Critic's pick: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, 'Common Ground'

Contributing Music WriterJune 9, 2014 

In the liner notes to his first full studio recording with brother Phil Alvin in more than 30 years, Dave Alvin cites the enduring roots music of Big Bill Broonzy as the siblings' "shared musical square one." Hence the name of the Alvins' extraordinary new Broonzy tribute: Common Ground.

In listening to the brothers' collective take on a dozen Broonzy classics — from subtle, folk contemplations to riotous bits of juke-joint jump blues — you can gain appreciation for what made their own music so arresting when it came to light 35 years ago.

At the dawn of the '80s, the Alvins were at the center of a post-punk movement that roared out of Southern California. But the brothers were infatuated with tradition more than revolution. They infused their band, The Blasters, with a new-generation look at decades-old rock, blues, rockabilly and blues music. Dave Alvin wrote the bulk of the songs and drove the band with unrelenting (but elemental) guitar bravado. Phil Alvin possessed a high tenor voice that wasn't just intense. It was downright combustible. Even on the inside cover photo to Common Ground, Phil is gritting his teeth as he sings.

The Blasters broke up in short order. The brothers went separate ways, with Dave forging a modest but devoutly championed solo career. The original Blasters reunited briefly, but no new recordings from the Alvins surfaced until now.

Common Ground might seem like a scholarly and relaxed adventure at first, but you won't find yourself kicking back for long.

The opening All by Myself sets the stage as much for Broonzy's music as it does for the Alvins' studio reunion. With Dave's wiry National steel guitar leading the way, we are reminded of the high spirits that pervaded even the most despondent of Broonzy's tunes. The song embraces solitude as a form of celebratory emancipation, whether the topic is womanizing or prison time. The feel on Southern Flood Blues is more desperate, but the brothers simply enhance the mood with a greasy electric groove.

The Alvins aren't natural harmonizers. Phil is the star vocalist, and Dave sings with a more conversational air, although they create an appealing blend on Stuff They Call Money with help from pianist Gene Taylor, another original Blaster, who assists throughout the album.

The more prevalent, but less definable, harmony comes from the soul-scorched precision of Phil's singing and the commanding roots authority of Dave's guitar work. The tough but endearing life lessons in Broonzy's songs might be the link that enabled the brothers to record together again, but it's that collar-grabbing combo of voice and guitar that allows everyone to have a blast on Common Ground.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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