Archive for September 2010

How to be a Coverblogger, Part 2:
Writers Write, Bloggers Blog

September 29th, 2010 — 10:43 pm

Twice a week, instead of grading papers or putting my children to bed, I hunker down in front of the computer for a 3-4 hour writing session. Sometimes I start from notes, written on scraps of paper up against the steering wheel; other times, I start with the music, perusing artist catalogs, skimming songs collated by theme and subject over the years, willing inspiration to fall out of the sky. And once in a while, it’s just me in the dark, with a song to start with, trying to figure out what sort of framing device would justify posting the hook caught in my ears.

Of course, sometimes the urge strikes at the odd hour. Like life itself, my wordpress archives are littered with half-started drafts, a few sentences to hold an idea in place after it falls from the sky uninvited. But most of the time, I don’t know what I will write until the blank screen opens up before me. For, after all, I am one of those writers that writes first and foremost to find out what I think.

And you know what I think, at least so far. Because, after all, you’re here.

From the outside, this praxis must look like a lonely life – no different from the secret hobbyist who retires to his basement each evening to stuff delicate ships into narrowneck bottles. And certainly, at first, the impetus to write was not a social one, but a personal one: having just been stunned by Richard Shindell’s cover album South of Delia, the honed writer’s urge in me insisted that I write about it, the better to make sense of this all-covers folk album in the context of art and culture.

But if I’ve learned anything at all in my three years as a coverblogger, it’s that blogging is not as solitary an activity as it seems. Quite the contrary, in fact. Your daily comments, the occasional kudos and linkbacks from other bloggers and print sources, continued attention from the labels and musicians themselves, our inclusion on Hype Machine’s list of the 100 most popular music bloggers: these things make of this little project not a journal, but an epistle, a poster, a dialogue, a bi-weekly soapbox, with a crowd everpresent to shape expectations, call out suggestions, correct my misimpressions, and demand the best of me.

Which is to say: in all of this, I am sustained by the community. The artists who I’ve met on my travels who know the blog, and appreciate the approach. The fans who hug me in the audience between sets once the conversation turns to songsources, and who seek me out at my yearly folk festival jaunts. The label reps who write emails and send CDs and personal notes, making it clear that they know who I am, and really think I’ll like what they have to offer. You, the reader, who takes the time to comment, and critique, thus keeping us all honest, and helping make this place as much about you and your love of good music as it is about me and mine.

I’m also humbled by the willingness of otherwise strangers to give what they can do help keep the blog afloat financially. Yes, this blog runs on your donations – it has to, as I’ve no interest in compromising my focus on artists with advertising, and it currently costs just under $1000 a year to host the growing demand for dowloads. And in honor of our fourth year together, this weekend, I’ll be putting up a new year’s worth of bootleg coverage, recorded by yours truly in the 2010 Summer fields, ready to send out to those who give to the cause; this year’s package includes delicious, otherwise-unavailable coversongs from Dala, Chuck E. Costa, Red Molly, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave, Tim O’Brien, The Greencards, Sarah Jarosz, and more, and the quality is surprisingly good.

I’ve no intention to turn this year’s anniversary post into a full-blown pledge drive plea. But if you enjoy what we do here – if you, too, believe that our constant work to connect new fans and artists is worth sustenance – I hope you will consider giving a few bucks to help us continue that good work. As always, all who donate will receive our annual Summer Bootleg Mixtape, a grateful gift to you in thanks for your support. Donate now, and I’ll throw in BOTH this year’s and last year’s bootleg mixes – an offer good only until Sunday, when I’ll start sending them out, so act now if you’d like the set.

But whether you choose to lend your support through readership or participation or donations, the very fact that we are here together sustains me. It keeps me up late into the night, trying to make sense of the folkways inherent in coverage; it keeps me coming back week after week, even as life stacks up on the kitchen counter alongside me, demanding my attention.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am grateful, humbled even, by the way Cover Lay Down has turned from a solo project into a shared space, a node, a community for all of us. And though there are certainly times when blogging seems onerous, know that as long as this place lifts me up – and it does, oh it does – I’ll be here in the morning.

A soundtrack for our shared journey, then. Nothing so tight as all that, just a few favorite songs that speak, however obliquely, to how we write our life into being together, and to the commitments that we make to the world. Some songs, in other words, about you.

Cover Lay Down is honored to be your favorite coverblog. Y’all come back real soon now, y’hear?

1,198 comments » | cover lay down, metablog

How To Be A Coverblogger, Part 1:
Starting (and Maintaining) a Covers Collection

September 26th, 2010 — 10:01 am

People often ask me how I ended up in this little niche, at the intersection of folk and coversong. Usually, I just shrug, mutter something about liking covers and folk music, note my tendency towards being a somewhat obsessive collector and tracker of songsources in general, and move on.

