Archive for November 2009

An Intimate Evening with David Massengill
(Friday, December 11 @ Monson, MA)

November 28th, 2009 — 09:04 am

Once again, our fledgling house concert series is honored to present one of our favorite artists. But where previous shows have featured young, up-and-coming musicians, this time around, through a serendipitous cancellation elsewhere, we are proud to be hosting a long-standing staple of the folkscene, one whose career I have been following since my father took me to see him at Cambridge folk club Passim as a young lad of fourteen.

Today, we present some coversongs of and from the seminal songwriter, along with an invitation for you to join us as we celebrate his life and music. Ladies and Gentlemen: David Massengill.

Award-winning singer-songwriter, storyteller, and appalachian dulcimer player David Massengill is known throughout the folk world for his wicked humor, his evocative songcraft, and touching, down-to-earth lyrics which, in the best folk tradition, tell extraordinary stories of the trials and troubles of everyday people. Universal in tone and scope, but grounded in the plight of immigrants, orphans, and other timeless archetypes, his songs balance tenderness and hope with wry, often biting social critique, making each of his six solo albums an engaging, accessible collection of astute observations on the human condition.

A rising star of the 1970s NYC folk revival, David’s strong, sentimental, often hilarious songs made regular appearances on the 80s folk vehicle Fast Folk Musical Magazine alongside such fellow Greenwich Village luminaries as Cliff Eberhardt, Rod MacDonald, Suzanne Vega, and Shawn Colvin. In addition to finding success in his own voice, his songs have been covered by the likes of Joan Baez (On the Road to Fairfax County), Lucy Kaplansky (My Name Joe), and Dry Branch Fire Squad (Orphan Train); his most recent album, a tribute to the songs of Dave Van Ronk, is a ringing gem, and a sparse, fitting tribute to a friend and undersung songwriter.

If David’s recent career has been a bit lower-key than so many of his peers, it is primarily because, while Vega and Colvin have moved on to high-production popfolk sound, David has remained true to his roots, keeping his instrumentation and performance limited to strings and voice. As such, what you hear on CD is what you get in live performance: the rich ring of the dulcimer, the warmth of the voice, and the magic of the lyrical narrative. And – having seen him several times in recent years – I can assure our readers that the overall effect is stunningly direct, and as eminently powerful as ever.

As with previous house concerts, David Massengill’s upcoming visit is primarily a friends and family affair. But I consider all my readers family, and this event promises to be an intimate show not to be missed. If you’re free the evening of Friday, December 11, and live within driving distance of Monson, MA – a circle which includes Hartford, CT, and Northampton, Springfield, and Worcester, MA – contact me ASAP to reserve your seat before the house fills up.

Still on the fence? Too far out of range to attend? David hosts some of his most popular originals on his download page; here’s some covers of and from, to further whet your whistle:

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep on saying it: Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to support the continued careers of folk musicians new and old. As always, regardless of whether you can join us on Dec. 11, if you like what you hear, we encourage you to do your part to perpetuate the folkways by purchasing music through the links above.

Newcomers to the work of David Massengill are highly encouraged to start their collections off right with his earlier CDs, most especially his 1995 opus The Return, but don’t sell his recent work short, either: both his abovementioned Dave Van Ronk tribute and Partners in Crime, his 2008 collaboration with fellow Fast Folk member Jack Hardy, are worth collection, too.

True historians may also be interested to note that all 105 back issues of Fast Folk Musical Magazine are currently available at Smithsonian Folkways, on both CD and cassette, or as track-by-track downloads. Now that’s a treasure trove of American folk history, right there.

932 comments » | David Massengill, House Concerts

Covered in Folk: The Cure
(Grant Lee Phillips, Julie Peel, Luka Bloom, Death Cab, +10 more!)

November 25th, 2009 — 07:16 pm

I was never a real fan of goth-rock, though as I’ve written about before, pretty much anything that made the Top 40 in the 80s seems to linger in the minds and hearts of both my own generation and the artists it has since spawned. And The Cure was undeniably the most prevalent band of its type in mainstream mall culture when I was growing up: in my early adolescence, I dated several girls with somber black-and-white Robert Smith posters on their bedroom walls, and – looking back – can only suppose that the band’s hits and the commodified counterculture they represented resonated with a certain subset of suburban teenagers looking for a safe way to reject the Duran Duran mindset of their pre-teen years and simultaneously speak to the dark, moody feelings which lurked in their self-doubting hearts.

For whatever reason, the songs of The Cure were in the air during that formative time frame, both as radio- and bedroom-presence originals and, later, through the glorious grunge of Dinosaur Jr., whose fuzzed-out version of Just Like Heaven was a boot to the high-school head, one of my first introductions to the true joy of transformative coverage done well. As evidence, it is necessary only to note that The Cure has an especially high incidence of tribute albums and coverage in the modern era – a phenomenon due, we are sure, to their gradual shift from post-punk to suicidal goth rock to the more optimistic alternative pop of their later work, and the impact they had on all those forms, as much as it is their sheer chart popularity in the eighties, the heavy lyrical genius of Smith himself, or the existential gloom they brought to a generation yearning to reject so much, and finding only emptiness in its stead.

Today, we take a look at some of my favorite Cure covers from the last decade or so – mostly the best and most delicate of popular hits like Just Like Heaven, In Between Days, and Boys Don’t Cry, all of which which turn out to play out exceptionally well as slower popfolk ballads and dark, tinkly acoustic atmospheric pieces without all the synth and driving drums. From ragged and honest to celebratory and sharp, each speaks to a culture continuing to mine its past for sense and sensibility, the folkways incarnate, whatever the source.

