If you look at a map to see Downey, Calif., a suburb just south of Los Angeles, you wouldn't exactly think the dot was a breeding hub for an eclectic group of musicians who influenced modern music in their approaches. The list includes Brian Wilson, Karen and Richard Carpenter, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and brothers and Phil and Dave Alvin, who led the rockabilly group, The Blasters.
And in a time when rockabilly and hard rhythm and blues wasn't exactly in line with anything in the mainstream, The Blasters found stage time in LA's underground punk clubs, building allegiances with bands such as Los Lobos, The Palladins and The Screamin' Sirens. By the time of the band's 1981 full-length debut on the LA punk label, Slash Records, The Blasters had recruited legendary '50s sax player, Lee Allen. They also occasionally provided back-up for R&B icons, including Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Turner.
After leaving The Blasters in '86, Dave Alvin released his debut solo work, Romeo's Escape. The record contained the expected rock n' roll tunes, but songs such as "Fourth of July" and "Every Night About This Time," revealed a more introspective songwriter-in-the-making.
In a quarter of a century as a working musician, arranger and songwriter, Alvin has created an impressive body of work, spinning elaborate stories of common folk with the depth of a fiction writer. It isn't surprising, then, for Alvin to hold such high praise for unsung songwriters steeped in narration, such as Tom Russell, whose song "Blue Wing," Alvin considers a turning point. "You don't write a song like that in a cubicle in Nashville because so and so needs a hit by 2 p.m.," Alvin told the magazine Fretboard Journal. "I'm not slagging anyone, but hearing ‘Blue Wing' for the first time was a moment for me."
Eleven Eleven, Alvin's first record of all-new originals since the 2004 Ash Grove, has a freshness that maintains the rough edges of live performance, while the honed skill of his narratives weave in intricate, if not spirited, execution. The moods contrast dramatically, from the dark "Murrieta's Head," which evokes a bloody Sam Peckinpah film, to the hilarious Willie Dixon-influenced "What's Up With Your Brother," a duet with his older brother Phil (their widely-known sibling rivalry serves as an tense undercurrent). However, the delicately sad ballad, "No Worries Mija," co-written by the late Chris Gaffney, a longtime collaborator and member of the Alvin's touring band Guilty Men, illustrates the depth of Alvin, both as a songwriter and a performer. It's filled with melancholy that never drips of sentiment; Alvin's delivery is true. It's a crowning achievement on Eleven Eleven, one of most accomplished recordings by an artist who has firmly come into his own.