BROTHER’S KEEPER: DAVE & PHIL ALVIN

Pasatiempo - - TERRELL’S TUNE-UP -

If you rate al­bums on the ba­sis of how many times you find your­self singing its songs to your­self dur­ing the day, then Lost Time by Dave & Phil Alvin would def­i­nitely be the top record of the year.

Se­ri­ously, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve caught my­self — in my car, at home, dur­ing in­ter­views with im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal lead­ers (just kid­ding, just kid­ding) — hum­ming or singing un­der my breath “Papa’s on the House Top” or “In New Or­leans (Ris­ing Sun Blues)” from this cool lit­tle al­bum. I can’t help my­self. The only places I’m im­mune to it are at the farm­ers mar­ket or the pro­duce sec­tion of su­per­mar­kets. And that’s be­cause at those places I’m usu­ally singing Brian Wil­son’s “Veg­eta­bles.” (I’m sure there is a name for this dis­ease.)

Be­fore we go on with my true con­fes­sions, let’s talk about these Alvin broth­ers for the ben­e­fit of the unini­ti­ated. Back in the early ’80s, these Downey, Cal­i­for­nia, na­tives were the core of one of the great­est groups of the era, the Blasters. Older brother Phil sang while Dave played guitar and wrote songs for the band, which was part of an im­pres­sive and highly in­flu­en­tial Los An­ge­les roots-rock scene that in­cluded Los Lo­bos, coun­try singer Dwight Yoakam, and the punk gods X. (Dave Alvin was briefly a mem­ber of X.)

And even be­fore the Blasters, Dave and Phil were ob­sessed with the se­nior blues, early rock, and R&B giants who were still alive and pickin’ in the late ’60s and ’70s. They’d sneak into clubs like the Ash Grove and some­times even hang out with rasty old blues he­roes old enough to be their grand­fa­ther.

By the mid-’80s, af­ter four stu­dio al­bums and un­told amounts of sib­ling ri­valry (Google “The Kinks”), the Blasters broke up. Dave, af­ter his stint with X (and X’s side pro­ject, the Knit­ters) went on to a suc­cess­ful solo ca­reer. Phil did a cou­ple of solo al­bums, most no­tably Un “Sung” Sto­ries, a 1986 ef­fort that in­cluded some tracks with Sun Ra’s Arkestra. He also re­vived the Blasters — with­out Dave, though lit­tle brother Dave has oc­ca­sion­ally re­united with the group. Back in 2011, Phil did a guest spot on a song on Dave’s al­bum Eleven Eleven — a song ap­pro­pri­ately called “What’s Up With Your Brother?” It was the first time the two had recorded to­gether since the Blasters’ hey­day.

Then last year — fol­low­ing an ab­scessed tooth in­fec­tion that hos­pi­tal­ized and nearly killed Phil — the two did an ac­tual al­bum to­gether,

Com­mon Ground, a trib­ute CD fea­tur­ing songs by blues ti­tan Big Bill Broonzy. Ap­par­ently that al­bum wasn’t just a oneshot deal. On Lost Time, the broth­ers sound as if in their late mid­dle age, they’re ac­tu­ally en­joy­ing mak­ing mu­sic with each other again. Like the Broonzy al­bum, there are jaunty acous­tic coun­try-blues num­bers as well as hard-edged, Blas­terific blues.

The al­bum starts out with “Mis­ter Kicks,” a song by un­der­rec­og­nized (nearly for­got­ten) R & B/pop singer Os­car Brown Jr. from his mas­ter­piece 1960 al­bum, Sin & Soul ... and Then Some. Nearly a decade be­fore The Rolling Stones’ “Sym­pa­thy for the Devil,” Brown, backed by beatnik bon­gos, sang, “Per­mit me to in­tro­duce my­self, the name is Mr. Kicks/I dwell in the dark do­min­ion way down by the River Styx.” There are no bon­gos in the new ver­sion, but in the hands of the Alvin broth­ers, the song be­comes a nat­u­ral ve­hi­cle for Phil’s soul­ful tenor and Dave’s pierc­ing guitar.

Another stand­out on Lost Time is “Sit Down, Baby,” an old Otis Rush chug­ging tune (writ­ten by Wil­lie Dixon) that Dave sings. It starts off with a clas­sic blues meme about “the lit­tle red rooster” talk­ing to “the lit­tle brown hen” and then moves seam­lessly to a new take on the Ae­sop fa­ble with a hep­cat tur­tle taunt­ing the rab­bit (“You ain’t got a chance of win­ning this race!”). Then it gets into pol­i­tics with a verse about an old la­bor dis­pute: “The C.I.O told U.S. Steel/We ain’t gonna take your dirty deal.” The Alvins added a verse about Rosa Parks (she tells an Alabama judge that it’s time for him to sit in the back of the bus) that wasn’t in Rush’s orig­i­nal.

Dave and Phil do a cou­ple of tasty up­beat gospel songs here. The broth­ers trade off verses on an elec­tric (and elec­tri­fy­ing) ver­sion of “World’s In a Bad Con­di­tion,” an old song. (I can’t say for sure who did it first, but I found a 1935 ver­sion by a quar­tet called Heav­enly Gospel Singers on YouTube.) And the al­bum con­cludes with a Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey song, “If You See My Sav­ior.” The broth­ers do this in a sweet acous­tic coun­try style. They sing this as a calland-re­sponse, with Phil call­ing and Dave re­spond­ing.

As for those mem­o­rable songs that al­ways seem to pop into my brain, “Papa’s on the House Top” is a funny old 1930 nov­elty by blues pi­anist Leroy Carr. “In New Or­leans (Ris­ing Sun Blues)” is a ver­sion of the old whore­house lament, “House of the Ris­ing Sun.” But you might not rec­og­nize the melody. Gone is the slow pace and mi­nor key that The An­i­mals (and Bob Dy­lan and Josh White and count­less oth­ers) pop­u­lar­ized. I can’t quite fig­ure out where the melody the Alvins use came from, but to my ears, it sounds closer to the 1933 ver­sion by Tom Clarence Ash­ley and Gwen Foster than to any­thing else.

Not ev­ery song on Lost Time is a win­ner. While Phil does a re­spectable job on “Please Please Please,” I can’t see any­one ever top­ping James Brown’s orig­i­nal. But there are so many great tracks here, that’s just a slight quib­ble. I hope Dave and Phil con­tinue to demon­strate to­gether the Alvin fam­ily val­ues. Visit www.dav­ealvin.net.

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