  • Luka Bloom: In Between Days

    Irish singer-songwriter Luka Bloom‘s all-covers album Keeper of the Flame features a holy host of great tunes like this one: melodic, sensitive, and surprisingly delicate, despite moving along at a decent clip. Bloom’s signature loose-strung, jangly guitarwork suits, and then some.

  • Angie Hart: Pictures of You

    Pop singer Angie Hart‘s torch song take, originally recorded for a Traffic Accident Commission ad in her native Australia, evokes the sadness of the original lyric in majestic piano, orchestral strings, and a tender, girlish vocal dripping with just the right amount of sentiment and introspection.

As always, Cover Lay Down exists to support artists first and foremost; if you like what you hear, click on artist names to purchase records and pursue live concert experiences direct from the source.

1,473 comments » | Covered in Folk, The Cure

On The Commodification of Folk:
Billboard Adds Folk Charts; Public Radio Drops Folk Programming.

November 22nd, 2009 — 07:42 pm

Facts first: chartmaker Billboard announced last week that starting with their Dec 5th issue, they will be adding a Folk Albums chart to their sales-tracking activities. Snip:

…The Nielsen SoundScan-based survey will house new releases from traditional folk artists such Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco and Monsters of Folk, as well as appropriate titles by acoustic-based singer-songwriters such as Carly Simon, Rosanne Cash and Joshua Radin. The 15-position chart, to be managed by Gary Trust, will run periodically in print and appear weekly on and

“Billboard’s Folk Albums chart will reflect retail activity of a niche genre with a rich history. Folk artists are among the most insightful songwriters and intimate storytellers in music, and we’re proud to offer a chart highlighting their sales achievements,” says Trust…

Noble language, that. But even at first glance, Billboard’s inclusion criteria is oddly suspect. Though I happily welcome Radin, Cash, and DiFranco, all of whom we’ve included in our pages recently, I doubt most of us count Carly Simon as folk; similarly, referring to popular indie collaborative Monsters of Folk as “traditional folk artists” seems to indicate a comprehensive disconnect between the modern moniker “folk” and both its historical meaning and its modern sonic norms.

Still, the news here seems initially heartening, if a bit late in the game. Billboard deserves some credit for their recognition of the staying power and market measure of the modern folkscene; it may have taken over half a decade for Billboard to acknowledge the genre, but it’s hard to imagine that having these albums off the popcharts and on their own page will not have some positive effects. If nothing else, the change in chart recognition validates folk in ways which – for better or worse – will likely bring greater awareness of the term and those who follow it to a larger audience, and that’s not nothin’.

But the mainstreaming of folk comes with its darkside, for sure. Here in New England, even as communities devote themselves to celebration of folk’s past, and even as most folk clubs continue to survive in the midst of a drawn-out recession, local folk radio is slowly dying out.

Recent news of programming changes at once-seminal folk and roots vehicle WGBH has drawn severe and justified concern from local folkfans, artists, and promoters. And though we here at CLD think of folk as a much broader tent, WGBH’s recent insistence that “the Boston audience for folk and blues will continue to be served by other stations, particularly WUMB“, has offended folk purists who insist that the AAA format which WUMB adopted in 2007 leaves little room for either older folk artists such as Seeger and Guthrie, or the modern inheritors of such traditional forms.

In this light, we might also suggest that Billboard’s move carries a significant risk, in that it changes the tone and tenor of folk marketing to a more commercial-oriented one – or, more accurately, that it confirms already-ongoing changes to the perceived relationship between folk and mass culture, just as the mainstreaming of folk threatens to leave behind the vast majority of what folk is.

If so, then our lot must not be despair, but action.

Not all action is well-plied, however. In this case, some people have responded to the abovementioned c-change by pushing back against public radio, and while I admire the urge, I cannot condone the approach. For better or worse, the current financial model of public radio depends on a substantive listenership willing to donate; it is through those donations that public radio learns what its audience desires, and if those running the stations have learned from past fund drives that their listenership is no longer willing to support folk and blues programming, then it’s hard to justify arguing that they should run themselves into the ground to serve a minority.

Instead, I maintain that, as the modern fragmentation of microcultures and audiences owes much of its current existence to digital media, so must digital media take up the mantle of resolution. And though local media may not be able to sustain sufficient interest in folk programming to support themselves, if there is enough of a global audience present to support traditional folkforms – and I believe there is – then it is to that global audience that we must turn.

Specifically, I believe that blogs such as ours, and the ones we’ve mentioned recently in these pages, must work harder to carry the underground, artist-centric nature of folk forward, through writing, sharing, house concert hosting, and other activities – lest the “Billboardization” of folk transform the conceit of “folk” into a mere marketing designation in the popular mind, thus pushing back against the very power of the folkways, and of the diversity of those artists who quite legitimately claim not just its sales designation, but its history and sentiment.

For if the new mainstreaming of folk music which Billboard’s changes represents does not trickle down to all folk artists, regardless of sales power, in the form of renewed interest and attention – and I predict it will not – it becomes even more necessary for us to celebrate those who would target a more honest and human connection than chart sales and mass appeal.

Today, then, in honor and anticipation of these changes, and in recognition of the pitfalls and perils which they embody, we present yet another collection of new and recent work from a few less-than-mainstream artists just recently come to our attention.

These artists may not be on the top of the charts, and maybe they don’t belong there. But each, in their own way, deserves your attention, too. And in the end, I think you’ll find that their connection to the folk world is undeniable, though they come from all corners of the rich tapestry we call folk.

Left With Pictures performs heartwarming folk with a nod to several folkforms; this Richard Thompson cover, for example, combines singer-songwriter guitar, delicate nufolk vocal mannerisms, british folkrock instrumentation, and sea shanty harmonies to great effect. The band calls its work “chamber pop”, and it’s true that it has a touch of the indie sentiment which follows the designation, but I challenge you to call this anything but folk at heart.