But there’s more to it than that. And as we near our third anniversary, I thought folks might like a more substantive glance behind the scenes.

This week, then, we’ll offer some reflections on the process of coverblogging: a set of recommendations on how to keep up with the folkworld and the covers it contains today, followed by our traditional subjective look at the blogger’s life on Wednesday, our actual anniversary. If you find this sort of stuff boring, feel free to skim right to the songs.

Interested in the folkways, particularly in how songs move through culture via reclamation and repetition? Want to be a coverblogger, or just know enough to be one? There’s a whole host of evolved nuances involved in doing it well, of course, and I can’t claim to have the only method around. But it seems to me that there’s a finite number of basic practices that are vital to building and maintaining a strong covers collection. Here are three habits I, personally, find most useful as a blogger and audiophile.

1. Gather in good tributes and cover compilations

As I’ve noted often in our ongoing series on new tributes and cover compilations, the cover album is the coverlover’s bread and butter. Not all cover albums are created equal, of course – far too many are sheer tripe, better in concept than implementation; even the ones with promise often turn out to contain but a small handful of worthy tracks among the chaff. And those like myself who prefer to focus on a particular slice of the genre spectrum should be prepared to pick and choose tracks from multi-genre tributes, while skipping over those which truly don’t sound like what you listen to.

But because they offer such concentrated and dense coverage, finding and collecting strong, full albums of coversongs remain the easiest way to satiate the gatherer’s urge. The category includes both multi-artist tributes to single artists, albums, or eras, and single artist tributes to their influences (and, rarely, single artist tributes to single artists; see our early September feature on Mark Kozelek, who has recorded full albums of AC/DC and Modest Mouse songs, or our February feature on Tim O’Brien, which includes a pair of tracks from his mid-nineties Dylan tribute Red On Blonde, for recent examples of this concentrated approach). And taken as a whole, these albums form the foundation of any coverblogger’s collection, providing fodder for blogs such as our own.

We’ve featured many such albums in our ongoing journey here at Cover Lay Down. Their releases find space in our ongoing Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations series; their tracks quite often form the foundation of theme posts and Single Song Sundays. From top favorites A Nod To Bob and Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown, both of which can be found on the wonderful Red House Records label, to the myriad mixed-bag tributes which scatter my shelves, it is these albums which lie at the core of my catalog, the go-to discs which I turn to when I need a full hour of coversong on the road.

And the steady stream of concentrated coverage seems endless, especially in a world where recycling is fast becoming the norm. In our first few years, we were proud to feature new releases such as Cinnamon Girl, a wonderful all-female grunge-to-folk tribute to Neil Young, Splice magazine’s all-digital tradfolk tribute, and last year’s Teach For America tribute to the singer-songwriters of the 60′s and 70′s. We’ve seen excellent tributes to Judee Sill, Kath Bloom, Shel Silverstein, John Prine and more. And I’m really looking forward to the newest addition to the roster, a track-by-track tribute to Dylan’s seminal 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home due to drop on October 5th on Reimagine Music, with Denison Witmer, Ane Brun, William Fitzsimmons, Julie Doiron, and more of our absolute favorite artists from the delicate side of the indiefolk community.

We’ll continue to bring you such celebrated albums as they come, of course. Recently featured tribute albums Be Yourself: a Tribute to Graham Nash’s Songs for Beginners and Riding The Range: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt remain on my playlist, but those posts are also still “live”, so I won’t repeat them here. And the above-mentioned tributes, while all excellent, have graced our pages in feature form before.

But in the interest of transparency, and of staying true to our mandate to constantly share and promote the best of the world of coverage writ large, here’s a short set of songs from some more of my own personal favorites – at least, the ones which run folk or mostly-folk all the way through.

2. Keep up with the artists

As our mandate suggests, coverage can have a powerful impact on fan familiarity, offering an invitation to those who would otherwise never bother. And in my experience, musicians take advantage of this fact, with both new and established artists often sticking a cover or two – or more – on each album.

Which is to say: some folk artists, especially those who lean closer to traditional styles and influence, mix covers with originals fluidly throughout their career; others tend to hew closer to the latter side of the singer-songwriter label. But eventually, almost every musician records a cover or three – even if it’s under duress, as with some of the artists who we’ve hosted for our still-growing house concert series.

So just because an artist has never recovered a beloved or otherwise-obscure song, or simply hasn’t taken on one that made you hit repeat ad infinitum, doesn’t mean their next album or radio station appearance won’t contain your newest favorite cover. And just because that new debut is one of two dozen arriving simultaneously in the ol’ mailbox doesn’t mean there isn’t a delightful new take on someone else’s song hovering there in the middle of the tracklist, just waiting to tempt you into listening more closely to that artist’s original work.

