Free Country
Last Visible Dog

ambiguity can make meaning. Consider Davenport’s Free Country. The album’s title opens to several interpretations, and by triangulating them, one gets a far better sense of the group and its intentions than by any single definition. Interpreted as a noun unit, ala free jazz, “free country” acts as a succinct, if reductive, description of Davenport’s sound. But perhaps the words are an imperative, a blunt demand that country music be redeemed and rescued from its current status as cash cow and ideological puppet. Then again, in the more direct connotation, “free country” represents the land that fostered the spirit of experimentation feeding the Davenport project. Even this interpretation becomes problematic when one considers the revolutionary spirit that drove the words to public consciousness. Perhaps both music and title serve as a subtle reprimand to the restrictions of the current regime or, more broadly, civil society. Contemporary folk music, in its striving for a pristine past, certainly has its political implications.

These answers aren’t right, nor are they answers, but the questions they pose echo throughout Free Country. The traditional violin motifs and mewing vocal stylings of several tracks suggest a serious if not altogether amicable relationship with Golden-era country; the sprawling, eclectic nature of the album point to an environment of extreme liberty; and the raw, ferocious spirit of the recording betrays a radical fervor. Taken together, one begins to approach the dust-strewn, acid-laced sonics of Davenport.

To flog the horse one last time, one sure thing can be said about the title: it’s been used before on a CDR on Foxglove. The material from that recording surfaces here as well, along with a wealth tracks culled from five years of recording. When all is said and done, Free Country (in its new incarnation) collects seventy minutes of material spanning the band’s entire discography. Many, including myself, take pause at the bulk of the endeavor, but it does have its advantages—the most obvious being the fact that the disc is crammed with music, most of which warranted the reissue.

Of the ten tracks, seven should definitely remain, and were those seven the whole of the album, Free Country would be Davenport’s best record. “Joy! By Numerals Act” starts as cracked earth, before budding into a bounty of twinkles, slow-rustle critter percussion, and slack-jaw drones, all encircled by dead blues guitar and anchored by a somber vocal sample. “Thou Shalt Be Waking” is a clap-along drugged-choral number, featuring a host of slurred voices struggling to keep up with Nico Kain’s plaintive violin, an urgent guitar and bare sticks clacking a relentless beat. That the voices often fail, fall out of synch, or lapse into mumbling only enhances the reality of the song.

These two would represent the accessible side of the Davenport catalogue. Rest assured, the esoteric arrives in abundance. “Psychedelic Underground” (a nod to people like me who have nothing better to say about tracks such as these) gathers all the sweetness of said scene—the crying-on-the-fret electric guitar lines, space-making atmospherics, and a gorgeous lap steel/ electronics dialogue—into a grand, efficient ten-minute piece. “Hymn to a Broken Neck Bone,” though somewhat monochromatic in its dull drone, evolves into an unexpectedly spare drum and sock-muffled vocal exercise.

“Hymn” arrives smack in the center of the album’s worst stretch. Davenport loads all the questionable material into the album’s middle, making the listener work for the riches at the end. “Free Country” itself becomes freedom run amok, the players following private paths with little communication between them. “The Fool’s Organ” is a head-scratching drum machine and field recording one-off, bearing little relation to the rest of Davenport’s discography, while the curious hiss of “The Crowned and Conquering Children Dirt Pour” will likely slip past unnoticed on the way to the remarkable “Taking on the Rails.”

These unnecessary inclusions pad the length of an already meaty work. Last Visible Dog usually errs on the side of excess, assuming that most buyers prefer glut to scarcity and are capable of reducing a mammoth album to a manageable list of favorites. That philosophy pays off on Free Country, at the expense of a potentially classic album.

Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2006-03-02
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