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"Some songwriters are extremely sensitive about any liberties being taken with their songs," says Dave Alvin. "God forbid you should touch some guitar part that had nothing to do with the melody or the lyrics."
Alvin himself is not so protective of his own tunes: "This is my address; the royalty checks go here," half-jokes the Blasters' guitarist/co-founder, whose solo work has made him as much Southern California's unofficial songwriter laureate as Bruce Springsteen is New Jersey's.
But no other singer has messed with the scenery in Alvin's own vivid story-songs the way he does on his new covers album, West of the West: Songs From California Songwriters. Over 13 tracks, as Alvin interprets the work of songwriters ranging in fame from Brian Wilson to Kevin "Blackie" Farrell, surfboards wash up on inner-city street corners and border towns get sprinkled in Appalachian dew.
Most striking -- and strikingly beautiful -- is the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," recast as hushed, semi-doo-wop, with Alvin gently resting his deep voice on the delicate steps of Wilson's melody, backed by the Calvanes, a South Central L.A. vocal group formed in 1954. It's a fluid bridge of genres, and though most of the album's transformations are subtler -- Jackson Browne's boogie "Redneck Friend" becomes urbane blues; the Grateful Dead's bluesy "Loser" emerges as a taut Richard Thompson-ish number -- some tracks, like John Stewart's lovely "California Bloodlines," are close to the originals.
But if the point were merely to toy with context, the result would be novelty, like Ben Folds' version of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit." Instead, in the same way a good director adapts plays, Alvin uses setting to get to the heart of the matter. In "Surfer Girl," Alvin's soulful, intimate version unearths a picture from the stylized original, of a lovesick kid watching a girl he's too shy to approach.
"Sixty percent of my songs are narratives, and I tend to look for that," says Alvin. "I had a very firm image in my mind when I sang that song. Because people have heard 'Surfer Girl' a million times, they either don't take it seriously or think there's nothing new you can bring to it."
Alvin first performed this kind of surgery on a few of his own songs, reining in the rockabilly of the original early-'80s Blasters versions for his solo work. It was the right kind of practice: On West of the West, Alvin penetrates songs by artists with little in common to him -- the son of a union organizer, from an industrial suburb of L.A. -- except a Western sense of possibility and open space. ("If you would've told me 26 years ago, in the height of the whole, let's say, musical culture wars, 'Some day you're gonna cut a Jackson Browne song,' I might have punched you," he says, laughing.)
The album's most vivid narrative is Farrell's accidental-murder ballad, "Sonora's Death Row." "I took some liberties in that I omitted the second verse," says Alvin. He also traded the original's border-song palette for hints of bluegrass. "I haven't heard from Blackie," he admits, "which may be a bad sign." But Alvin isn't about to give up his philosophy of covers just because someone gets touchy.
"I'm gonna make this mine, at least for three and a half minutes," he says. "I won't get the royalty check, but it'll be my song." -- Andrew Marcus