And the only way to know that is to keep attending festivals and shows, visiting artist webpages and myspaces and YouTube channels and those blogs and websites which specialize in bringing in artists for intimate sessions, and buying and listening to new music from all your favorite musicians and labels, all the time.

My long-term commitment to bi-weekly coverage has shifted my awareness of new original works, I suppose. The urgency of promised output here on Cover Lay Down has had no small effect on what and how I listen to music, and on weeks when my time is especially dear, I often find myself sticking to covers exclusively, even as new works by some of my favorite artists come down the pike alongside the rest of the everflowing river of new sound that streams past my ears.

The big idea here, though, is that not all covers come on compilations. Some of my most favorite coversongs have emerged from the serendipitous moment, when a favorite song appears in the hands and voice of a favorite artist. More significantly, our claim of coversong’s comfort applies to my own habits as well: hearing a familiar song in the hands of someone new has quite often brought me to appreciate that new artist, and make me more willing to consider their own songwriting. And some of the covers we’re shared here over the years arrived in disguise, only proving themselves covers upon reading the label; as we’ve written about here on these pages over the years, uncovering these gems, and realizing that they were covers after all, was how I discovered Buddy and Julie Miller, in fact, and how I came to truly appreciate both Tom Waits and Richard Thompson.

One reason I still prefer CDs to downloads, in fact, is that unless the artist is heavily promoting their newest coverage, downloads often do not come with enough data to know if a given song is a cover at all. To stick to the obvious one-off and the tribute album, then, is to miss the obscure and the unknown, those dark and half-hidden spaces from whence the best of the world can emerge unannounced. Here’s a few favorite covers that first found me as deep cuts, so good that they either turned me on to other artists, kept me listening to their interpreters, or both.

3. Follow the coverblogs

Like all bloggers, I suppose, cover bloggers come and go. When we joined the cacaphony of voices three years ago, the most popular coverblog on the web was Eliza’s Copy, Right?; within months, she decided to close up shop for good. Kurtis has scaled back his Disney cover blog Covering the Mouse, moving from a daily posting model to something more sporadic after a reasonably long period of radio silence. And just this month, Jamie Fong of Fong Songs put his blog on “indefinite hiatus”, going out with a bang by counting down his top 101 cover songs of all time.

But other coverblogs are thriving in the modern environment. Cover Me, for example, which started our around the same time we did, is growing fast and furious, thanks to both a new commitment to much more frequent posting and a new partnership with MTV. Podcaster Brian of Coverville has even gone pro, with advertising and sponsorships supporting a growing spectrum of programming each week. Constant companion Cover Freak remains a steady player, bringing diverse sets to the world each Sunday. And, as our sidebar notes, a number of new coverblogs have arisen in the past few years, and some are quite good indeed.

And Cover Lay Down? To say I’ll be here forever would be hubris, and surely lead to folly. One day, like all things, this, too, shall pass into memory, hopefully on our own terms, with our head held high.

But never fear; I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet. Three years in, I’m happy to report that the horizon remains clear and crowded with coverage: there’s still tunes to be shared, artists to celebrate, features to be written, folkway paths to be considered. We’re here, and we’re glad you’ve chosen to join us on our little journey. Happy Birthday to us, indeed.

Here’s Jamie Fong‘s favorite cover; a Disney song interpretation I picked up from new coverblog Torre De Canciones and passed along over at Kurtis’ place; and an exclusive recently found on Cover Me, well worth passing along. To celebrate ourselves, and to keep the torch burning.

Cover Lay Down turns three years old on Wednesday. Come back then for How To Be A Folk Coverblogger, Part 2, wherein we address the blogging life, and run through our annual review of the writing process.

1,310 comments » | cover lay down, covers, metablog

Canadian Girl Groups:
The Be Good Tanyas, The Wailin’ Jennys, and The Good Lovelies

September 22nd, 2010 — 10:20 pm

I have a thing for sweet harmony of any type, but not all harmonies are created equal – or should be. And though there are many factors which can affect how voices blend – from range to accent, from tone to purity of voice – gender pairing has much to do with the fundamental possibilities which can emerge from singing together.

More often than not, strong male/female duos and mixed-gender groups produce a study in contrast, leaning heavily on the contrast between their vocal range and tone – see the newest work from Isobel Campbel and Mark Lanegan, or go way back to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, to hear what I mean, or look at the delicate intertwined harmonies of Gillian Welch and high tenor David Rawlings as a counterexample. Similarly, it takes few examples to explore male groupings: unless we’re talking about sibling and siblingesque groups like The Everly Brothers or The Beach Boys, from CSNY and The Eagles to Simon and Garfunkel and The Brilliant Inventions, the goal here is to meld disparity into beauty, and when it works, it really works.

