Archive for February 2009

Cover Lay Down Presents: A Reluctant Video Companion
(Mat Kearney and The Gaslight Anthem cover Springsteen, plus more covers from A. C. Newman, Bruce Wayne Campbell, and Rose Polenzani)

February 25th, 2009 — 03:48 pm

To me, music is a sonic communion first and foremost, best enjoyed in the encompassing darkness, with headphones if possible. As such, though I’m squarely a member of the first MTV generation, I generally don’t bother with YouTube.

Some of this is merely about visual distraction. I like concerts – being there is its own form of communion, and seeing an artist’s fingering and facial expression can lend a permanent layer of nuance to songs previously heard. But when unavoidable fascination with the technical nuances of sound production, and the way the light bounces off a varnished guitar to become a splotch of tabletop light, it takes up a part of me I was using to listen.

Mostly, though, the issue here is distance. Headphone sound is always enveloping; live music is, too, in its own way. But when it comes to screen-based sound, the tiny rectangle of light and motion reduces that all-encompassing feeling of communion to something tinny and contained. Scale and proximity matter: to squint at music is to be apart from it. It’s like smelling flowers while looking at them through the wrong end of the telescope.

Still, as a blogger and a fan, I think musicians should have the power to choose how to frame their music. And in an increasingly high-bandwidth world, this has meant a constant behind-the-scenes struggle to honor original performances produced as audio-visual. Ripping audio from artist videos may be a good way to bring in the hits from the Hype Machine crowd, but I think it’s fair to recognize that artists who present certain songs as video sessions do so deliberately. And if that is so, then to strip away part and parcel of the intended performance may also be to compromise an artist’s product.

Two recent cover projects put forth as wholesale collections of “native video” performances become a case in point. Okkervil River‘s recruitment of fellow indiefolk artists to cover the songs on their most recent album The Stand Ins in the weeks before its late-autumn release made for some precious solo living room performances from the likes of Bon Iver, Ola Podrida, A. C. Newman and David Vandervelde. And just this week, Springsteen-hosted covers project Hangin’ Out On E Street hit the street with seven new videos from a diverse set of artists (The Gaslight Anthem, Ted Leo, Wyclef Jean) and the promise of more to come from such luminaries as Calexico, Tegan and Sara, Pete Yorn, and Josh Ritter.

Not all are gems, of course. Some performances, such as The Avett Brothers’ seemingly ancient and disastrously rough version of Glory Days, are clearly throw-aways. And in many cases, such as the poorly recorded Juliana Hatfield cover of Springsteen’s Cover Me, or the in-the-red vocals of Zykos covering Okkervil River’s On Tour With Zykos, these projects sacrifice audio quality for concept, producing such lo-fi recordings, the videos become mere curiosities, useful only to the comprehensive collector. But despite the inherently amateur nature of the medium, those who take the take seriously begin to transcend the limitations of the medium, creating something warm and intimate even as it remains tiny and contained.

Here’s a few of the better selections from the abovementioned series, plus another pair of “native videos” from Rose Polenzani, who has also “gone native” with a series of sweet homemade affairs. I posted a holiday cover by Rose awhile back, and the Feist cover here is nice, but make sure you stick around for the cover of Lonesome Polecat — my father loves it, and for very good reason.

Springsteen covers from Hangin’ Out On E Street:

Okkervil River covers from The Stand Ins sessions:

Covers from Rose Polenzani’s YouTube channel

For what it’s worth, my YouTube favorites are a random collection of originals and covers, TV moments and live concert videos, and a growing cache of performances which originated in the medium. Recent rarities include everything from Old Crow Medicine Show with Gillian Welch covering the Band to Cat Power covering Sandy Denny to Kathy Mattea covering the Beatles. I really like this delicate living room cover of Bette Davis Eyes from newcomer Kenneth Pattengale, and Kay Pettigrew’s cover of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme is surprisingly successful. Plus the odd acoustic video game theme song, and a growing collection of homespun ukulele covers, for some reason.

Feel free to recommend other rare and favorite “native YouTube videos” via links in the comments, too. I’d love to hear what’s out there, lingering in your eyes and ears.

Cover Lay Down posts new features Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: a spate of tribute albums hits the folk and roots communities, and there is much rejoicing.

