Archive for September 2012

New Artists, Old Songs, Vol. XXV: from Katy Perry to tradfolk
with Jan Bell, Rebecca Jordan, Brianna Lea Pruett, Ben Howard, Gibson Bull, and Cahalen & Eli

September 30th, 2012 — 10:23 pm

It’s been a while since we dug into the newest crop of up-and-comers here on these virtual pages. But we’ve been digging them, all right, and it’s high time to tip the cream into your ready ears. So read on for some incredible new covers of Springsteen, Norman Blake, Carly Rae Jepson, Katy Perry, Darrell Scott, Elizabeth Cotten, Townes Van Zandt, John Martyn, Fleetwood Mac, and a great set of re-imagined songs from the deep, dark recesses of the American folk tradition.

The guest stars on Jan Bell‘s newest album Dream of the Miner’s Child belie the Brooklyn-based musician’s broad stylistic approach to altfolk and Americana: the list includes two founding members of The Be Good Tanyas (Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton), Phillipa Thompson of the M Shanghai Stringband, and members of her own alt-country band The Maybelles. But the inclusion of both legendary Smithsonian Folkways recording artist Alice Gerrard, and fellow Englishwoman Juliet Russell, who joins in on an old Celtic ballad, are telling, too: Bell is a native Yorkshire lass, a coal-miner’s granddaughter from a region grounded in the same mining trials and tribulations that she covers here, and though she is still young, opening act gigs for Emmylou Harris, Wanda Jackson, Odetta, Steve Earle and The Be Good Tanyas themselves speak eminently to her acceptance as a harbinger and interpreter of the old ways in the new.

Bell’s voice and arrangements here are notable for their ragged tenderness, with weary voices, soft guitar, and fiddle strains that clamber out of the darkness to scratch and paw at the soul. The songs span generations, following the movement of songbook fragments and tunes from the UK to Appalachia, making the title track – a Welch song which found its way into the hands of Ralph Stanely and Doc Watson via the blind Alabama Evangelist Rev. Andrew Jenkins, who re-arranged it in 1925 – the perfect centerpiece; from there, the strains of Jean Ritchie, Watson, and others mix well with the originals and traditional tunes, creating a seamless album of true beauty. To argue over whether this sort of music is country or folk is to miss the point: these haunting acoustic arrangements may be new, but they call to a time before the distinction made sense, when all the world was folkways, and they evoke the best of that history.

Technically, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West aren’t new to these pages: I posted a traditional tune from the neo-tradgrass duo’s debut album in our recent pre-fest feature on FreshGrass. But as was eminently evident from their strong, confident live performance on that North Adams stage, this pair is going places fast, thanks to pickin’ & strummin’ prowess on the usual set of bluegrass duo instruments from mando and guitar to banjo and bouzouki, and sweet duo harmonies that ring sweet as the Louvin Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, and other country pairs of yesteryear, with Eli’s warm baritone a perfect counterpoint to Cahalen’s knife-edged tenor.

All of which made me pleased as punch to have recieved a preview copy of their new album Our Lady Of The Tall Trees in the mail just this week, because it allows me to share their excellent cover of Norman Blake’s Church Street Blues, penned and originally performed by Norman Blake but made famous by Tony Rice on his intimate folk-oriented 1983 album of the same name, and played live in tribute last weekend to the latter, who was under doctor’s orders to stay home. But this is an album to purchase, truly: the title track alone is worth every penny, and their take on traditional tune The Poor Cowboy is twangy and sorrowful, as mellow and mournful as any cowboy troubadour’s folk ballad.

Bonus track:

  • Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Hop High (trad.)

The powerful voice of singer-songwriter and multi-media artist Brianna Lea Pruett rings of Regina Spektor, Bessie Smith, Kate Wolf, and Carole King all at once, with nuanced strains of folk, jazz, and blues in the mix, and the unsettling arrangements on her newest full-length The Stars, The Moon, The Owl, The Cougar, and You echo this approach, combining electric and acoustic atmospheres of piano and guitars, bells and beats to create a hybrid album that runs from anti-folk to grunge to delicate blues and jazzpop, making it impossible to categorize.