If you like it, check out the video of them performing the song on the Black Cab Sessions, and then try on their brand new debut Beyond Our Means for more.

Queerfolk singer-songwriter Lucas Miré contacted me in response to our recent post on Kasey Chambers, offering to share a few more rarities he had gathered; I’m indebted to him for those novelties, which will surely show up in some future (Re)Covered feature, but equally grateful for his inclusion of several of his own covers in the mix, all of which turned out to be wonderful, delicate, richly layered, occasionally dischordant bedroom-folk takes on some surprisingly successful choices from the pop and folkworld.

Lucas has recently finished working on his second album, Never Regret The Night, and is offering free streams and full-album downloads for a name-your-price deal over at his bandcamp page; it comes highly recommended, especially for fans of Girlyman, We’re About Nine, and other alternately joyous and poignant folk festival fare.

I found the quirky anti-folk of NYC-based singer-songwriter and comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis through the recent recommendation of several readers, most notably for his 2007 tribute album to the punk band Crass, which sets the fast-paced songs against a tinkle of relatively gentle guitar, harmonica, harmonies and bells without losing a bit of their original energy. Lewis’ combination of croaky-voiced humor and finger-picking style is eminently charming, and after several weeks track-gathering I’ve amassed quite the collection of covers and originals. Here’s two favorites:

Rock Plaza Central made a splash in the blogworld a few years back with their cover of Justin Timberlake’s Sexyback, which brought bongos, subtle off-beat guitar chords, a flowing fiddle, and their lead singer’s uniquely broken emo whine to the table in style; since then, the Canadian indie band has become a darling of the Daytrotter and Pitchfork set, but despite a Myspace designation as a bluegrass and Americana band, most folkfans would be easily excused for assuming their coverage and delicacy were merely a one-shot reversal. Until now, that is: their recent release of an otherwise extracurricular cover of Dylan’s I Want You reveals a consistent sound with deeper folkroots than previously assumed, perfect for fans of The Decembrists, Clem Snide, or Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams.

The sounds of vaudeville and the wry humor of filk music feature most prevalent in Altogether Now (Birds Bees Flowers Trees), the U.S. debut release from the UK’s Patrick & Eugene – along with banjos, ukuleles, whistles, and other instruments traditionally found in the world we watch on your behalf. Put it all together in this particular way and it’s barely folk, but the polka rhythms of this cover of Kylie Minogue hit Can’t Get You Out Of My Head speak to a grounding in a diverse set of cultural folkforms, and overwhelm any hint of morning commute marginalia which are so often the inevitable lot of such fun romps through the popworld.

I cannot for the life of me remember where I came across “rediscovery artist” David Potts-Dupre, who in his fifties has rejuvenated his career the hard way, coming up through the ranks of political gatherings and coffeehouse folk via Maryland-based musical collaborative TakomaZone. The countrygrass/ Americana Wilco cover which dropped as if from the sky comes from last year’s The Preacher and the Teacher, which represents the culmination of that journey. Like many of the originals and other covers on that substantive album, it reveals a troubadors sentiment and a tradfolker’s heart, and though a few of the tracks on the album are a bit earnest for my taste, despite both song and its performer’s advanced age, it deserves to be shared and celebrated.

Oh, and then there’s this current folkrock tour finale from Irish singer-songwriter and one-time Damien Rice back-up singer Lisa Hannigan, which speaks for itself:

We’re proud to do our part to keep the folkworld honest, broad, and rich by continuing to present and support a diverse set of artists, old and new, who claim the folk designation as their own. And we plan on doing so every Wednesday and Sunday for as long as we have strength to carry on.

But if you believe, as I do, that all branches of folk are worth preserving, then I call on you to do your part, too. DONATE to blogs which you feel serve the broader definition of folk, book tickets for summer festivals in advance, make it a point to support local folk venues, coffeehouses, and house concerts in your area – in Massachusetts, that would include such spaces as Passim and the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, the Iron Horse in Northampton, and the Notlob concert series in the Greater Boston area – and, most importantly, consider purchasing the works of those listed proudly in these pages and others.

For further reading, and to support the folk community writ large in all its incarnations, from roots and Americana to nufolk, we also recommend the following blogs:

Tell ‘em boyhowdy sent you.

1,682 comments » | New Artists Old Songs, Tradfolk

Kasey Chambers Covers:
Son Volt, Ben Harper, Cyndi Lauper, Dolly Parton, Crowded House & more!

November 17th, 2009 — 11:25 pm

I keep missing Kasey Chambers when she comes through town, but it’s not for lack of trying. The Australian singer-songwriter with the airy twang in her voice does heartache so well, it’s a dream of mine to sit on the grass at some summery festival, eyes closed, letting the bittersweet music burn through me like the sunshine.

Kasey’s talent springs from growing up with music in her veins: the daughter of steel guitar player Bill Chambers, she picked up her first strings early, and spent an adolescent decade on the road with her parents and brother as the Dead Ringer Band, a mid-nineties staple on the Australian Country charts. When her parents separated in 1998, the band broke up as well; Kasey went solo, emerging with a debut album in 2000, and brother Nash moved behind the scenes as her producer. The Captain was a perfect showcase for a well-honed sense of song, but more than anything, it was the tension between that girlish voice and the mature, direct depth of her sentiment which caught – and kept – the minds and hearts of her listeners.

Since then, Chambers has continued to demonstrate a knack for the perfect hook, and a true-blue countryfolk craftswoman’s sense of emotional lyrics. Like Payton, who does a great artist spotlight, Nelson, who calls Kasey’s music “life-changing”, and Simon, whose recent celebration reminded me I was long overdue for a feature on her, I have a special place in my collection for her still-short post-millennial canon, up to and including last year’s decent (but sadly coverless) collaboration with hubby Shane Nicholson, and consider her 2001 sophomore effort Barricades and Brickwalls an essential component of the modern folk-listener’s soundscape.