731 comments » | Uncategorized

Covered in Folk: Don Gibson
(M. Ward w/ Lucinda Williams, Laura Cantrell, and Gray Sky Girls)

February 24th, 2009 — 09:54 pm

Today’s NPR feature on M. Ward offered a rare chance for a wide audience to explore the power of coverage by playing Ward and Lucinda William’s gorgeous, atmospheric cover of Don Gibson’s Oh, Lonesome Me up alongside the original. In my own case, the experience was so startling, it sent me to the stacks to learn more about the old sad poet who wrote the song.

Gibson’s credibility as a songwriter is impeccable, and his coverage is vast; allmusic, which is hardly a comprehensive resource, lists somewhere around a thousand Gibson covers. But unusually, almost all of these covers are from within genre, with the exceptions primarily from artists like Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, and Ray Charles, who are known for covering country songs.

It’s rare to find someone who’s so well covered within his own genre, yet so little outside it – though to be fair, Gibson’s core country sound doesn’t exactly scream “strip me down”. Still, given his popularity in the ’50s and ’60s, and his knack for sweet, poetic countrypop songs of loss and loneliness, Gibson deserves better coverage from today’s sparse acoustic troubadours. While we wait for the next generation to rediscover him, here’s a few from the lonesome side of the folkworld.

Fans who may have missed M. Ward’s recent acoustic performance on WNYC, another NPR affiliate, will find it well worth the visit, too. No covers there, but Hold Time also includes a lovely, spacey cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On.

Meanwhile, those interested in country covers would be well advised to head over to When You Awake, where Paul of Setting The Woods on Fire (and Star Maker Machine) has recently posted his second in a series of Hank Williams cover sets. Great stuff from a guy who really knows his country music.

1,425 comments » | Covered in Folk, Don Gibson

Susan Werner, Classics:
Covers of Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel and more!

February 21st, 2009 — 09:13 pm

Pianist, guitarist, and singer-songwriter Susan Werner has built a career on performing a particularly potent form of contemporary folk — one which balances a fluid and nuanced sense of delivery with an unusually loose, almost jazzy sense of time in which every moment counts, and can be stretched out to maximum effect. I’ve seen Werner several times throughout her career, in large venues and small, and I’ve always been impressed by her ability to connect with the audience through song, and connect the song to our hearts.

But though the power of her classical training is evident in her masterful range of emotion and expert technique as a vocalist and keyboardist, and though the few covers she has performed over the years have certainly benefitted from her ability to perform, Werner is no mere interpreter of song. Her songwriting is wry and intelligent, infusing the everyday with poignancy; her everywoman’s eye gets to the heart of the matter, regardless of whether the subject is personal or political.

Her intimate, deliberate delivery, coupled with an eye for ennobling the ordinary, has long made her a darling of the coffeehouse set, where she stands out against so many syncopated strummers as someone who gets a genuine thrill out of giving every moment the meaning it deserves, and who has the precisely honed talent to deliver on that promise. And though her brand new album Classics, released just this month, represents a departure from her usual folk style, it was the promise of this talent, as applied to cover song, which was my entry point for the album.

The songs on Classics come from the pop canon of the sixties and seventies; cover fans will find familiar source material here, from Simon and Garfunkel to Marvin Gaye to Bob Marley, and as expected, each song is treated with the vocal power and nuance to make it sparkle and shine. But what makes Classics both unique and noteworthy is the way it doubles up on the usual source material, framing each cover in the instruments and genre settings of chamber and classical music, as performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. The chamber music arrangements add a second layer of coverage, setting popular lyrics and melody in familiar classical styles and motifs just as familiar to the average listener as the pop songs themselves.

It’s a daring approach, both as folk and as a sort of mash-up. Pairing Cat Stevens with a Bach string quartet seems like a stretch on paper. Putting Stevie Wonder up against a Chopin piano-and-strings setting sounds less like a productive collaboration than a parlor trick, an intelligent sort of froth doomed to be no more than nifty, and to be fair, until the familiar Chopin refrain kicks in at the end, it’s more parlour jazz than folk. But whether you call this folk or just a product of the folk process from a musician with the credibility of a master’s degree in theory and a decade or more of praxis, in the end, there’s no denying that with the release of Classics, Werner reveals a talent for arrangement which rivals her abilities as a chronicler and performer, pairing the two familiar genres so adeptly, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the way these songs had always existed, if only in potential.