Female singers, on the other hand, generally produce a tighter sort of sound. The American trio Red Molly, for example, who we’ve featured often on these pages, come across with beautiful chords; meanwhile, duos such as the Watson Twins or First Aid Kit soar together up and down their respective approaches to melodic folkpop.

But despite its relatively sparse population, I find that a number of my favorite all-girl folk groups come from Canada, a.k.a. America’s Hat. Maybe there’s something in the water; maybe there’s something about those long winter nights far from the equator that brings the ladies together for practice to make perfect. Regardless: we’ve featured duo Dala plenty in the past few months, thanks to their appearance at this summer’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, but here’s a triplet of strong tripartite partnerships from North of the border which have been tickling my fancy lately.

I discovered Juno-award winning trio The Good Lovelies quite recently, through their appearance on fellow Canadian girlgroup Dala’s live 2010 tour-de-force Girls From The North Country; seeking them out via the usual channels revealed a charming but small collection of CDs chock full of delight, and I’d recommend any and all to anyone. Their acoustic-driven songs have a retro girl group flavor in places, tending towards the smiling sweetness of the Andrews Sisters, while other tracks echo the forthright heart and heartiness of the Dixie Chicks at their best, but even beyond their penchant for bells and guitar-based instrumentation, there’s something eminently down-to-earth and delicate about them that rings folk to me.

The Be Good Tanyas have been on my radar since their inception, thanks to local radio station WRSI, which played their debut Blue Horse to death when it first hit the scene in 2000. Two albums later, with nothing new on the shelves since 2006, member Franzey Ford has just emerged with a strong debut solo disc, while long-gone founding trio member Jolie Holland continues to tour to support her own haunting catalog … but hiatus or not, the three sparse, old-timey, blues-and-americana-tinged albums the Vancouver trio produced so far remain high on my eternal playlist, and for good reason.

Longstanding folk mainstays The Wailin’ Jennys hail from “Canada’s heartland”, and it shows: theirs are campfire harmonies, rich and fluid, sweet but with a hint of breath and smoke that are well worth celebrating. Their newest release, 2009′s Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, is a stunning collection, with strong covers and originals from a trio already long overdue for prominent placement in the pantheon of great modern folk acts after just a handful of albums. I’ve posted their gentle, gorgeous cover of Neil Young’s Barefoot Floors several times, most recently atop our recent Covered In Kidfolk feature on lullabies, but any chance to prove that they’re not just a one-trick pony is welcome, indeed.

1,445 comments » | Be Good Tanyas, Good Lovelies, Wailin' Jennys

Coversongs Called Blues: A SMM leftovers post
featuring upbeat covers from the folkworld and beyond!

September 19th, 2010 — 10:27 am

Last week’s songs with titles ending in Blues theme over at collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine may have ended – this week we’ll be posting songs that name a type of bird in their title – but my cup runneth over with coversongs that fit the Blank and Blues theme, including a good handful of folk blues numbers ripe for the picking. No true blues on my end today, of course, but many of these leftovers are quite upbeat when it comes down it – and regardless, it’s good to keep the laments in the air, just so you know where to find ‘em when you need ‘em.

That said, it’s hard to remember when I last had to sing the blues myself. Life is good enough to knock on wood. We’ve finally cleaned our house from top to bottom, making chaos into order to our great satisfaction. The kids, wife and I are spending more time together than ever, thanks to our roles in our local community theater production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And I’m proud to announce that after two years of unemployment, my wife has found a long-term substitute teacher spot just down the hallway from our own children’s classroom.

At work, for the first time in ages, I have my own classroom to teach in; with the ability to be there between blocks, setting up and checking in, I find myself both less stressed out, and more able to focus much better on individual students’ needs, and it makes a difference for all of us. And our house concert last night with Chuck E. Costa was nothing short of amazing, with a Chris Smither cover that came out great on video.

But the base sentiments of the blues are universal. That lingering sense of doom just around the corner never truly goes away, even in the best of times, and that’s not so terrible, really, as the everpresent anticipation for the other shoe to drop keeps us on our toes. Hearing others sing the blues helps us appreciate what we’ve got, too – that’s one reason people love ‘em. And they’re relevant in the spiritual sense, as this year’s Day of Atonement comes to a close, and I find myself still dwelling on the year’s sins.