But like her own heroine Lucinda Williams, who we featured here last May, Kasey is a powerful interpreter of song, too. And though as a fellow child of the late eighties I come back to her Crowded House and Cyndi Lauper covers more than anything, she’s especially, undeniably adept with others from the country side of folk, where Americana and alt-country live. Fred Eaglesmith, Son Volt, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton and Gram Parsons may represent the farflung corners of a musical subgenre, but in Kasey’s capable hands, their songs take on angst, ache, and the lonely sorrow of a universal outback. Were it not for that slight Aussie intonation, the music could come from any country’s dustbowl heartland or country barroom.

Here’s the aforementioned, and a few others, with thanks to Simon of Beat Surrender for passing on several of the rarities included below; though they cover but a few years in total, they show a strong diversity of style and substance, and speak well of why so many of us celebrate Kasey’s life and music. I’ve arranged the solo cuts, at least, in rough chronological order, with hopes that someday the list will stretch from here to infinite summer.

Kasey’s solo albums all come highly recommended, and they can all be purchased direct from the source along with the usual wearables. Her most recent project, an original family-made kids album called Kasey Chambers, Poppa Bill and the Little Hillbillies, is a bit sparse and silly, but it has its sweet moments; I can’t find a source for hardcopy US sales, but the album is available through iTunes.

But wait! There’s more! Today’s bonus tracks include a pair of collaborations, both early and more recent…

…and a lone cover of Kasey’s work – there’s not that many Kasey Chambers covers to be found this side of the equator – but it’s well worth the space, both for its exquisitely bitter lyric and for the weary live interpretation which local hero Lori McKenna brings to the tune:

  • Lori McKenna: Ignorance (orig. Kasey Chambers)
    (from Signature Sounds 10th Anniversary Collection [out of print], 2004)

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Bill Chambers covers Mary Gauthier, and other drunkard songs.

936 comments » | Kasey Chambers

(Re)Covered, XIII:
An interview and exclusive live tracks from Caroline Herring
plus live Chris Smither, and more of the year’s best tribute albums

November 15th, 2009 — 04:26 pm

Regular readers may recall that I first fell in love with the powerful, confessional Americana folk of Signature Sounds artist Caroline Herring after last year’s Lantana, a tour de force concept album of sorts which evoked a broad set of southern women’s voices struggling with their own claims to power and the lack thereof. As we wrote last month on the cusp of its release, Herring’s newest album, Golden Apples of the Sun, is a stunner, too, and I’m happy to report that it’s garnering the attention it deserves, climbing the Folk and Americana charts and finding placement on this year’s upcoming Oxford American Southern Music Sampler.

Last weekend I had a rare opportunity to sit down with Caroline before her opening set to a packed house at local folk-haunt the Iron Horse. Unsurprisingly, the Southern singer-songwriter was charming and articulate, both onstage and off; I appreciated the shout-out to Cover Lay Down during her set, and appreciate, as well, her willingness to share some thoughts on her own history and experience with coverage for the benefit of our readers.

Interestingly, as she noted at the outset of our interview, Caroline stayed away from covers for most of the last decade, having burned out on them early in her career in her work with Thacker Mountain Radio, a Southern music and literature radio show she helped found down in Oxford, Mississippi:

I used to do all covers, when I started playing with the Sincere Ramblers. We were the house band for a live audience radio show for two and a half years, and every week, we put out four new covertunes, and they were all of country blues, gospel, bluegrass, classic country…so we covered the canon. And so by the time I finished that, I was really tired of covers. I had learned a tremendous amount, but I just was so hungry to write my own songs and play my own songs and so I got in that habit.

But of course I know so many. And with this album, I first thought I would do an album of covers. And I was still not ready to do that. I don’t know why…I still have that Sincere Ramblers…that cover-mania was still with me…

The journey which brought her to include five songs originally penned and performed by others on her most recent release is deliberate and deep, as much a result of a pent-up sense of influence as it is a result of trying to craft a comprehensive vision in the studio. As Caroline describes it, under the guidance of producer and sideman David “Goody” Goodrich, she ended up with an album that seamlessly intertwines typically strong, poignant originals like The Dozens and Tales of the Islander with a series of songs reclaimed from her past and her culture.

In conversation, as in the music itself, it is obvious that the process by which Caroline has come to make songs her own, both lyrically and artistically, stems from to the way in which she connects her own artistic center with others – performers, producers, and songwriters alike. And listening to her music shows continued evolution of that process. Though the two covers on Lantana were recognizable from their first measures, here, Caroline doesn’t so much interpret songs as she does find her own voice in them, an approach which very often means a comprehensive reinvention of the familiar. Her LP selections – standards Long Black Veil and See See Rider, a resetting of the sixties folktune granted to Yeats poem Song of the Wandering Aengus, and startlingly transformative covers of both True Colors and Joni Mitchell’s Cactus Tree – are rewritten gems, with new tunes and tunings breathing new life and new intimacy into the texts. Here’s how that happens:

I had always loved the song of Wandering Aengus – Judy Collins’ version. I’ve listened to it for ten years, loved it. And I listened to her growing up. But I would play it, and sing it, and I thought “well, I wonder how other people do this.” And then lo and behold I listened to other people, and everybody has a different tune. And so I thought well, maybe I could do a different tune. And so I did. And then…that just spread.

