Dave Alvin should be long past the point where he has to see his name in the same sentence as the word “Blasters.” But it just happened again, and it can’t be helped. Alvin’s solo career is a long, strong distillation of the retrospective enthusiasms of his Blasters days with the modernist yearning he so neatly packed into his X gem “Fourth Of July”.
Public Domain, then, is both a logical step backward for the singer/guitarist — you can’t get much older than tunes with no documented author — and a bold reimagining of sacred text. “Shenandoah” as Kentucky-mountain Stax, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” funked up like early Paul Butterfield: The old folks hardly rocked the songs like this.
Alvin has slipped in a few known copyrights, including Tommy Johnson’s waitin’ blues “Maggie Campbell” (“The sun gonna shine on my back door someday”) and the hootenanny-era hit “Walk Right In”, first cut by Cannon’s Jug Stompers in 1930. But Alvin’s subtitle for the album, “Songs From The Wild Land”, underscores his wider definition of public domain. “A lot of what is good, and bad, about us is in these songs,” Alvin writes in his short liner notes.
And these songs, he might have added, are not just about the way things used to be. The murder ballad “Delia”; the sanctified warning “Sign Of Judgment”; the revenge fantasy “Railroad Bill”, an original playa-hater classic — they were first sung and passed around by men and women who, in another day, would have been our friends and neighbors, even family. The triumph of Public Domain is how Alvin and his Guilty Men — guitarist Rick Shea, keysman Joe Terry, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and bassist Gregory Boaz — make those people feel so near and real.
The immediate delight is in the musical detail. Alvin and Shea’s picking in “A Short Life Of Trouble” glistens with Appalachian morning dew. “Delia”, draped in froggy existentialism by Bob Dylan on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong, becomes a barndance special here, with brush-slapped snare drum and a crickets’ nest of acoustic guitars — an explosion of giddy psychosis.
Just as jarring is the hardcore noir of “Engine 143″, a tale of kamikaze love between man and locomotive recorded by Sara & Maybelle Carter in 1929. The gore is vivid, but so is Alvin’s setting; Brantley Kearns’ guest fiddle and the nasal vocal harmonies are as pungent and springy as a newly plowed field.
The lasting difference between impressive scenery and moving drama is in the telling, and Alvin sings with deep emotional investment. In a baritone as rich and bottomless as Johnny Cash’s, Alvin makes poignance if not sense, in “Murder Of The Lawson Family”, from the homicidal anxiety of the distraught father who kills his loved ones, then himself.
Alvin also shows excavation can be fun with a Sun Studio dress-up of “East Virginia Blues”: Joe Terry rolls out the Jerry Lee Lewis piano, the band makes like the Jordanaires, and Alvin unleashes his only sustained rockabilly-guitar fire on the entire record. Public Domain’s sole bummer is that the track fades out just as Alvin is hitting maximum warp. In addition to everything else that is wonderful here, I could have used another few minutes of that good-rockin’-tonight.