Short and sweetly, then, from bluegrass to folk rock and back again, here’s a baker’s dozen of my favorite folk artists covering the blues in uptempo, feel-good mode.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets twice weekly or more without fail. Coming soon: Cover Lay Down turns three, and we raise the bar for donations to the cause…

1,036 comments » | Bluesfolk, Topical Coverfolk

All Folked Up: Modest Mouse
(covers from Ben Lee, Joshua James, Josh Ritter, Sun Kil Moon & more!)

September 14th, 2010 — 08:56 pm

Choice of coverage says so much about a folksinger’s generational outlook. Okay, every once in a while, someone like Peter Gabriel comes along with a Bon Iver cover, or Richard Shindell takes on Josh Ritter, and the world turns topsy turvy for a week or two. And though she’s not really my cup of tea, Joan Baez has made a point in her middle age of promoting and celebrating the works of others younger than herself, from Ritter to Dave Carter.

But generally, such things are the exception, not the rule. Case in point: though I had to head to the archives just to see if I had heard any of their work, a holy host of younger, cooler artists than I have paid tribute to under-40 indie rockers Modest Mouse in the past six years or so, making it clear that – just as Big Star covers were a nod and a wink to a slightly older set once upon a time – covering the seminal Portland-based alt-band these days serves as an encoded message to a particular set of Generation Y hipsters that yes, we know what you’ve been through, and we’re right there with you, bro.

Of course, their spacey post-progrock songs strip down marvelously; we’d be hard pressed to justify their celebration if they didn’t. Recent feature artist Mark Kozolek, performing as Sun Kil Moon, proves this thesis nicely with Tiny Cities, his 2005 whole-album tribute to the band’s songbook. And Modest Mouse greatest hit Float On, especially, has found a fine resonance in the hands of several artists, including Australian popfolker Ben Lee, a bevy of sweet-voiced YouTube amateurs, and, most recently, raw acoustic folkrockers Heathers, who are offering their own take as a freebie in exchange for an email.

But the band in question remains more than a one-hit wonder, and for good reason: from popfolk to bluegrass to indie, these songs carry the often-dark weight of their particular time and place, making them well worth the coverage. Check ‘em out to see what I mean.

*NOT a cover, but a song with the same name well worth listening to…*

In totally unrelated news, we’re ecstatic to announce that our little house concert series A Tree Falls Productions will be hosting acoustic singer-songwriter Chuck E. Costa over at a friend’s stately manor this weekend as a kick-off for the 2010-2011 season. If you’re within driving distance (Hartford CT; Northampton, Worcester, and Springfield MA), and are up for a Saturday evening of gorgeous songs and stunning songwriting in an intimate setting, let me know asap, okay?

Either way, of course, Chuck’s brand new album Waterproof Matches – his first as one third of newly formed group Mon Monarch – is absolutely incredible, with catchy hooks, soaring vocals, sparse production, and tender lyrics. Though it sports nary a cover, you can and should stream the whole thing at bandcamp here, and then pick it up for the proverbial buck. Trust me.

1,807 comments » | all folked up, Modest Mouse

Single Song Sunday: Everybody’s Talkin’
(secondhand coverage from the folkworld & beyond)

September 12th, 2010 — 06:45 am

Though recorded by a man who spent his early years as a Brill Building songwriter, Everybody’s Talkin’ was a folk song first and foremost. Apocryphally, it was a throw-away track, laid down in a single take by an anxious artist eager to get out of the studio and back to his Miami home, but there’s a seasoned depth in the lyric, a universal sentiment of alienation, escapism and desire for the hermitage which rings true in everyman. Fred Neil‘s original may touch upon cowboy country and pop, but that only helps it wring wistful into raw, his deep, clear voice like the ocean he yearns for.

It’s fitting, in the end, that the song’s success allowed Neil to retire from the musician’s life, to live out the last thirty years of his life as a dolphin activist in his beloved Florida. It may not have been his swan song, but taken as a confessional narrative, the song speaks volumes about the distance between Neil’s heart and his career in the mid sixties, when he recorded it.

Many modern listeners have never heard Fred Neil’s original, of course. In fact, Harry Nilsson’s chart-topping cover, recorded just four years afterwards, is so undeniably definitive, thanks to prominent placement in the 1969 critic’s darling Midnight Cowboy, that even artists who cover the song often attribute it to Nilsson himself.

As such, it is unsurprising to find that the vast majority of the covers out there – there’s nearly 100 of them, from techno to pop vocalist – lean heavily on the driving beat and note pattern Nilsson brought to his Grammy-winning take. Though they come from opposite ends of the indie spectrum, for example, Luna and Jesse Malin alike take on Nilsson’s brushstrokes, his eminently distinct up-and-down-the-chord melodic undercurrent, and his vocal flourishes. Crowded House go full-on unplugged, but they, too, undeniably have the later version in their tongues and hands.