And I’ve played Long Black Veil 500 times. You know, with a bluegrass band. And as a folk singer, perhaps it’s effective. But I loved playing with it. The song was definitely morose, but I played it very folkily. And in the studio, Goody – who was an integral part in the playing of this record – he played with it, and said “make it more urgent sounding”. And I got mad at him for saying it was urgent. And that was the take we took. And of course, he was right, and it was just wonderful, and I was just being diva-like…

As Caroline goes on to describe the way each covered song came to her, a two-part trend becomes clear: first, Caroline finds a song that she loves, and that speaks to her emotionally, and then, she rejects the melody and delivery of the versions she has heard from others in order to rebuild the songs as her own, whether in response to an inner desire or to the push of the producer and partner. In True Colors, which Goody brings to the table, she finds deep meaning in the sentiment of the song, but transforms the melody to make it a vehicle for her own sense of that sentiment. Similarly, Caroline describes feeling “standoffish from” blues, not feeling like she has a “right” to sing them, so although her version of See See Rider reflects both an appreciation of and a reverence for Ma Rainey and Big Bill Broonzy, she ends up remaking the song “in a way that [she] can sing it,” so that it has meaning for her.

In the end, it’s clear that, as Caroline herself notes, “I don’t seem to make an effective song if I’m not emotionally a part of it”. And this extraordinarily unusual, highly sensitive approach to coverage is consistent with her songwriting and performing process, too. Caroline’s originals show rare empathy, and the combination of intimately reforged familiarity and strong new songcraft is a great part of what makes Golden Apples of the Sun and its companion EP Silver Apples of the Moon – which also includes a few wonderful covers, most notably Kate Wolf’s Here in California, and a duet with Cary Hudson – such powerful works, universal and intimate all at once, worth buying from the source, and worth gifting as the holidays approach.

Here’s more from our evening with Caroline, in her own words and music: the full recorded interview, complete with chat about family and kidsong, and a few live tracks recorded by yours truly at the venue, on my trusty iPod voice recorder.

Bonus: Caroline’s new video for Tales of the Islander is now available at YouTube. Songs:illinois, who doesn’t usually post videos, says it “does justice to Caroline’s beautiful song as well as showing her beautifully serene and peaceful personality.” Having met her in person, I’d have to agree.

Caroline’s too-short set was followed by a rare treat: labelmate Chris Smither performing songs from his new album Time Stands Still with support from The Motivators (drummer Zak Trojano and guitarist David Goodrich, whose subtle strains also can be heard in the latter tracks from Caroline Herring above). Smither, who has recently moved into the area, only gets better with each passing year, his wry, gentle manner mellowing even deeper with age, and the band brought a fullness to his songs which was previously only available in studio recordings.

Unusually, Smither’s Saturday set was comprised of almost all new material, but he did offer this stunning cover of Dave Carter’s Crocodile Man. Though I’m still gathering in a few last tunes for an upcoming feature on Carter’s songbook, this bootleg track is just to good to hold back.

Finally, before you head off to buy your own copies of Golden Apples of the Sun, Silver Apples of the Moon, and Time Stands Still, a quick mention of three new and upcoming albums we missed in last week’s feature on recent Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations:

First, and most relevant to our recent foray into the world of folk tributes: a debt of thanks to delicate folkwatcher Slowcoustic and his own source the Common Folk Meadow blog for raising consciousness this week on The Wanderer, a new all-covers release from Berliner singer-songwriter Laurence Collyer performing as The Diamond Family Archive. The album, which features typically lo-fi bedroom covers of Sam Cooke, Eddie Cochrain, John Lee Hooker, and others, is comprised of quiet, often somber “acoustic landscapes”; in keeping with the organic sound and production value, the CD includes a handdrawn booklet, photographs, and “objects of affection”, and the whole thing comes across like a true collector’s item waiting to happen.

Slowcoustic has rehosted a wonderful free show from TDFA, just one of many available at label Woodland Archives, which includes the following live version of the title track from The Wanderer; the entire show includes some startlingly amazing covers, most notably absolutely mystical banjo-and-voice breakdowns of Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again and Islands in the Stream, and serves as a great introduction to the strong subtleties of Collyer’s work. Also included: two lovely late-night covers of Dire Straits classics, one from the covers album, the other from The Diamond Family Archive webpage. Gorgeous stuff, all ’round.

Second, this Harry Nilsson cover from Dawn Landes has been making the blogrounds, reminding both that a) we did a Nilsson feature way back when, and b) the pop-slash-indie-grown tribute album Songs from the Point!, while not folk, contains some delicate takes on Nilsson’s playful, poignant, well-crafted songs, the best of which come across as strong contenders for permanent earworms.

And finally, looking forward, the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street this week brought exciting news of an upcoming Muppets tribute album featuring the likes of Weezer, my Morning Jacket, and Andrew Bird. Like Songs From the Point, the upcoming tribute features several artists who claim folk music in their blood and musical origins; Andrew Bird, who will appear on each, recently released his torchy, francophilic take on Bein’ Green, and though it’s not clear if Joshua Radin’s version of the Sesame Street theme song, originally recorded for Scrubs, will make it to the 2010 album, it’s certainly in the same vein.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and songsets every Sunday and Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. We’re not known for brevity, but people seem to like what we’ve got to offer; if you do, too, please help support our mission by purchasing albums direct from the artists from the links above, and – if you’re up for it – perhaps consider donating a bit to help keep operating costs low.

983 comments » | (Re)Covered, Caroline Herring, Chris Smither, Dawn Landes

Schoolday Coverfolk, Take 2:
A revisited post in recognition of teachers and students

November 11th, 2009 — 02:03 pm

Yes, it’s Veterans Day, a “bank holiday”, as the brits like to say; like so many other bloggers, I should be posting songs on the topic. But a recent bout of the dreaded H1N1 flu has left me late for end-of-term grading, perhaps one of the biggest sins a teacher can commit. As such, instead of taking advantage of the fine fall day outside, I find myself hunkered down over the dining room table, slowly making my way through a huge pile of previously-unseen papers and midterm exams.