But there’s a folkwoman’s depth to Pruett even beyond all this, one that goes beyond mere instrumentation: a native Californian of both Appalachian and Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, the spiritual wanderer – who has already translated Amazing Grace into Tsalagi at the request of the Arkansas Cherokee Nation, and is currently working on a biography of Elizabeth Cotten with Cotten’s granddaughter – has dipped herself in the scenes and sentiment of Portland, UK, Northern California, and New York since first hitting the scene in 2005, performing live and generally in solo singer-songwriter guise alongside Mark Kozelek, Nick Jaina, and other kindred spirits along the way, where she has become known for her stunningly sparse versions of traditional folk songs such as this take on In The Pines, and for truly timeless-sounding folk originals that ring of the same stark sentiment.

Bonus tracks:

Rebecca Jordan writes that she “really enjoys” Cover Lay Down, saying that she is “a huge fan of cover songs and glad [we] created a platform for exposure”, and I’m honored. But if I’m glad to have heard from her, it’s because once I had a chance to steep in her songs, the feeling was mutual: Jordan’s voice is powerful and sweet, her arrangements are strong and potent, and her control is mature as all hell, making her an ideal candidate for our celebration.

And we’re not alone in saying so, either – Jordan was a finalist in the 2010 Mountain Stage NewSong contest, and has written songs for Kelly Clarkson and John Legend; her piano-and-cello-driven cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, from 2008 EP The Trouble With Fiction, is quite beautiful, and the buzz for her upcoming and highly anticipated Asphalt Heart EP has already reached a fever pitch, with a feature in the August 2012 issue of Performer magazine, and a “cinematic” video for lead single Eve ready to drop in October, though it’s hard to beat the live in-studio acoustic version of the song currently featured on her YouTube page.

The brand new video for her cover of Katy Perry’s The One That Got Away is an apt vehicle, too: it starts deceptively lo-fi, like an amateur YouTube product, but as the hiss of the room fades, and the voice – that voice! – rises in song, the whole piece coming together into a swirl of color and framing devices that betray her professionalism, and bespeak her meteoric rise towards fame. So hurrah for a woman who knows how to look after herself, and for music that speaks to the soul, because with such paired power and authenticity at her fingertips, we predict that Jordan’s going far, and fast.

Bonus track:

Last-minute additions tend to fall into my lap as I write, and this round has been no exception. But UK singer-songwriter Gibson Bull is no eleventh-hour also-ran: though the version of Corrine, Corrina his producer sends me is totally deconstructed, it bears the weight of the modern indiefolk movement with aplomb, calling to the layered tones of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Ray LaMontagne, and a post-millennial Bruce Springsteen on one hand, and the post-folk branches of the No Depression movement on the other.

Some quick stop-the-presses research reveals that the former tree-surgeon has been making the rounds at the UK festivals, and that he has recently joined the ranks of The Workshop, the Notting Hill songwriting and recording studio which is already becoming well-known for its work with indie folk artists and singer-songwriters. It also reveals an artist’s website that has been overtaken by a single video from Bull’s Workshop sessions, making it difficult to point readers to his 2010 debut, but there’s a couple of great solo takes on the YouTube archives that bode well: a jangly folksinger’s Shady Grove recorded last December for a London pub’s unplugged sessions, and a muddy, mangy Moonshiner from the same year or before that bears the weary weight of its pond crossing, rivaling favorite takes from Jeffrey Foucault and others on our own side of the globe.