Sandro Perri brings us a nufolk atmosphere so much his own, it’s hard to claim influence of any sort, but the samba drumbeat buried beneath seems to have Nilsson’s pattern, as does the soaring vocals; same goes for the bluesy, broken-up take Paul Curreri goes for, which uses Nilsson’s melodic structure as a platform for deconstruction. Megan Washington goes back and forth, with piano and guitar each taking on a distinct version before the song dissolves into free jazz. Singer-songwriters, jazz vocalists, new age bands, and folk-slash-americana performers from Patty Larkin to Madeleine Peyroux to The Jazz Butcher may filter their songs through their own inimitable styles, but put ‘em next to the original, and there’s no question of influence.

You’d think those few who trace their versions back to Neil himself would aim for the profound isolation which defines the lyric, but even here, popular coverage taints the take. Stephen Stills‘ live version is gentle and light, and though it’s tempting to attribute that emotive choice to Stills himself, that lightness echoes Nilsson, not Neil. The bluegrass team of Alison Brown and Tim O’Brien start slow, but pick up Nilsson’s beat and tempo by the chorus. Corinne West‘s soft ballad comes closest to Neil’s swaying rhythm, but the soaring, bittersweet beauty isn’t his. Only Susan Werner truly trades the tick-tock urgency and driving melody of Nilsson’s for the original despair, losing the noteplay, slowing down the tune, layering it in crashing waves of sound until it recaptures the darkness.

Like what you hear? Found a favorite? Click on artist names above to pursue and purchase, and don’t forget to come back for more: Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,376 comments » | Fred Neil, Single Song Sunday

Single Song Saturday: A 9/11 Memorial

September 11th, 2010 — 01:18 pm

We’ve got a full post coming tomorrow, as usual. But I couldn’t let today go by without saying something about the way that music crawls into our psyche and stays there, especially in times of crisis and loss, when we most need it.

Only it turns out I’ve said it before. May this song, and the words which accompany it, serve you as they have served me on this day of remembrance.

This Simon and Garfunkel cover, recorded at a Philadelphia concert in August of 2001 just a month before the world changed irrevocably in the wake of 9/11, has long been one of my favorite coversongs, hands down. Some of that is the performance – it’s hard not to hear the hope and despair, the loneliness and love in this song come together perfectly in Shawn Colvin‘s sweet, soaring vocals. But some of it is the context, the pure coincidental combination of time and space, my favorite folksinger in the prime of her pre-pop career, the innocence we all felt just before the skies came crumbling down: the plane in the first line, the lonely city of the lyrics, the sentiment of saying that we’re all gone half of the time, and we don’t know where, but here I am, alive and grounded…

For me, it’s personal. I had a friend of sorts on the second plane to hit the World Trade Centers on 9/11 – a fact I only discovered after I had spent the morning watching his soaring coffin smash into an office building over and over and over again on TV, without knowing it was him in that metal and glass. Like so many coworkers, he was one of those friends that was always on the verge of becoming closer, except life kept getting in the way – in fact, we were due to head out for a drink the week afterwards, our first true outing outside of work, but to be honest, we had cancelled a couple of dates in the months before, and there’s good chance we might not have made it then, either.

Music hits us funny, sometimes; I have no idea how all this stuff got tangled up in this song, this performance, this moment for me in the first place. But I can say that listening to this song – any version or performance, really, but this one especially – hurts, now. And I’m sorry, in a way, though we need sad songs as much as we need happy ones, perhaps more.

But it will always and forever be my best way of remembering my almost-friend, of thinking about the worlds that could have been. I will forever hear it in my head when I see the towers fall, in photos and on video. And since the world will never forget, I will never forget my friend, either, I guess.

And for that, I offer it back to the world. With thanks for the time we have, though it is never as much as we hope it will be.

We miss you, Chris.

This post exists because of the Shawn Colvin cover above – if you haven’t downloaded it yet, now’s the time. But this Everything But The Girl version isn’t bad, either, especially when you factor in the video images and that etherial choir…

1,005 comments » | Shawn Colvin, Simon and Garfunkel, Single Shot Coverfolk

Indie Friday: Great Lakes cover John Prine

September 10th, 2010 — 12:51 pm

We don’t usually drift too far into the indiepop music scene, mostly because so much of it is, at its core, less folk than otherwise. But with the recent departure of original lyricist Dan Donahue, Ways of Escape, the impending new release from NY-by-way-of-Athens band Great Lakes, represents a significant shift in their core sound – something not quite unlike what would happen if Belle and Sebastian had spent too much time listening to a bunch of old Graham Nash records, and then decided to go all-out alt-country without losing their core indiepop sound – and I think there’s something here that folk fans will truly love.

