden sufferer escapes his palsied body into memories of youthful vitality. "But the man in the bed isn't me," he tells himself, "'cause I slipped out the door and I'm running free."