Finally: over among the indiefolk at I Am Fuel, You Are Friends, Heather’s been celebrating Ben Howard a bunch this year, and it’s not hard to see why: with shades of Jose Gonzalez, and an indiefolk singer-songwriter’s tenderness, this artist can put power into almost anything. His late-February solo video cover of Dancing In The Dark bears a soft majesty that revitalizes; his collaborative work on John Martyn’s Over The Hill, recorded with Michael Kiwanuka, India and Chris, Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons, The Staves, and Johannes from Bear’s Den during a “Communion Jam” at SXSW 2012, helps bring a rich gospelfolk feel to a slow song once performed gentle and solo. And the urgency of his Radio 1 live cover of Carly Rae Jepson’s ubiquitous Call Me Maybe, released in May, is a solid counterpoint, too, with grungy guitars, soaring fiddles, and a driving beat creating an urgency under Howard’s gentle voice that fits perfectly with the song.

Not sure where to start clicking? Why not download all 15 tracks as a single zip file!

1 comment » | Ben Howard, Brianna Lea Pruett, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Gibson Bull, Jan Bell, New Artists Old Songs, Rebecca Jordan

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2012:
Part 4: full-album folk coverage of Springsteen & The Replacements

September 28th, 2012 — 09:06 pm

After EP-length sets, multi-genre tributes, and rock/blues/pop artists turned folk for coverage, we close out our four-part series on this year’s mid-year tributes and compilations with a potent pair of decidedly folk albums paying apt tribute to the works of Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements. Enjoy!

Nebraska, the seminal album that proved Springsteen was more than just an anthemic pop rocker, has been done in full before. But it’s the 30th anniversary of the sparse, haunting demo-session-turned-studio-release, making another attempt nearly inevitable. And given the star power that turned out for Badlands, the turn-of-the-century tribute in question, to take it on again seems like an easy avenue to folly for all but the most skilled set of musicians.

Surprisingly, however, new indie tribute Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is a near-perfect nod, both to the songbook itself, and to the canonical shift it represents. And this success is, in no small part, due to the collective prowess of the indiefolk craftsmen which haunt the album, whose appropriately lo-fi contributions make it a powerful product from a new generation steeped in the sounds of Springsteen as folk artist. Joe Pug, Kingsley Flood, David Wax, Strand of Oaks, The Wooden Sky, Joe Purdy, and a holy host of other post-millennial singer-songwriters come in strong, atmospheric, and truly transformative without trading away the potency of the original songbook or performances. And the album is heavy on the neo-traditional, too, with Spirit Family Reunion, Trampled By Turtles, Kingsley Flood, and a few more from the grassy/brassy sides of the indie world bringing in choice cuts which call to Springsteen’s recent Seeger sessions.

As with Badlands, Long Distance Salvation goes a few tracks beyond the original album setlist, including Pink Cadillac, Shut Out The Light, and other Springsteen b-sides, leaving us with a wholesome 14 cuts total. And, as if we needed another argument to pay our dollar down, the entire project is just just 5 bucks to download, with all proceeds going to benefit Project Bread. Our highest recommendations, with tracks to follow.

Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute To The Replacements, which dropped this past week on Bar/None, is a little bit folk and a little bit MTV unplugged session, honoring the path that the mandolin, like the banjo before it, has taken as it moves into the instrumental mainstream of rock and pop in the post-millennial world. And if the concept rings a bit of those bluegrass tribute albums, rest assured that the performance transcends the easy association: Nashville music veterans, pop/rock singer-songwriters, and session musicians Tom Littlefield (Steve Earle, Todd Snider, Nanci Griffith) and Jonathan Bright, performing here as duo Bright Little Field on ukes and a drum kit made of pots and pans, share a genuine love of the punk-tinged underground rock band they pay tribute to, and it shows: though breezy and occasionally even cute, there’s something quite listenable about the tracks that appear here, with a combination of balladry and rockers that mix clean and folky, with nary a low point.

We’re late twice over in celebrating Treatment Bound – the album was originally released in 2010, making this a rerelease, and arguably, it belonged in our previous feature on non-folk musicians going folk for tribute albums, thanks to the performing duo’s association with the rock and country worlds. But I just discovered it myself this week, and I gotta say, I’m loving it, in no small part because it hits my personal trifecta of respectful coverage, folkgrass, and 80s alt-rock source material. Check out a favorite track below before purchasing direct from the artists.