As the sole remaining founder of the band, Ben Crum has organized a well-seasoned crowd of indie players – including sidemen and -women from Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Beirut, and Ryan Adams – to great effect, creating in the process a delightful album that comes across as a diverse yet perfectly balanced slice of post-Americana, with tracks that range from the dark, freewheeling, almost psychedelic grunge rock of Summer of Woe and Ghost Brother to the country-tinged indiepop of Half Your Life Gone to the delicate balladry of Summer Fruit. Most songs sport the full-band instrumentation you’d expect of such a collaborative effort, and it’s a wonderful sound, rich and catchy as hell. But acoustic tracks like Summer Fruit and the album’s sole cover, a take on John Prine’s Sour Grapes, are also worth savoring: sparse and quietly stunning, with sweet vocal harmonies from Suzanne Nienaber delicately balanced against Crum’s mournful, slightly ragged vocals.

Ways of Escape drops October 12, which is plenty of time for the usual indie bloggers to keep the buzz going – and this album certainly deserves all the buzz it can get. So here’s that John Prine cover to whet your whistle while you wait for the full release.

Great Lakes: Sour Grapes (orig. John Prine)

1,200 comments » | Great Lakes, Single Shot Coverfolk

Mark Kozelek Covers:
John Denver, KISS, AC/DC, Leonard Bernstein and more!

September 7th, 2010 — 08:32 pm

Mark Kozelek never set out to be a folksinger. He was a moody alt-rocker in his early twenties, founding the band Red House Painters in 1989 in San Francisco as a vehicle for his intensely confessional songwriting. The group lasted several years, gaining some modicum of popularity in the mid nineties thanks to a prolific output on indie label 4AD, and for a while there, it looked like the singer-songwriter would spend his career fleshing out his lyrics and simple melodic tendencies within the full, slightly grungy production dynamic of the time, revealing a penchant for seventies classic rock b-sides with an occasional fuzzpop cover song from the likes of Simon And Garfunkel, Paul McCartney, or Yes.

But Kozelek’s indie label support turned out to be fickle, subject to the pitfalls of the market. And when a major label merger in ’98 left Red House Painter’s new album in limbo, Kozelek turned to solo work, stripping down his sound for a series of intimate recordings that revealed a true folk artist’s soul. Since then, Kozelek has released albums and EPs under both his own name and the name Sun Kil Moon, a band he claims he sees as a continuation of the Red House Painters legacy. But in both cases, the folksinger soul shines through, with recordings built around Kozelek’s ringing nylon string guitar and plaintive, distinctively nasal, roughly-pitched vocals.

Throughout this tumultuous path, Kozelek has celebrated the songs of others alongside his own, choosing to transform rather than merely recast – indeed, many of his covers, such as his take on the West Side Story track Somewhere, have had their melodies dismantled, and bear little resemblance to the original. Though many early band-driven covers are too grungy and raw for a folkblog, his tendency towards slow and melancholy balladry as a solo artist wrings sorrow out of the air, turning sunnier, poppier originals from AC/DC to John Denver to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas into songs steeped in loneliness and regret. Echoey and chilled, the results are melancholy and tender all at once. And with two full-bore tribute albums under his belt – 2001′s AC/CD tribute What’s Next To The Moon and 2005 Modest Mouse tribute Tiny Cities – there’s plenty for coverlovers to dwell upon.

Kozelek’s newest release Admiral Fell Promises, which came out this July, is nominally a Sun Kil Moon project, but there’s nothing here but Kozelek’s broken vocals and eerie guitarplay – and that’s a good thing indeed. The album is coverless, but like many of his previous releases, it came with an EP featuring cover songs: in this case, a Michael Jackson post-mortem, a sweet Stereolab rewrite, and the lovely, delicate Casiotone for the Painfully Alone cover presented below. Both album and EP, plus much of Kozelek’s back catalog in all three incarnations, can be purchased from his label Caldo Verde Records.

Want more? There’s only one Mark Kozelek cover in my archives, but it’s a stunner – and Cover Lay Down is proud to be the only place on the web where you can still get it, thanks to an ongoing commitment to Philly singer-songwriter Denison Witmer to host his 5-song Denison Witmer Covers Project in perpetua.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and whatnot twice weekly, sometimes more.

2,008 comments » | Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon

(Re)Covered, Vol. XVIII: More covers of and from
Kate Wolf, Simon & Garfunkel, U2, Slowcoustic, Lucinda Williams and more!

September 5th, 2010 — 09:15 am

The last few weeks have been busy on my end, prompting us to stick to thematic posts and reposts. But the floodgates never close on the inbox passalongs and blogsources – and with almost three years of posts under our lifebelts, the rising tide of flotsam and jetsam falls easily into line with the water table.

