The defining moment of Dave Alvin’s new album comes early — on the opening song, in fact. His version of the standard, “Shenandoah,” is a revelation. One of those songs that everyone knows, it is given new life here in a soulful reading that recalls ’70s soul man Jerry Butler, or Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto.” Like giving an old painting a new frame, the effect is to take a song you think you know and give it a new look, changing the way it is perceived in the process.
The concept at work here is a simple one. As the title suggests, most of the songs here are folk standards from the public domain, meaning that in most cases the authorship is unknown or obscured by time. Alvin’s previous experience as a member of L.A. rockabilly legends The Blasters as well as his subsequent solo experience gave few clues that he was a closet folkie, but his recent albums have betrayed an increasing electro-acoustic side which comes to fruition here. (Blasters fans may also recall brother Phil’s solo album, which also mined a few song nuggets from the start of the last century.) What keeps this from becoming a Smithsonian exercise in song cataloging is the way Alvin takes many of the songs and delivers them in as nontraditional a way as he can. Far from a staid exercise in musical research, this technique instead transforms the tunes into wholly contemporary sounding compositions.
Alvin takes the bluegrass standard “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” and injects it with some electric, Chicago-style blues, while “East Virginia Blues,” is jolted from a folk standard into a rockabilly rave-up. Other highlights include “What Did the Deep Sea Say,” a jaunty sailor song borrowed from a Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston version, and “Delia,” a well-known blues ballad he rearranges by taking parts from different readings by Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi John Hurt.
As a songwriter, Alvin’s career has been a steady progression from the rocking years of the Blasters to his darker, more introspective work as a solo artist. This collection of songs from the past give a glimpse into the molding of the musical mind of Alvin, and his sympathetic yet irreverent readings are proof of his love for the material.