It always helps to have good singers and players around you when you're me," says Dave Alvin, with typically unjustified self-deprecation. But while Alvin works with a variety of musicians on Eleven Eleven, his mysteriously titled 11th solo album, the most notable collaboration was the result of an entirely unexpected reunion.
"I called him and said, 'I wrote a song for us, Phil,'" says Alvin of the brother he'd been famously feuding with for years.
Alvin is clearly pleased with the result. "Phil and I have been getting along very, very well."
While growing up in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Downey, Calif., the Alvin brothers snuck off to blues and country nightclubs, catching artists like Willie Dixon and T-Bone Walker, befriending Big Joe Turner, and educating themselves in the traditions that their band, the Blasters, would pay homage to on their 1980 debut album, American Music.
With Phil singing and Dave handling guitar and songwriting, the Blasters came roaring out of the L.A. punk scene with authentic rock 'n roll. But by 1986, the brothers' relationship — musical and otherwise — had deteriorated. Dave left the Blasters, briefly joining X as lead guitarist before striking out as a solo artist.
Now, 25 years later, the Alvins are singing together for the first time on the funny, self-referential blues song "What's Up With Your Brother?"
"It's been a long time coming," says Alvin of the reunion song, which culminates in a playful argument between the brothers. "There's no reason why we can't do an occasional thing for fun. The vaudeville routine at the end was totally impromptu."
Eleven Eleven showcases Alvin's talent for evocatively written songs that tell stories — about the demise of a '50s R&B star ("Johnny Ace Is Dead"), labor strife ("Gary, Indiana 1959"), and a half-blind ex-Golden Gloves boxer turned singer ("Run Conejo Run"). Other standout tracks include the sadly beautiful "Black Rose of Texas" and the sultry, lustful crawl of "Dirty Nightgown."
"The songs that reached me when I was kid — 'El Paso' by Marty Robbins, 'Memphis' by Chuck Berry, anything by Leiber and Stoller — they were all story songs," says Alvin. "Story songs are a good way of getting your point across without getting all heavy."
This album is also Alvin's hardest rocking record in nearly a decade, a move back to an electric-based sound after working in acoustic-rooted music, a period that can be marked by his Grammy-winning 2000 album of folk songs Public Domain.
Greeted with strong reviews, the June release snuck into the bottom of the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, only the second time Alvin has had an album chart in his solo career. Now the 55-year-old Alvin is back in the middle of a 30-date tour, much like the old days.
"It's not easy," says Alvin. "It's not like I have a masseuse that travels, a dietician, a huge crew and a tour bus. All that being said, I really do live for that 90 minutes, two hours. That's my fountain of youth. That's my religious services. My everything. It gets hard. But on the other hand, I have a lot of friends that were never professional musicians, or quit, and remind me of that. So I'm lucky."