Indeed, Werner is in rare form here, bringing all her various strengths to bear on the project, and revealing new ones in the process. And if, in the process, she reclaims classical chamber music as a real material for the folkprocess, it only demonstrates just how much wonder and power there is left to construct and discover from that process, when tackled by someone with the talent, training, and sheer ability, and a single, startlingly new concept.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a few streams from Classics, shared with permission…followed by a collection of older covers, and the usual bonus coverfolk. Head over to Susan Werner’s website for a few more streams from the album, and then pick up your own copy of Classics.

  • STREAM: Susan Werner: A Hazy Shade of Winter (orig. Simon and Garfunkel)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Maybe I’m Amazed (orig. Paul McCartney)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (orig. Marvin Gaye)

…some older covers, from diverse sources:

  • Susan Werner: Vincent (orig. Don McLean)
    (from Time Between Trains, 1998; includes original hidden track)

…and today’s bonus coverfolk, which features two lovely covers of Susan Werner originals by folk trio and festival darlings Red Molly, who formed around an afterhours campfire after a late-night mainstage session that included Werner herself.

Special thanks to fellow fan and Star Maker Machine contributor Susan for helping me out with so many of the covers posted today. Serendipitously, Susan even posted one of my favorite Susan Werner originals over at SMM to close out our week of train songs — those interested in following the thread should definitely head on over.

1,046 comments » | Classical, Red Molly, Susan Werner

New Artists and That Old Lonesome Sound:
Indiefolk Goes Traditional, and Everybody Wins

February 17th, 2009 — 11:10 pm

Since we started Cover Lay Down a few months ago, I’ve struggled a bit with the regular inclusion of indiefolk in the mix. After all, if nothing else, the cultural disconnect between audiences is stark: with a few exceptions on the fringe of everything — see, for example, The Abigail Washburn Quartet, who I have seen at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, but others more hardy than myself have seen at Bonnaroo — you’ll not find Sam Amidon or Fleet Foxes at a true-blue “folk” festival anymore than you’re likely to catch John Gorka or Chris Pureka at one of those hipster festivals that, frankly, I’m just too old to attend without hurting myself.

But though the audiences may remain relatively disparate, the sonic commonality between oldfolk and the newest generation of folk music cannot be denied. One of the things I love about local music festivals such as the Boston Celtic Music Festival, for example, is the sudden realization that the musicians I’m watching are really doing something very much like what the Avett Brothers are doing, except the Avett Brothers are on all the cool blogs, and here I am surrounded by old people listening to young people.

Which is to say: I’m not the only folkblogger, and I’m certainly not the most popular or savvy one. But I believe I am the only one to have featured both Emma Beaton and Mersault in one entry. And maybe it’s time to say something about that.

If my excitement at “discovering” young, genre-pushing neotrad folk musicians like Amidon, Beaton, Crooked Still, Kristin Andreassen, and others has sometimes gone off the deep end, in fact, it is because there is no denying that if you like, say, The Avetts, or Deer Tick, or Fleet Foxes, or Wye Oak, or Andrew Bird, you really should be listening to folk music, especially these other folks in our own local New England scene — and you really should be thinking of yourself as folk, and helping collapse what is ultimately a false distance between the two “kinds” of folk music. (And yes, old folk-festival fans, the reverse holds true, too — if you have no idea who all those bands are that I just named, then you really should be off browsing MySpace pages right now. Go ahead; I’ll wait.)

The whole thing is worth celebrating, of course, even in potential. The treatment of any form of folk as cool and underground and hip is a relatively new phenomenon, driven, among many other factors, by both bloggers’ and musicians’ desire to find the authentic in a world of digital distance. There was no buzz around Sam Amidon when we started this blog, and Song, By Toad was just another pubwatcher, not a trendsetter like today; since then, though surely it was not so sudden after all, it feels like the world has gotten that much smaller and more intimate, and something very much like traditional folk has suddenly become a part of the normative spectrum for young kids.

But don’t just take my word for it. A number of new and noteworthy projects and products demonstrate the way this trend towards full collapse of indie into folk is accelerating. You’ll see it in full bloom at SXSW this year, for example, though that festival has always been a hotbed of folk/indie hybridism. But whether you’re an old hand at the indie scene or just an old folkie who’s been wondering if your rapidly aging festival coordinators are still in touch with the ways that folk is evolving, here’s some work to watch.