Looks like it’s high time for another edition of our popular (Re)Covered series, featuring new and newly-discovered songs that bobbed to the surface just a little too late to make it into the original posts where they rightfully belonged.

According to her bio, late bloomer Sherry Austin came to songcraft after a full and fulfilling stint as a single mother left her with an empty nest and a heart full of love and music to share. And if her newest album Love Still Remains is any indication, we’re lucky to have her. The 14 track Kate Wolf tribute – 11 covers, two new settings of Kate’s unrecorded lyrics, and a gorgeous original that aptly echoes Kate’s soaring style – offers a consistent set of songs eminently worthy of its iconic muse, with rich contemporary production settings that only lift her sweet voice and gentle Americana approach that much higher.

Love Still Remains arrived this week too late to make it into our California Coverfolk feature on Kate Wolf, but serendipity smiles on those who shine, and truly, this well-imagined tribute deserves its own moment in the sun. Check it out, head over to Sherry’s website for her first two albums, and then follow up later for news of a release date.

Film producer Barry Mendel may not be a household name, but cover lovers owe him a great debt for his work with Seu Jorge during the filming of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, when he helped the Brazilian actor and singer-songwriter learn and arrange the David Bowie covers that provided much of the movie’s on-screen soundtrack. Writes Barry,

    “as we were learning the songs and jorge would need time to roll cigarettes and what not, i’d pick up the guitar and play and he’d sing along, and when we were finishing the recording of all the bowie covers in the studio, his kind wife mariana insisted we record one of the songs she would hear me play with jorge singing along…so here is the boxer from 2004 w/ me playing and singing and jorge singing back-up and doing some whistling, to boot… “

The Simon and Garfunkel cover (yeah, we’ve covered ‘em) which came appended to Barry’s email is quite good for an amateur, actually. Barry said it’s never been heard outside of his presence until today, and added that he’d be honored if we’d be up to sharing it, but truly, it’s an honor to release it to the world.

I don’t usually go back to guest posts, but when Sandy of Slowcoustic – who sat in for us while I was off in the folk festival fields this summer – sent along this triplet of private-label tracks from countryfolk cowboy troubadour Bobby “Caleb” Coy, whose new disc Wild Desert Rose is due to drop Tuesday on the Yer Bird label, they definitely caught my ear. As Sandy notes, the covers are pretty lo-fi, but the songcraft and performance hiding under the mic distance and murmur is an apt reflection of the sparse presentation and raw potency of Caleb’s studio work, whetting the whistle for a full album of unmixed demos rife with strong, mournful dustbowl ballads and the simple, subtle power of the sepia-toned soul stripped bare.

We covered U2 for St. Patrick’s Day back in 2009; we’ve done the Bluegrass thing several times, most notably in and around my two favorite New England festivals Grey Fox and the Joe Val Fest. But we really don’t do country here at all, so putting the three together may not be the obvious choice. Still, if anyone can do it, it would just have to be with the help of cross-genre-covering bluegrass icons Del McCoury and Chris Thile, wouldn’t it?

To be fair, even on the tracks that don’t feature those particular bluegrass stars, Dierks Bentley‘s newest album Up On The Ridge sounds pretty damn good to me, country label or no. And Dierks is known for genre-crossing, touring with jam bands and recording with rock stars long before this most recent tribute to the roots and bluegrass influences which brought him to country in the first place. Songs by Dylan and Buddy and Julie Miller? Guest spots from Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, and Chris Stapleton of the Steeldrivers? Is it time to give the genre another look, or is this just another good country singer gone ‘grass? You be the judge.

Finally, as mentioned a few years ago on these pages in a feature on live in-studio coversources such as Daytrotter, KCRW, Hinah and World Cafe, I follow hundreds of blogs and webzines, most especially those radio stations and production spaces which post intimate regular sessions online. But I had totally missed American Songwriter’s ongoing in-studio series until just last week, when a random check-in on a few favorite sons and daughters led me to a whole heap of well-curated, stripped down EP-length sets from all over the singer-songwriter map. Score one more for the little guys.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and LP-length songsets every Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional otherday. We’re all about the artists, so if you like what you hear, please support the arts by clicking on the links provided to purchase and pursue your favorites.

Coming soon: a sweet set of folksongs pay tribute to yet another seminal indie band, a late summer EP has us looking back on two decades of coverage from an indie alt-rocker turned solo singer-songwriter with a penchant for classic rock, and Cover Lay Down turns three. And don’t forget to check out yesterday’s Townes, (Re)Covered feature!

1,359 comments » | (Re)Covered

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