Public Domain

Dave Alvin

Hightone Records, 2000

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Dave Alvin knew he had a hard road ahead of him. He was just one year removed from his spectacular release Blackjack David, which I named as the best album of 1998. Expectations from many people, not just this critic, were going to be high when it came time for Alvin to release his next work.

So, instead of following in the exact same path he did on Blackjack David, Alvin chose instead to turn to the musical leagcy he grew up with, and selected a series of songs that are the basis of folk music. And while that album, Public Domain, has some stellar moments that prove Alvin could well be one of the unheralded geniuses of folk music today, it does sometimes capture the weakness of dipping that far back into the family tree. And while it's still a very enjoyable disc, it does pale a bit in comparison to my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Blackjack David.

Almost every song you'll hear on this disc (including the unlisted bonus track - kudos to Alvin for doing it right, by having the song kick in within five seconds of the "end" of the disc) are, as the title suggests, in the public domain. Chances are a lot of the material will be new to you, even if you've followed folk music for some time. Chances are also that you'll find a large chunk of the material to be quite enjoyable, as Alvin puts his signature on each song without destroying or changing their basic structure.

In a sense, Public Domain is going to be an album that speaks to your own personal tastes, and the tracks I happened to like might not fit in with your personal musical style. That's also a limiting factor of the album; while there's something here to please everyone, you won't necessarily like everything on the album. And, I would guess, that's perfectly all right in Alvin's mind, so long as he introduces people to this musical heritage.

I can't help but smile when I hear songs like "Shenandoah," "Engine 143" (which reminds me a lot of the story of Casey Jones), "Murder Of The Lawson Family" and "Texas Rangers," even if the stories that are told in the songs aren't necessarily the happiest things one could hear. In turn, I can't say I was particularly enamored with cuts like "Mama, Ain't Long For Day," "Walk Right In" (which was a hit for The Rooftop Singers in 1963) or "Delia" - which reminds me a lot of Johnny Cash's turn on the events, "Delia's Gone". But what could be the nicest compliment I could pay to Alvin is this: when the day comes that Cash no longer wishes to or is able to tour, Alvin could well be his successor.

By no means is Public Domain a disappointment; following up Blackjack David was an almost impossible feat. But one has to admire that Alvin chose a more dangerous musical path on Public Domain, and followed his heart instead of popular tastes or opinion. And for that alone, we should all be grateful.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2000 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Hightone Records, and is used for informational purposes only.