Life put Dave Alvin though some pretty serious changes in 2008 when his close friend, bandmate, and frequent collaborator Chris Gaffney succumbed to liver cancer in the spring. Alvin responded by making a change of his own — for a show at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in the fall of 2008, Alvin wanted to try something new and asked Cindy Cashdollar, a gifted slide guitarist and good friend, to put together an acoustic band to back him for the show. Cashdollar assembled a killer all-female quintet, and Alvin was jazzed enough with the results to promptly take the band into the studio. A big part of the energy of Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women comes from the musicians, and while some might think Alvin might be aiming for novelty factor by recording with five women, one listen will wipe those thoughts from your mind. Cashdollar and guitarist Nina Gerber are superb pickers who lead this band with style and a tight focus, Laurie Lewis brings a lovely high lonesome feel and honky tonk bounce to these tunes with her fiddle and mandolin, and bassist Sarah Brown and percussionist Lisa Pankratz are a great, firmly supportive rhythm section. As for Alvin, this album finds him in a contemplative mood; many of the songs clearly hearken back to his past, such as "Boss of the Blues" (which recounts some of his adventures with Big Joe Turner), "Nana and Jimi" (in which Dave's mom drops her 12-year-old son off at a Jimi Hendrix concert) and "Downey Girl" (a meditation on fellow hometown girl Karen Carpenter). Alvin's voice is a surprisingly soft, measured croon compared to much of his earlier work, but there's a passion and emotional force in his performance that brings a world of experience and sorrow to these songs. Alvin is also generous enough to share lead vocals with Amy Farris and Christy McWilson on several tunes, and they bring their own distinct gifts to the album without disturbing its mood. And while the closing cover of "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" may seem like some sort of joke, the boogie-woogie rhythm the band lays in behind the song gives it a welcome jolt and Alvin, Farris, and McWilson find something almost Zen like in the song's contemplation of the cycle of life. Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women is an album that often comes out of pain, but it also speaks of joy, perseverance, and the acceptance of the mysteries of life, and Dave's collaborators make this little miracle come to life as much as he does. It's something they can all point to with pride.