PS: Want to help support Cover Lay Down in its continued struggle to bring you the best folk and coverage around? Awesome! Here’s some ways you can help!

  • Support the artists we tout by purchasing their work whenever possible!
  • Spread the word to friends and family by clicking “like” on a favorite post!
  • Share the wealth by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings!
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Comment » | Bruce Springsteen, Compilations & Tribute Albums, indiefolk, The Replacements, Tribute Albums

Tributes and Cover Compilations, Fall 2012
Part 3: multigenre & multi-artist tributes

September 26th, 2012 — 02:04 pm

For those just joining us: we’re in the midst of a multi-feature series on previously-unblogged cover and tribute albums released this year. Previously, we posted explorations of EP-length cover sets and folky all-covers albums from artists generally associated with other genres; today, we take on four of those ubiquitous mixed genre multi-artist tribute albums, with an eye towards their folkier tracks.

Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe, the newest countryfolk-slash-country rock tribute from Austin-based label Fiesta Red Records, isn’t folk, and it isn’t marketed as such, though the roots and twang crowds have been buzzing about it since notice of the album first appeared at Summer’s beginning. But while a number of the tracks on this fine (and long overdue) tribute to the pivotal English singer-songwriter, musician and producer best known for penning such pub rock and new wave hits as Cruel To Be Kind and (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding fall squarely into the country rock camp, the album also includes cuts from well-known countryfolk singer-songwriter troubadours Lori McKenna, Hayes Carll, Caitlin Rose, and Ron Sexsmith – Mckenna and Sexsmith’s tracks are beautifully intimate, and Carll and Rose’s typically twangy – plus several surprising delights from some sparsely-performed up-and-coming bands and solo acts such as Amanda Shires, whose take on Lowe’s I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass shatters both genre lines and my heart all at once.

It’s worth noting, I suppose, that despite lede graf mention of the fundraising nature of the project (proceeds from album sales go to benefit victims of the 2010 Nashville floods and 2011 Texas wildfires), Paste magazine dismisses the album as a languid also-ran that fails to capture either the political urgency or the playfulness of Lowe’s work. But Paste can go to hell: regardless of how twangy or gritty a given track might sound, to this folk-lover’s ears, every one is treated with delicate respect and heartfelt beauty, revealing more to love than just the song, making the album a strong addition to any broad-minded folk-lover’s collection.

Just Tell Me That You Want Me, this year’s new Fleetwood Mac tribute from Starbucks in-house label Hear Music, is decidedly not folk, either – it’s mostly indie pop in the first half, and hazy dance pop in the second, though heavy on the guitar fuzz and synth beats throughout – and although Antony Hegarty’s quivering falsetto take on Landslide is worth a listen, most of the album fails magnificently, thanks to both a tendency towards phoned-in performances in no small part to the song selection, which skips over almost every one of the band’s best Lindsey Buckingham compositions.

But buried towards the back, where it seems decidedly out of place, you’ll find a rich, utterly soul-crushing take on Storms from Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy that builds and crashes like the waves on the shore. We’re no strangers to folk interpretations of Fleetwood Mac, having featured them in our Covered In Folk series way back in 2009; our love for “Prince” Billy’s neo-folk song deconstructions, which trend towards the ragged and soulful, is well-documented as well, in our May 2011 omnibus double-feature on the new American icon, which features full sets of both his vast canon of coverage and a collection of others taking on his songbook. The combination of the two is as stunning and powerful as one might expect.

The lines of coverage blur a bit when an artist takes on his own canon. But although Chest Fever: A Candian Tribute to the Band, which is due to drop October 2nd from Curve Music, is centered around the voice and selection process of organist, keyboardist and saxophonist Garth Hudson, who is often credited as being the principal architect of the Band’s unique folk-rock sound, this is decidedly not a Band album, or even a greatest hits collection: instead, Hudson merely picked out a selection of his favorite songs to play, and then found a holy host of well-respected countrymen to take on the songs so he could enjoy himself as he played along.