The post below was originally featured in May of 2008, in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, though I’ve modified it a bit to reflect a relatively recent move back to a high school environment. Folks interested in taking a moment to recognize the men and women who serve our countries in other, more dangerous ways are encouraged to head back in time for a still-live set of Soldier Songs, just as relevant on Veterans Day as it was on Memorial Day.

In my other life, I’m a teacher in an inner city high school; I spend most of my days surrounded by fourteen year olds, trying to balance entertainment with mentorship, and curriculum with life lessons. I spent three years in a suburban middle school to get there, alternating teacher instructional support with classroom teaching; before that, I taught in a boarding high school, tutored gifted and talented kids in a tiny rural elementary school, ran a before-school program, and did public demonstrations at a science museum.

And before that, I was a dropout. And before that, I was a goofball, who needed a little good advice now and then, but couldn’t really sit still long enough in the classroom to make any teacher want to defend me.

But Mrs. Carter liked me, though I don’t know why. The way she looked at me – like I had something worth watching for – made up for the fact that I was always the understudy when we were picked for the school play, always the alternate for work with the poet in residence. I learned to rise to the occasion, and to focus on doing things well, instead of doing things best; I gained confidence in my abilities. And though after that year, I turned back into the goofball for a good long time, I never forgot Mrs. Carter. And I never forgot that look.

It’s a well-kept secret in educational circles that it isn’t just the good kids, or the smart kids who get voted “most likely to be a teacher”, who come back to school to sit on the other side of the desk (or in my case, to stand atop the desk and gesticulate wildly to make a point). We come from all the cliques, from the woodshop wannabes to the cheerleading squad, from the lit mag proto-hipsters to the band geeks. But I can’t think of any teacher I have ever spoken with who is not honored and thrilled and genuinely surprised when that rare student comes out of the woodwork to say “you mattered, and now I matter.”

A few years back, at a five year reunion, this kid came up to me, and thanked me. He said I was the one who changed his life; that now he was doing what I had taught him to do, and hardly a week went by where he didn’t think about what I had taught him.

And I looked at him, and smiled, and was secretly joyous. But all I could think about was that this kid was the goofball. The one who was always pushing the envelope. The one who messed around in film class, though he always came through with something pretty cool when the work was due. The one who spliced thirty second of a shower scene from a Penthouse video into his remade music video for Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher. And showed it on the day the Academic Dean came to observe me in my first year of teaching.

And then I remembered Mrs. Carter. And I thought about calling her up, and thanking her. But Mrs. Carter isn’t around anymore.

If Jeffrey Foucault was a teacher, he'd look like thisThere are surprisingly few songs about the teaching profession which portray it in a positive light (though there are a couple of other memorable songs out there about teachers as sex objects, such as Police classic Don’t Stand So Close To Me and Rufus Wainwright’s The Art Teacher); of these, fewer still have been covered by folk artists. More common are songs about school as a part of adolescent or childhood experience — songs where the teachers are there, unmentioned, just hovering in the background. But as a teacher myself, I know that no classroom feels safe unless the teacher has set a tone that makes it safe. Even without mention, as long as curriculum and classroom exist, a teacher is always there.

Today, then, in celebration of teachers, we bring you a set of quirky covers of teachersongs, and some schoolsongs which touch lightly and broadly on our experience of the classroom, that childhood stew of fear and freedom where our personalities were transformed.

Together, the songs make a perfect soundtrack to a google search for that one special teacher who reached out and changed your life. Write the letter, send the email, make the call: let them know they made a difference today. You don’t even have to say thanks — just letting them know that you remember them, and that you turned out okay, is a rare and precious reward.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features every Sunday and Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: features on new and (re)covered artists, plus an interview with Cover Lay Down fave Caroline Herring, whose new cover-laden disk Golden Apples of the Sun continues to garner high praise.

1,015 comments » | reposts

Tributaries, Redux:
New Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations, Fall/Winter 2009

November 8th, 2009 — 10:36 am

Inevitably, a love of coverage leads to a constant, ever-vigilant search for thoughtful, well-crafted reinterpretation. I spend hours each week mining full albums for the hidden cover song, and scanning MySpace and email inbox for the promotional, the one-off acoustic in-studio radio track, and the otherwise unreleased singleton, and the endless discovery is eminently worth the pursuit.

But there’s no question that tribute albums are the cover lover’s bread and butter. I gather these things in like truffles, and hold a special place for them in my heart and in my archives; as regular readers have surely noted, more often than not, it is to tributes which I turn first when compiling single-songwriter coversets here on Cover Lay Down. And as I predicted way back in March, in our feature on the year’s first crop of tributes and cover compilations, it’s been an especially good year for such collections.

The trend towards full-album coverage seems to have its roots in an acceleration of culture which celebrates the now and the immediate, leaving room for well-grounded artists to correct those who would believe that everything is new by making explicit their connection to those who have formed and informed their sound and sensibility. Too, the slow and steady passing of a generation of songwriters creates an ongoing opportunity for celebration of such artists’ life and work. Couple this with the folk tendency to mine the past, resurrecting artists and influences on the verge of cultural extinction through reinterpretation, and the field becomes ripe for a cornucopia of tributes.

I should note, before we begin our review of this year’s folk Fall and Winter tribute releases, that I don’t generally go for end-of-year “best of” lists. Even if I did, with so many releases still impending, and so many just-discovered gems still soaking into my ears and brain, the first weekend in November seems far too early to declare a definitive top ten. But combine today’s post with our March feature, add other ’09 features on 70s singer-songwriter tribute Before the Goldrush, Wears The Trouser’s Odetta tribute, Susan Werner’s Classics, and the tradfolk covers of Splice Today’s The Old Lonesome Sound, and there’s certainly a hierarchical set lurking here, waiting to be compiled. (Also good, though not eligible for consideration: Dark Was the Night, which featured a full album’s worth of covers among its 32 tracks.)