First and foremost, and as far as I can tell not yet otherwise on the blogosphere radar, tomorrow marks the drop date for The Old Lonesome Sound, a totally free compilation of traditional folk songs done by the newest crop of indiefolk artists and blog darlings. Songs include old standards from House Carpenter to Moonshiner to I Ain’t Got No Home, plus many other trad tunes less well known to all but the oldest folkies. (In fact, given the abovementioned disconnect between old folks and new, it’s tempting to say that half of my readers will recognize the songs, while the other half will recognize the artists.) But if the two songs released as teasers are any indication, we’re looking at some raw and delicate turns on familiar folksong which honors the source while managing to reinforce the particularly echo-y, lo-fi intimacy which characterizes the indiefolk subgenre.

This just might be the moment that indiefolk claims its rightful place in the folk pantheon, thereby justifying our attention to the movement over the past year in and among the tradfolk and contemporary folkpop. Kudos to Splice Today, an increasingly cutting-edge upstart who is putting the tradfolk compilation forward, and who gets major bonus points for having the balls to frame the project as a “first annual”. Whether it makes it another year or not, with names like These United States, Deer Tick, and Vandaveer onboard, this one’s going to be all over the blogs by next week. Listen below, and say you heard it here first.

Second, on a slightly smaller but no less anecdotally relevant scale: recent blogmention of several individual songs and projects have brought me a growing set of one-shot tradfolk covers from indiefolk that deserve to be pushed across the traditional dividing line between old folk and indie, in the hopes that the line will be scuffed up beyond recognition along the way. Again, note the ringing, almost hollow sound of these covers, with their echo-chamber vocals and half-buried loosely-tuned string arrangement; though the production, and the raw emotion behind them, have come to define a subgenre, they also make this music both folk, and perfectly akin to what might get performed at a late-night folk festival set, though the crowds and booking agents have yet to figure out how to truly unite the audiences involved.

There’s a lot of possibles here, so I’ve picked but a few examples; a quick perusal of our own backposts will show that I’ve been sneaking this stuff in for a while now, so in one way, this is nothing but an excuse to post a few great indiefolk songs I’ve had kicking around waiting for a mandate or framing device to justify them. But if nothing else, make sure you start with the first cover before you go: whether you recognized the name of new chart-climbers Fleet Foxes or not when I mentioned them above, you’ll surely love this take on an ancient britfolk ballad from lead singer Robin Pecknold’s side project, White Antelope, found via Pitchfork, that self-professed bleeding-edge leader of all things indie.

As always here on Cover Lay Down, the purpose of our promotion is perpetuation: if you like what you hear, follow links above to artist- and label-sponsored links for purchase and free download. And, given today’s discussion, if you or someone you know has the power to bring old and new audiences together, whether that’s though booking artists, filling stages at festivals, or getting new music into older ears through radioplay and Starbucks cover compilations, step up, speak up, and change the world. It’s the folk way, no matter what kind of folk you are.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: covers of, covers from, and yet another installment in our ever-popular Single Song Sunday series. Plus: coffeehouse singer-songwriter Susan Werner goes chamberfolk on her newest release, and we love every cello-laden minute of it.

1,241 comments » | New Artists Old Songs, Tradfolk

Love Is A Rose: A Coverfolk Bouquet
(on memory beyond Valentine’s Day)

February 15th, 2009 — 12:49 am

I’m tired, I say. What should I write about tonight?

Flowers, she says. It’s almost spring. And she smiles at me, as if to say I love you.

Another Valentine’s Day come and gone, and now I’m running ragged against our usual Sunday deadline after a rare evening out without children, just my love and I amidst the white linen and wineglasses, a dozen other couples, and a small cadre of harried, presumably single servers.

It’s time well spent, though I regret any lost opportunity to read to my kids at bedtime. Recent studies have shown that time spent has more power on our sense of selves than money spent on things. Experiences last longer than the moments they take. And on Valentine’s Day, even with the wife and kids asleep upstairs, this means that love remains in the air, as it is wont to do.

