How to explain this staggeringly dull compendium of ancient folk and blues standards done up by one of altcountry's founding fathers? Dave Alvin does it for you, in the liner notes to this loving nod to his record collection: "They are in the public domain," he writes of the material here. "They belong to nobody. They belong to all of us." Maybe so, but there's no sign that the exBlasters guitarist knows what to do with them, unless you can find value in draining the blood, passion, and mystery from the songs of Blind Willie McTell, Tommy Johnson, the Carter Family, and Cannon's Jug Stompers, among others. Unlike Bob Dylan's similarly themed Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, Public Domain contains nothing in the way of a good surprise, no reworking of an old relic that can stand alongside -- or at least in the vicinity of -- the original.
Alvin's taste is impeccable, his intentions entirely noble, but he sounds intimidated throughout the album -- a prisoner of history rather than a pathfinder to the past, handling the songs like he's cradling a rare 78. His interpretations are reverent, and at moments his band comes close to shattering Alvin's stifling piety. But ultimately Public Domain is a pointless, laborious lesson in the roots of popular American music. If that's what you're looking for, fine. All others are advised to grab the Anthology of American Folk Music boxed set and anything you can find by Blind Willie McTell, the Carter Family, or Woody Guthrie. Then start digging.