Dave Alvin
Blackjack David
(HighTone Records)

Before radio defined formats such as AAA and Americana, musical styles such as folk, hillbilly and blues seemed to sprout from the soil.

Dave Alvin digs deep into that soil to embellish the stories that form the heart of Blackjack David. Alvin abandons the Blasters-like energy of his 1996 album, Interstate City, to tell the tales of a downtrodden crew. That doesn't mean he completely eschews rocking numbers, just that the musical stew is seasoned with accordions, pedal-steel guitars, fiddles and even a clarinet.

By kicking off the album with an ominous, incantatory version of the traditional "Blackjack David," Alvin sets the tone. Like many other age-old folk ballads, "Blackjack David" focuses on a love that forsakes all, that upsets the balance of a life: "Last night, she slept in a fine, fine bed/Beside her husband and baby/Tonight, she sleeps on the cold, cold ground/Beside old Blackjack David." Life in '90s America seems anesthetized by comparison, but Alvin's songs cut through the sleep and find modern characters touched by the same passions that moved Blackjack David's lover.

Take Alvin's self-penned "Mary Brown," a song that follows the traditional folk-ballad form. His narrator, Charlie Thomas, kills the husband of Mary Brown, a woman he has loved since he was very young. He swears, "There ain't nothing I won't do for the love of Mary Brown." But she betrays Thomas, letting him hang alone in court and, worse, marrying her husband's best friend. Alvin sings, "She never answers the letters I send" in a totally desolate voice. Yet the character swears, "For the love of Mary Brown, I'd do it all again." That's commitment.

"California Snow" (written with Tom Russell) and "1968" (written with Chris Gaffney) set similar personal stories in a broader context. The narrator of "California Snow" is a border agent who, when he sees the physical toll that the idyllic image of California takes on illegal immigrants, finds himself wondering if it has taken a similar emotional toll on him. In "1968," a veteran is still so devastated by the death of a friend in Vietnam, he can't even mention his name 30 years later.

Regardless of the subject, Alvin conveys so much with just a few lines and his dog-eared voice that it's clear he admires his characters for living real lives, even if they have to dull the pain with a beer every now and again.

--Salvatore Caputo

Stanford Prison Experiment
(Island Records)

Few rock bands have equaled Britain's Gang of Four for outright, sustained political missives wrapped in caustic song. As New Wave blossomed, the Leeds quartet turned its attention to brilliantly deconstructing the mechanisms of commodity culture's greed, and did it in a way that made for compelling, sometimes even pleasant, listening.

Sure, Billy Bragg trucked his guitar around the world singing about the plight of the worker, but, too often, his good intentions didn't make up for his lack of subtlety or his saccharine streak. Rappers like Public Enemy have certainly contributed much with their assessment of the American political scene, but for rock 'n' roll that's as smart as it is visceral, the short list is, well, short. There are the obvious, beloved dinosaurs: the Clash, the Dead Kennedys and the Sex Pistols (who, in "Bodies," produced the world's most unlikly antiabortion anthem, and elsewhere preached the merits of anarchy). At points in his career, Neil Young has also interrogated popular culture, albeit more ambiguously than, say, Fugazi or Rage Against the Machine, bands that also come to mind when considering the rock/politics nexus.

What usually happens, though, is that bands divide along two general lines: either the arty/arch/ironic camp that's great at being clever but not as reliable for producing hard-edged music to communicate the message to the masses, or those who know how to crank up their amplifiers but do so only after disengaging their brains. So it really is something wonderful when a quartet like Stanford Prison Experiment blends both impulses powerfully, as it does on its major-label debut (and third release overall).

Taking its name from an infamous psychology experiment of the early Seventies that pitted student "prisoners" against "guards" in an unpleasant role-playing experience, SPE's themes explore the conflicts between individuals and societal authority figures. As its title suggests, Wrecreation seeks to use entertainment as a tool to fight oppression (variously defined). What prevents Stanford from sinking into insufferable pretension is the band's ability to refrain from forcing its own agenda onto listeners while still asking those listeners to think for themselves and to question their motivations. It also helps that SPE has a rhythm section of drummer Davey Latter and bassist Mark Fraser to keep the mix tumbling along furiously.

SPE's "Compete" might be the first single since Gang of Four's "I Found That Essence Rare" to combine unrelenting social commentary with grainy, pop-rock splatter. Stanford guitarist Mike Starkey lays a bed of jagged distortion for vocalist Mario Jimenez's barbed queries: "What are we here for?/To make the same mistakes?/To fight for the crumbs off their plates?/Compete or they'll kick in your teeth/Compete like the dogs in the street." With "I'm a War," the band lambastes the culture of power, "power car/power suit/power bar/power drunk," that can turn "a solid mind" into a "concrete wall."

Those who find such sentiments mere rant will probably also not appreciate the "bonus track" on SPE's 1995 release The Gato Hunch: a 30-minute lecture by noted linguist/social theorist Noam Chomsky. With apologies to Huey Lewis, that's the real heart of rock 'n' roll--messing with the system when you can, where you can.

--Matt Golosinski


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