This is not to sell gift-giving short, of course. Valentines given are experiences, too, our symbols by definition far more than the objects we use to represent our love. Which is to say: the dozen roses I sent my wife on Friday will live on our table for a week or more, bringing their scent and color to a world still cold and crisp with the last weeks of winter, but even beyond that, their meaning can transcend their brief cut life. The flowers may fade, just as someday soon tonight’s courses will fade and blur into memory. But like our experiences themselves, the flowers will move on to the compost heap, to become fodder for yet another crop of green and growing flowers in the fast-approaching Spring.

Here’s a dozen roses for your table this week. Experience them all, and choose wisely how you keep their meaning: each has the potential to last a lifetime, or an average of three minutes each, depending how you measure your time. And, as always, if you like what you hear, follow artist and album links below to independent and artist-preferred purchase sources, and buy a CD or two. Valentine’s Day may be over, but it’s never too late to show you care.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features every Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional holiday and otherday.

1,553 comments » | Valentines Day Coverfolk

Love and Bluegrass: A Weekend Preview
(Joe Val Bluegrass this weekend; Valentine’s posts live)

February 12th, 2009 — 11:01 pm

Just a quick off-schedule note today to let folks know that I’ll be spending most of the weekend at the always amazing Joe Val Bluegrass Festival out at the Sheraton in in Framingham, MA, and if you’re within the driving circle, I hope you’ll join me.   

As I noted in our glowing review of last year’s festival, despite the stereotype of bluegrass as a predominantly Southern American phenomenon, New England turns out to have a long-standing tradition of great bluegrass. The Joe Val Fest, which honors the memory of one of our most talented native sons, tends to draw some amazing talent, and this year’s line-up is no exception.  

Here’s a trio of great covers which feature just a few this year’s many great performers; the second cut may be familiar to Cover Lay Down regulars, but it certainly bears repeating.

In other news: our babysitter has a boyfriend, and thus a Valentine’s date; happily, however, she’s a triplet, and was willing to lend us a sister for childcare. The wife and I will be out at a sushi and wine bar Saturday night, and you’re NOT invited to join us for this one.

Happily, however, for those irregulars who may have missed it, all three previous Cover Lay Down Valentine’s Coverfolk posts are now live for your enjoyment. Whether you’re looking for solace, soothing sounds, or romantic snuggle-up soundtrack, here’s hoping you’ll find what you need to make the date right in our growing coverfolk collection of heartsongs.

977 comments » | bluegrass, Festival Coverfolk

Love, Complicated: Coversongs for the Bittersweet Heart

February 10th, 2009 — 08:50 pm

Part three in a series.

The heart has many hiding places, many meanings: hearts that break and mend, hearts that fail and falter, hearts that fly away after touching ours. This tiny lump of meat, its electric pulse no bigger than a battery, that flutters like a bird to tell us we are alive. And we who are human and claim to know our hearts, we forget that living hurts, and are surprised when it reminds us so often.

This afternoon my children pen store-bought valentines, march around the house demanding that I read the tiny messages on their candy hearts. While I try to explain the metaphoric meaning of every X and O to the wee one just beginning to recognize letters as sounds, not symbols, the older one sounds out the words, struggling to make sense of these little phrases we use to cue and coo, to bless and hurt and curse and caress each other.

One day, I think, they will understand everything. It breaks my heart, even now. And it lifts it, too, to know that they will know so much love, enough to feel its ever-impending loss. Love like a cinnamon heart — so bright and tempting, we forget how much it burns, even as it sweetens our tongues.

Some songs with nothing in common, then, save perhaps the most powerful metaphor we share with everything alive. Songs of the heart, written for lovers, wives, exes, children, selves. Something for everyone, no matter how scared or scarred, how heavy or light our own hearts might be.

For in the end, there is no joy without the context of sorrow, no loss without the awareness of what once was. Every heart is bittersweet, and every love song, too. And so we are never alone.


As always here on Cover Lay Down, we encourage you to show your love by following the above links to label-sponsored and artist-preferred stores and sources. Because groove, as they say, is in the heart.

Previously on Valentine’s Day 2008, and now with all mp3s live for a limited time only:

1,674 comments » | Valentines Day Coverfolk

Covered in Folk: Fleetwood Mac
(covers from Vetiver, Eva Cassidy, Leo Kottke, Cat Power +9 more!)