If you’ve got a favorite among these, or know of one we’ve missed, please let me know in the comments, so we can ensure a definitive list in December, where such things properly belong. In the meantime, here’s the best and brightest of this season’s harvest.

Not sure how so many of us missed The Mississippi Sheiks tribute Things About Comin’ My Way, released last month on Canadian indie label Black Hen Music. But this diverse roots-oriented celebration of the influential 1930s African-American country blues group is chock full of greatness, and it deserves to be shared. A broad set of well-loved artists, from folkies Bruce Cockburn, Danny Barnes and Geoff Muldaur to Jazz and Blues musicians such as Kelly Joe Phelps, Bill Frisell, John Hammond and Madeleine Peyroux, turn in strong interpretations of songs so familiar to the average audiophile, it may be surprising to discover that many of these are not traditional blues tunes, after all.

Here, the swampy, bluesy title track, and a great take on The Sheiks’ Sittin’ On Top of the World from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, to get you in the mood to purchase the album.

In my mind, The Village: A Celebration of the Music of Greenwich Village, which dropped last week on 429 Records, is a companion piece to Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The 60′s, a sadly out-of-print tribute album released a decade ago. Both feature an equally solid set of song covers from the contemporary singer-songwriter end of the folk spectrum; both are generally excellent, with a few oddities and weak spots, but overall well worth picking up in toto. Each, too, features a mix of artists who were alive during the heyday of the Village scene, and a scattering of newer inheritors of the folksinger mantle; in the case of The Village, this means strong tracks from Rickie Lee Jones, Shelby Lynne, and Mary Chapin Carpenter alongside relative newcomers The Duhks, Rachel Yamagata and Amos Lee.

The more recent of the pair is a wee bit heavier on the Dylan, but that never hurt nothin’. Tim Buckley covers on both albums remain standouts, lending credence to those who continue to celebrate the legacy of a man taken from the world far too early. It’s hard to top Lucinda Williams‘ mournful take on Positively 4th Street. And the newly-released John Oates cover of He Was a Friend of Mine comes on the heels of a recent announcement of a possible upcoming album of traditional folksong from the surprisingly versatile popstar. Here’s the lead track from The Village, and a second favorite to boot.

There was widespread anticipation this summer of the September release of Crayon Angel: A Tribute To The Music of Judee Sill, which resurrected the seventies sounds and songs of the rediscovered cult favorite, but as with so many blog-touted albums, the buzz seems to have faded quickly. Shame, that: one you get past exquisite opening tracks from frequent tribute-album carriers Ron Sexsmith and Beth Orton, the collection turns predominantly nu-folk, featuring undersung artists such as Bill Callahan, Marissa Nadler, and Meg Baird at their best, ranging from the delicately lo-fi, atmospheric sounds of Frida Hyvönen to the relaxed, back-countrified harmonies of The Bye Bye Blackbirds. And it’s all good.

Loudon Wainwright III’s double-disc High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project was released back in August, but it took this week’s rave NPR review from grandaddy pop reviewer Robert Christgau for me to find it. Again, not sure why this one hasn’t been getting better press: Wainwright’s characteristically pinched tenor is a perfect vehicle for these old-time bluegrass standards, and his banjoplay, filled out by the usual talented family and friends, captures the essence of Poole’s hillbilly sound exquisitely.

Poole was no songwriter; these songs are mostly standards, though most have come down to us indelibly stained with the wry humor and poignancy which Poole brought to his pickin’ and singin’. And technically, the set isn’t fully a tribute; the CD includes nine originals, mostly about Poole himself, among its 29 tracks. But the focus on Poole’s repertoire and sound certainly brings the project into the fold. Below, a grand romp through The Deal, with Chris Thile on background vocals and mando, and a gorgeous old-timey duet between Loudon and his daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche on an old gospel song which Charlie Poole never recorded but reportedly made a staple of his life shows. Both speak well for the project, and the love which Wainwright, Sr. has brought to it.

Finally, if I have less to say about countryfolk songstress Roseanne Cash’s recent collection The List, which captures her renditions of just a handful of the hundred songs daddy Johnny Cash told her to learn, it is only because major media outlets from Stereogum to the New York Times have so thoroughly covered the album. But I concur with the bulk of them: this is a gem of an album, which lends beauty and longing to traditional and well-known country tunes well worth learning and hearing. A pair of early favorites, to cap off today’s omnibus.

Honorable mention this week goes to Splice Today, who earlier this year brought us that incredible indiefolk tribute to traditional folksong, for their most recent project, the original compilation Baltimore Does Baltimore. The fully free downloadable album runs a broad musical spectrum from punk to synth-pop, making it ineligible for consideration in our own year’s end “best of” list, but there’s some wonderful indiefolk tracks on there, including the below tracks and a lovely, lo-fi folkpop Wye Oak take on a tune from the Baltimore club scene, and the download-by-song format makes it easy to pick and choose.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features each Wednesday and Sunday, plus the occasional otherday. Stay tuned later this week for some live tracks and an interview from tonight’s Caroline Herring and Chris Smither concert in Northampton.

Meanwhile, for more musing on the role of the tribute album as a phenomenon of culture and coverage, and a bunch of still-live tracks, head back to our first Tributaries post from March of this year.

