They are in the public domain, Dave Alvin writes in the liner notes to his new collection of old folk-song covers. They belong to nobody. They belong to us all. This is a pretty sentiment, but it apparently is not one that helps you turn those old folks tunes into a very good record. For Alvin to make certain that these songs once again will speak for everyone, he must first make it plain how they speak for him. And he never does.
He does pound Don't Let Your Deal Go Down into a swell Chicago blues, and he and his group the Guilty Men blow through an East Virginia Blues that'll have you dusting off your old Blasters albums. On a strictly musical level, this is all diverting enough. The problem, once you get past the first couple of listens, is that the train wrecks and crises of spirit, the murderous threats and murders that are the whole point of the thing in more successful readings of these songs, are rendered inconsequential. Alvin's vocals, which on his own songs can be quite affecting, are effete and insulated here. As a result any vivid sense of what critic Greil Marcus has termed the old weird America is absent in these renderings.
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More damning, there's no shock of contemporary recognition here either, which on numbers such as The Murder of the Lawson Family or Sign of Judgment should've been a cinch. The words that come out of Alvin's mouth speak of great dramas and unmitigated sorrows, but they do not convey them, or anything else for that matter; they are just the words to the songs. And since Alvin never possesses these folk songs -- never insists This song is mine! -- there is no reason for us to believe they are ours.