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The Blasters, the pioneering roots-rock band from blue-collar Downey, California, were part of the early-'80s L.A. punkabilly scene that also spawned Los Lobos, X, the Germs and others. Led by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin and famous for their incendiary live shows, the Blasters recorded just three studio albums and one live EP for Slash Records, none of which have been released on CD before. (Their debut album, American Music, was made in 1979 for California rockabilly label Rollin' Rock Records and is available on HighTone.) A 1990 compilation, The Blasters Collection, is long out of print.
Rhino has rectified the situation with Testament, a two-CD set that contains everything the band recorded for Slash, along with a handful of unreleased tracks. Their first album for the label, The Blasters, remains their best. Propelled by Phil's Carl Perkins-meets-Jimmy Reed voice and Dave's sparkling guitar riffs, it's a spirited blend of rockabilly ("Marie, Marie"), rhythm and blues ("I'm Shakin'"), country ("Never No More Blues"), blues ("Highway 61") and good old-fashioned rock and roll ("I Love You So"). No mere oldies act, the Blasters were smart and talented, mixing original songs with obscure-but-tasty covers. Their eclectic approach was summed up in the anthemic "American Music": "We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues/Country swing and rockabilly, too/We got jazz, country-Western and Chicago blues/It's the greatest music that you ever knew."
The tracks from their 1982 EP, Over There: Live at the Venue, London, demonstrate why people still gush about the Blasters' legendary concerts. Non Fiction, from 1983, showcases Dave Alvin's increasingly impressive songwriting skills. ("Long White Cadillac" and "Leaving" are standouts.) But 1985's Hard Line is a misfire, an overly polished attempt to make a hit record. Not even John Mellencamp, who wrote and produced the radio-friendly "Colored Lights," could make the Blasters a household name. Dave left in late 1985 to join X and later embarked upon a successful solo career; Phil kept the band together for a few more years, but things were never quite the same.
Even at two discs, Testament may be a bit too much Blasters music for all but the most hardcore fans. Still, it's about time the band got its due. In an era when rock had lost its bearings -- Styx, anyone? -- the Blasters took it back to basics.