1,406 comments » | Tribute Albums

All Folked Up: The Punk Rock Collection, Vol. 1
(folk covers of seminal first and second wave punk music)

November 4th, 2009 — 01:15 pm

A wonderful cascade of covers from a friend has turned my thoughts to covers of punk music this week. As Katie noted in her send-along, much of which appear below, “the thread that runs from folk to punk seems such a vibrant and easily spotted one to pull at”, and that sounds just about right; I’d even go so far as to suggest that, like folk in the generation before it, Punk both served and sprung from the hearts of a discontented youth counterculture, and – as I noted about Rap rather tongue-in-cheek last year – it continues to do so for some significant subsection of that youth as our culture continues to fragment and weave.

Which is to say: like folk and Rap, Punk has its folkways, too. The phenomenon known as punk was originally a scene, not a genre; its early influences were broad, its geography widespread, and as such, the diversity of sound and lyricism in its early years was vast. Too, like folk itself, punk is a big umbrella, containing multitudes, and incorporating the sounds of its neighboring genres; by the eighties, just a decade after the sound first coalesced, the variety of sounds and subgenres which swarmed and swirled around the moniker ranged from the thrashing hardcore sound of Bad Brains and Fugazi to the dark, often-industrial sounds of post-punk and New Wave bands like Talking Heads, The Fall and The Cure. All of these survive in some way today, and each has their own merit, as sound and sensibility.

In part because of the sheer diversity of punk music in our culture, the wealth of folk and acoustic punk covers “out there” seems to transcend any attempts to winnow down the list. As such, today, we focus solely on songs and artists from punk’s formative years, mostly first-wave and early second-wave stuff, stopping at around 1984, just before the Pixies, Sublime, Green Day and Fugazi hit the scene; next week, perhaps, we will return for a look at the ways in which more modern punk songs have found their way into the canon of folk coverage, for there’s certainly richness there, as well.

But regardless of our narrow focus, the stripped-down approach to songs originally performed with the bombastic, in-your-face pomp of punk is both broad and delicious. Typically, the takes split down the middle, choosing to reinterpret the original lyrics and melody either fast and raw, or slow and sly and confessional, and today’s set offers excellent examples of both in spades. From the ache of Allo, Darlin’s uke cover of the Ramones, Calexico’s Guns of Brixton, or Chumbawamba’s Wire cover to the restrained melodic harmonies of the Indigo Girls’ Clash interpretation, the manic banjo pluck of the Bad Livers taking on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the popfolk of Lisa Loeb and Steve Reynold’s Damned cover, and the honky-tonk of Whiskeytown’s take on Black Flag, each holds its own as song and performance, worth sharing and celebrating.

There’s beauty in punk music, I think – a dark and angry beauty, but a beauty nonetheless. And this beauty makes its way into the delicate and deliberate, too. The anger here isn’t gone, it’s merely transformed: into something tender, or more distant, depending on the artist’s choice of interpretation. The vulnerability of folk performance doesn’t so much bring new meaning to the songs as it does reveal the innermost secrets of its music and its society. The political is made personal. And so it goes, in the constant dance that is culture.

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Covers of The Clash classic Straight to Hell from Amy Loftus and Will Kimbrough, The Kensington Hillbillies, Emm Gryner, and Josh Rouse.

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Single Song Sunday: Orphan Girl
(Gillian Welch covers from Emmylou to Alathea)

November 1st, 2009 — 08:36 am

It’s been almost two years since we first featured the songs of Gillian Welch here on Cover Lay Down, though we’ve certainly had reason to revisit her works now and again as the coverage continues. As we noted way back when, Welch’s talent is a revelation, both in performance and as a lyrical interpreter of the rural backporch mindset of the American South, and the dustbowl longing and religious overtones so often found in the works of this modern American Primitive are here in spades.

There are several well-known folkcovers of this tune, including Emmylou Harris‘ classic Wrecking Ball take and, more recently, Crooked Still‘s upbeat cello-driven folkgrass version, both of which we’ve posted previously. But Orphan Girl has been well covered in its time; as I suggested two winters ago, “the infinite possibility of nuance and power keeps this oft-covered, well-worn tune fresh, despite its weary lyric.”

Two new discoveries, vastly different but equally precious, lead the pack today: a slow, rich, stunningly complex, atmospherically orchestrated cover from indiefolk darlings Horse Feathers, just released on B-side and still available free as of press time over at Amie Street, and an anthemic radio-ready folkpop take from Alathea, sure to please fans of Dar Williams and The Greencards.

Elsewhere, bluegrass singer-songwriter siblings Tim and Mollie O’Brien bring a gentle, summery warmth to their interpretation. Dakota Blonde lend a fluid, mournful tone to bare-bones folk-americana production. And though I don’t usually go for Christian Contemporary, Irish whistler Bob Pegritz and friends feature a hauntingly pure, crisply performed Celtic version on their spiritual album Whistleworks II: Be Thou My Vision well worth the price.

Live covers worth sharing include a pair of raw, unmixed small-room covers from Gary Entsminger/Susan Elliott project Gooseberry Summer, both slow and fast, with lo-fi success in each. And Over The Rhine‘s live take, available on Live From Nowhere, Vol. 2, is typically uplifting, floating sweet vocals over barrelhouse piano chords, ringing guitar, and banjo plucks to make a wash of sound that embraces the longing inherent in the lyrics.

Taken together, the diverse set proves an exercise in song-stretching, a paean to the flexibility of folksong and the raw relevance of the songwriter, who will next appear as silent partner on the highly anticipated Dave Rawlings Machine release A Friend of a Friend, due November 17th. Enjoy.

As always, our Single Song Sunday posts places all purchase links in the paragraphs above; if you like what you hear, please consider lending your support to both Gillian Welch and those who cover her so well.

Buy the albums. Get the T-shirt. See the concert. Donate to bloggers who help spread the word. The richness of our music depends on your patronage.

1,444 comments » | Gillian Welch, Single Song Sunday