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The Blasters

Testament: The Complete Slash Recordings – 2002 (Rhino)

Reviewed by Jon Johnson

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CDs by The Blasters

Along with a handful of other acts in the early '80s - Rockpile, the original Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Los Lobos - Downey, Cal.'s Blasters played roots rock in a way it probably hadn't been heard since the breakup of Creedence Clearwater Revival nearly 10 years earlier. Led by the brothers Dave and Phil Alvinl, The Blasters seemed so refreshing and honest after the hedonism of the '70s that they were accepted with open arms both by the punk bands on the rise at the time as well as by seasoned rock vets of that era.

Sadly, The Blasters have been underrepresented on CD for years. Although the band's 1980 debut on the tiny West Coast-based Rollin' Rock label was reissued five years ago, an earlier collection of their Slash-era recordings has been unavailable since the mid-'90s.

"Testament" is just about everything a Blasters fan could have asked for; its two CD's collecting the group's three Slash studio albums and their live EP in their entireties, as well as including a generous helping of unreleased tracks and rarities.

Opening with nine staccato bursts of a D7 chord, the band's eponymous 1981 Slash debut stands to this day as perhaps the truly great rock 'n' roll testament of the early '80s. With a handful of songs held over (in re-recorded form) from the previous year's Rollin' Rock debut, the album earned heaps of praise from critics, garnering the band a number of national TV appearances and opening slots with The Kinks and Queen. The band's best songs - including "American Music," "Marie Marie," and "Border Radio" - were so good that they sounded like they'd been around forever, even if they'd only been recorded a few months earlier.

The following year's "Over There" was a live mini-LP culled from a London radio broadcast. Mainly comprised of covers, it was a spirited look at the group's blues and rockabilly roots, including material from Roy Orbison ("Go Go Go"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("High School Confidential") and a staggering rendition of Big Joe Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete," among others.

1983's "Non Fiction" picked up where the 1981 album left off, and featured some of Dave Alvin's most enduring songs, including "Red Rose," "Jubilee Train" and "Long White Cadillac," later a hit for Dwight Yoakam. Also included are three outtakes from the "Non Fiction" sessions, including a rave-up duet with X's John Doe on a cover of Don & Dewey's "Justine."

Barring an aborted - and still unreleased - 1986 session with producer Nick Lowe, 1985's "Hard Line" was the end of the road for The Blasters, at least as far as Dave Alvin's involvement was concerned. Frustrated with the lack of attention from radio, The Blasters set out to make an album that didn't sound like themselves, bringing The Jordanaires and several other musicians onboard for several numbers, as well as the then-hot John Mellencamp, who wrote and co-produced "Colored Lights" for the band. In retrospect, though, the coming split seemed obvious, with the album focusing either on Phil's vocals or Dave's songwriting, but rarely striking a balance between both at the same time. Still, the album has its moments, including "Trouble Bound," "Dark Night," the gospel-flavored "Samson and Delilah," and "Rock and Roll Will Stand."

Despite Mellencamp's help, radio was no more interested in 1985 than they'd been four years earlier. Dave Alvin quit the group at the end of the year, briefly joining X before beginning twin careers as a solo artist and producer that continue to this day. Meanwhile, brother Phil has soldiered on with a Blasters lineup that includes himself and bassist John Bazz as the sole remaining original members, though no new music has been released under the Blasters name since "Hard Line."

More than 15 years after the original band's split, no long-term reunion of the group seems likely - despite the obvious demand - given the Alvin brothers' long-standing rep for public bickering. Still, the classic '80s records are in print again, and considering that The Blasters never made a bad album, perhaps that's all that's ever really been needed.