February 7th, 2009 — 05:34 pm

Confession time, folks: I’ve started and subsequently deserted no less than three separate entries on the songs of Fleetwood Mac since starting this blog over fifteen months ago. My problem, I think, is that although the relative plethora of good covers out there underscores both the cultural impact and the strong songwriting of Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham, and Christine and John McVie, I have an almost comprehensive ambivalence about their original work.

On the one hand, I have always had a secret shame for the catchy beats and classic pop production of their radio hits. Either there’s something good there, or under all the high-falutin’ language and claims to a carefully honed folk sensibility, my tastes are about as lowbrow as they come. It’s hard to get past the sneaking suspicion that both may be true; up until now, this self-loathing that results seems to have scuppered earlier attempts to come to terms with the subject at hand.

On the other hand, due to a unique combination of age and suburban top-40 radio experience, my first experience with Fleetwood Mac consisted of an entire pre-teen summer unable to escape the lite rock horror that is Little Lies. I have an intellectual sense that 1977 Grammy-winning, multi-platinum album Rumours is a seminal record, as well as perhaps the best songwriting showcase for the major players who defined the Fleetwood Mac lineup for their greatest decade. But because I will forever think of the songs from that album as perfect pop pap, allied forever with the background sound of classic daytime rock radio and the inescapable image of all that horrible eighties hair, I have trouble taking Fleetwood Mac seriously as performers.

Today, then, a thesis tested: I have long believed that no song can be fundamentally overcovered or overplayed — that the greatest coversongs have the power to cause us to reconsider good songs despite what may be a perfectly honed bias, or even a well-developed loathing. Ladies and gentlemen: the coversongs of Fleetwood Mac, here to prove that good coverage can be the salvation of song.

Some artists are surely worth the effort. But when your first experience with a band is their mid-career cheese, and that cheese becomes entangled with your own perfectly natural attempt to distance yourself from the dorky, Top 40 self of your mid-adolescence, it’s hard to approach their better, earlier works with the respect that it deserves.

For example, while the strong songwriting talents of Fleetwood Mac are evident in their coverage, locking the too-catchy beats back into my echolalic skull seems a high price to pay for the privilege of sharing their coversong. Still, despite myself, great covers of Fleetwood Mac songs pile up. Their songs have been reinvented so well, by so many, years after dismissing them for Rhiannon and other classic rock radiopap, I’ve recently found my way to giving their vast and diverse songbook a second chance through the performance of others.

Interestingly, for me, with a very few notable exceptions — that stunningly raw cover of Gold Dust Woman that Hole came out with in the heady grunge days of the late nineties, both the Smashing Pumpkins and Dixie Chicks versions of Landslide, and of course Black Magic Woman, which many people have no idea was not actually by Santana — the successes here are almost universally the ones which both slow down and strip down the original production dynamics, leaving us with something delicate, intimate, and powerful — just the song, and nothing more.

This may be my personal bias at work, of course – I may be favoring the least pop among all covers in order to mitigate whatever self-applied bias I have against that part of myself that can’t help but nod his head along with Rhiannon. But notably, Shawn Colvin’s cover of The Chain doesn’t hold a candle to the Gnarls Barkley cover Susan shared with last week, coming as it does from the most lounge-act moment of her career.

Still, whether its your kind of thing or not, the team of Fleetwood, Buckingham, Nicks, and McVie wasn’t just another ABBA. The production may be a product of its age, but the songs themselves speak of pleasures and pain, loves lost and lusted after, which ring eerily familiar in the history of anyone who has ever made a claim to humanity in all its messy nuance. And nowhere is this more evident than in the monster success that was Rumours, an album produced amidst — and lyrically reflective of — the dissolution of the various marriages and relationships which framed the band

Today, then, we delve into some recent coverage, in an attempt to both chase my own ghosts, and to try to consider the songs as successful pieces outside of their original cultural context.

The covers here fall across several folk types. Singer-songwriter solo takes on the Fleetwood Mac canon are increasingly numerous; as evidence of their potential success, I’ve selected two favorite versions of Songbird which we first posted back in September as a kick-off to our partnership with Denison Witmer, and his oft-partner Rosie Thomas. Late vocalist Eva Cassidy brings her distinctive bar-based bluesfolk approach to the same song gorgeously, too. Tony Trischka and Alison Krauss‘ bluegrass cover of World Turning is a stroke of genius, illuminating the song from the inside out through a comprehensive genre-switch reinvention; it stands against master guitarist Leo Kottke’s version marvelously. And Snow and Voices turns Go Your Own Way into a frozen landscape, a highly atmospheric grungefolk ballad of a very modern type.

