Dave Alvin is sad. His new release, Ashgrove, the first disc for North Carolina-based Yep Roc Records and his first of all-new material since 1998's Blackjack David, is depressing. And that's really sad. Alvin has always whistled when he walked past graveyards; he's always had the ability to turn crashing tragedy into snapshot poetics, as he did in "1968," his life-of-a-Vietnam-vet story on Blackjack David. Either that, or he's simply laughed it off and made fun of himself, as he's done from his earliest solo work: "Romeo's Escape," in which he shrugged off a lover's unfaithfulness, or "Wanda and Duane," with its memorable punch line, "There ain't no one to blame, so we changed our names to Wanda and Duane." Not so on Ashgrove, which resurrects the ghosts of Alvin's life, from his parents to the legendary folk club of the title track. There's an added complexity to his playing—striking an odd position next to the downbeat lyrics—and it's almost as if Alvin, sans most of his usual backing band the Guilty Men, is ready to reinvent himself again. Hope so. I saw Alvin at the Ashgrove when it reopened in the '90s on the Santa Monica Pier—and for some reason, hearing him sing about how good it was the first time around in the '60s just reminds me that, like so many things, it's not here anymore.
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