On Hard Line the Blasters get their gospel on more self-consciously (and more awkwardly) than ever, turning to the Jubilee Train Singers and the Jordanaires for sweetening, for effect, and perhaps even for the power of the Lord. The one cover this time is by John Mellencamp, along with a couple of collaborations with John Doe. As usual the originals dominate and they stand with and even above the rest. But the calculated gestures work some toward making this third in line for me of their three great studio albums. Although just because it's third in line doesn't mean it isn't great. It rocks low and sweet and hard, like they know how to do. Yet at this point, after years of constant touring and rarely getting their heads up above semi-obscurity, there's a nagging feeling of exhaustion worrying the edges, as though somebody were pushing them for a breakout, or even more likely, they were pushing themselves. Semi-obscurity grinds fine as poverty, even if it keeps the cachet pure. Not long after this album Dave Alvin would split for a solo career, and not long after that their stuff would start showing up in movies such as Someone to Watch Over Me, Bull Durham, and From Dusk Til Dawn. It's good movie music, of course, but I think their stuff more properly lives on in blood-bucket clubs in the middle of the night all over the land, wearing their rock 'n' roll hearts on their sleeves. It's no kind of life for a good person—you can talk to Hank Williams about that, who died before he was 30—but to me those dank stinking clubs are where the Blasters are most naturally vital. In many ways the end feels near here (which I understand could be just another way of saying "apocalyptic"). The songs and playing are as tight and sharp and explosive and vibrant and appealing as ever on Hard Line and I won't argue with anyone who might even find it their best. But it feels close to the end to me on some basic level. Phil Alvin has somehow kept them together to this day, albeit intermittently and often only for one special occasion or another. But some of the joy and exuberance and hence some of their most natural power is beginning to ebb away and this album often feels as close as they ever got to genuinely sad—not necessarily such a good thing.