More recently, the indie tendency towards bedroom covers — that is, hushed lo-fi productions, rough around the edges, which sound like they were recorded in a single take just down the hall from a slumbering family — has produced a few stellar examples of the genre, most notably Vetiver‘s ragged acoustic folkrock take on Save Me A Place, and these versions of Fleetwood Mac staple Dreams: an out-of-print cover from ambient electrofolker Sandro Perri, a take from The Morning Benders which was found floating ’round the blogs upon its freebie release a few months ago, and this typically broken live take from indie folk fave Cat Power.

Taken as a set, the songs belie my bias, showing a diverse influence, and providing a potent look at some universal themes. May the covers assist with my conversion, and make fans of us all.

Today’s Bonus Coverfolk offer a few live takes on songs originally released as solo work from members of Fleetwood Mac. For some reason, I have less baggage here than I do for the above — a surprise, given how most of us know Holiday Road as the theme song to the National Lampoon’s Vacation series.

Previously on Cover Lay Down: The Corrs cover Dreams, too.

1,446 comments » | Covered in Folk, Fleetwood Mac

Pierce Pettis Covers:
Mark Heard, Jesse Winchester, Guthrie, Dylan, and more!

February 4th, 2009 — 12:28 pm

Pierce Pettis‘ 1989 sophomore release While The Serpent Lies Sleeping was the first solo folk album I bought with my own money; I still have the vinyl put away somewhere, waiting for the day the tinnitus fades, and I can appreciate the fidelity. I bought it because of the power of a single song, the title track to Legacy: A Collection of New Folk Music, a Windham Hill collection of up and coming singer songwriters which would also lead me to John Gorka, Bill Morrissey, Cliff Eberhardt, and David Massengill, all of whom were featured in some way or another in my father’s record collection, while Pettis was not.

[Incidentally, Legacy also contained a lovely, delicate harp-and-guitar cover of Prince's When U Were Mine by a female duo called the Blue Rubies, which I continue to look for in some digital form. Funny how so much of one's future as an audiophile can be traced to one defining album. But I digress.]

While The Serpent Lies Sleeping wasn’t perfect — looking back, it is clear that the production doesn’t really fit what Wikipedia aptly describes as Pettis’ “introspective and introverted lyrics” — but it was a revelation all the same. Up until then, I had thought of modern folk music as something sparse involving a songwriter and a guitar; this was something else. Pettis may have defined himself as folk, having grown up as a member of the Fast Folk crowd along with so many artists we’ve featured here at Cover Lay Down, but with the exception of that hauntingly beautiful selection from the Windham Hill sampler, the production on the album was decidedly folk-rock, upbeat and drum-heavy.

I listened to the album for weeks, but I had just started a new high school, and soon, my head was filled with new sounds: hip-hop, grunge, and alt-rock. Other than my early infatuation with the folk rock of the Indigo Girls, my brief experiment with Pierce Pettis was one of the only times I would make that close a connection to folk on my own terms, without my father’s influence, until I started attending folk festivals as an adult a decade later.

Two decades later, though I had come back to folk music, I’d kind of lost track of Pierce Pettis. Some of this was due to my own provincialism: unlike ubiquitous touring machine John Gorka, who seemed to show at every folk festival I attended, the Alabama-based Pettis doesn’t hit the northeast festival circuit that much. But some of it was due to the misimpression of his style left by that single album — one which I was still lugging around in a box every time we moved, but which I no longer listened to all the way through.

I had gone away assuming that Pettis was a folk rocker, struggling to be heard against his own production. But in the intervening years, Pettis had pulled away from the harder edge of folk rock and, with the assistance of his friend and next-round producer, fellow singer-songwriter Mark Heard, redefined his sound around a more straightforward folk model without losing the potency of his lyrics, or withdrawing from his instantly recognizable acoustic-roots style. I just didn’t know.

Which is why I’m especially grateful that last week my friends at Compass Records sent along That Kind of Love, the new album from Pierce Pettis. Because while having missed so much of his career — an error I am rapidly addressing, I swear — I cannot speak to whether this album is a homecoming for Pettis himself, I can say it makes an excellent homecoming for this listener. And I suspect it provides an equally strong introduction for those that might need one.

From a here-and-now perspective, That Kind of Love is a success on many levels. It brings me back to an artist with a sense of lyricism that I’d forgotten, helping me see why so many singer-songwriters celebrate Pettis as a songwriter first, and why so many of his peers, from Joan Baez to Garth Brooks to Dar Williams, have chosen to add his songs to their popular repertoires. It has a full and diverse sound, highly produced and tinged with americana and blues, that fits squarely in the pantheon of modern roots-folk classics, making it an enjoyable listen from start to finish. And, notably, it contains three very strong cover songs which provide access into the world of Pierce Pettis as a nuanced emotional interpreter of lyrics.

Pettis has covered a Mark Heard song on every one of his albums since Heard’s untimely passage in 1992, and this one is no exception, leading off with an upbeat take on Nothing But The Wind which sounds of a piece with the work Pettis was doing way back when I first discovered him. There’s an appropriately dusty americana-tinged fiddlefolk cover of Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty here, too, which is well worth the purchase. But it’s the Jesse Winchester cover, of a song which I first heard via Chris Smither, which is the true cover gem on the album. Where Smither made the song his own by running it through the frantic foot-stomping fast-train guitarfolk blues he favors, Pettis sends the song south, playing it languid and bluesy and warm, filling up the smoky room with bass, organ, harmonica, and full drum kit. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was Bruce Cockburn at his best.

I can’t justify sharing all three covers, of course; the point here is to generate interest in the album, not undermine it. So how ’bout if I bring you to Pettis through the Winchester and Guthrie covers, plus a live Dylan cover of unknown age and origin, and an older live take on one of my favorite Heard songs, and in return, you pick up your own copy of That Kind of Love, learn to love Pettis for himself, and then let him continue to bring you in to the songwriting of his own peer and friend Mark Heard the way he has always wanted to? Here’s the goods to get you started on the journey:

Today’s Bonus Coverfolk Tracks mostly feature a few other artists’ takes on Pierce Pettis tunes, from the sparse acoustic folk of singer-songwriter Don Conoscenti to the now-defunct Front Porch String Band‘s proto-bluegrass to the gentle lullaby folk of Mae Robertson, who we featured way back in April of last year, and who my kids enjoy so much. Dar Williams’ cover of Family, which most folks think is an original, is so tender and sad and celebratory all at once it never fails to makes me cry. And just for comparison’s sake, I’ve tacked that Chris Smither cover of Jesse Winchester’s Talk Memphis on the end of the list. Enjoy.

PS: On a totally unrelated note, thanks to those who continue to send suggestions for managing my ongoing struggle with tinnitus. For those interested in learning more about this increasingly common ailment, this week’s issue of The New Yorker has an excellent article on the subject by doctor and fellow tinnitus sufferer Jerome Groopman.

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Elseblog @ Mainstream Isn’t So Bad…Is It?
On “public” as the opposite of “mainstream”

February 2nd, 2009 — 12:34 pm

I’m guest hosting today over at the ever-diverse Mainstream Isn’t So Bad…Is It?, where host Sean has taken a break from his usual depth and diversity to invite a new blogger in every day for a week. In my own case, I’m using the request to sit in as an opportunity to consider the straw man dichotomy which so many genres have used to set themselves against the conceit of “mainstream”, and in doing so, claim a particular form of authenticity. Here’s the transitional nut:

…Indie is a relatively new term, which still speaks more to commercial production and label dynamics than anything, but I think the very way in which indie, like grunge and punk before it, is on the cusp of being co-opted by “mainstream” culture speaks to the limitation of defining oneself in opposition to that crass mass culture.

Instead, I’d propose that in the real and rapidly fading world of mass media markets, the “opposite” of mainstream is not underground or indie, but is and has always been “public”…

I’ve shared a few favorite indiefolk covers of songs from the public domain over at MISB, from Sam Amidon, The Avett Brothers, and Colin Meloy; there’s not a whit of copyright on these songs, so despite our past history with Blogger, I felt pretty confident posting them in a blogger-run space. Before you head over to snag ‘em, here’s a few roots-and-americana folk covers of relatively popular public domain tunes from the american folk tradition which have been stuck in my head for a while.

1,019 comments » | Elseblog