Thanks to this origin, Hudson’s careful selection of fellow Canadian icons and groups as single-take partners for a series of comprehensive recastings is not all folk, but it’s entirely influenced by the acadian rhythms and roots rock of the originals in all cases. And, as the joyous, rolling energy of the performance below demonstrates, his choice of bandmates to bring forth just the right combination of reverence and revitalization to every given take – in this case, Newfoundland-based Celtic folk-rock band Great Big Sea, taking on Band b-side Knockin’ Lost John; in other cases, Bruce Cockburn, Chantal Kreviazuk, Raine Maida, Mary Margaret O’Hara, The Sadies, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, and the ever-ubiquitous Neil Young – is nothing short of inspired.

Finally, the newest compilation from indie label Paper Bag Records, which offers full tribute to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, is flavored throughout with electronic and grungy rock instrumentation, as befits the anthemic rock opera. But we’re used to hearing Ontario trio The Rural Alberta Advantage in indiefolk guise, having featured their more acoustic works in these virtual pages several times previously, and if they appear here wailing over crashing cymbals and heavy metal guitars, there is nonetheless just enough folk rock in the mix to celebrate – a perfect mix of Green Day and Steve Earle. Hard-core folk fans may prefer to skip this one altogether, but Paper Bag Records is unfailingly successful in putting together albums which stand strong from start to finish; those who come for coverage will love the treatment, and the price – an email address – is hard to beat.

PS: Want to help support Cover Lay Down in its continued fight for world domination struggle to bring you the best folk and coverage around? Awesome! Here’s some ways you can help:

  • Support the artists we tout by purchasing their work whenever possible!
  • Spread the word to friends and family by clicking “like” on a favorite post!
  • Share the wealth by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings!
  • Donate to Cover Lay Down to help cover our rising server and bandwidth costs!
  • Join our facebook page to keep the folk and coverage coming throughout the week!

1 comment » | Antony and the Johnsons, Bonnie Prince Billy, Compilations & Tribute Albums, Great Big Sea, Lori McKenna, Ron Sexsmith, Tribute Albums

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2012
Part 2: EPs from Zoe Muth, Emily Elbert, Lake Street Dive & more!

September 23rd, 2012 — 08:02 pm

As our title notes, we’re in the middle of a multi-feature series exploring recent Tributes and Cover Compilations – an overdue exercise, since our last full-length feature on the subject dates back to March 2012. Last week, we took on three new full-length folk albums from artists generally thought of as originating outside the genre; today, we look at a trio of new EPs, and an in-progress EP-length video session, by and from true-blue folk artists and bands.

It’s becoming increasingly common for artists to release otherwise-covers albums and EPs with a single original song on them (see, for example, Friday’s treatment of Rickie Lee Jones’ The Devil You Know, which is being marketed as an interpretive album, even with one new track lurking among the covers). While this trend confounds delineation a bit, I’m certainly willing to allow it – after all, our own mandate at Cover Lay Down assumes the cover is predominantly a vehicle for comfort and approachability; to find that one original in the mix, and hold it up to the light of coverage, allows us to ease into the fullness of an artist’s craft, regardless of their stature. And in the case of the EP, it’s not hard to consider the work an expanded case of the maxi-single, which has often included b-side coverage – thus offering a short and inexpensive risk to the buyer, letting them sample the sound of a band, while testing the waters of their songwriting.

Conveniently, two all-covers-but-one EPs from young artists on the Signature Sounds label have been tickling my fancy this year, and though they come from opposite ends of the folk spectrum, both are worth celebrating. The first, from Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers, features stellar countryfolk coverage from the twangy Seattle-based singer-songwriter, who has been compared to Loretta, Emmylou, Iris Dement, and Patty Griffin – high praise indeed, and incredibly apt, though the clarity of Kate Wolf is there in spades, too, in this tribute set to her influences. The second, from local heroes Lake Street Dive, was a core component of my summer soundtrack, perfect for summery drives with the windows rolled down; their work is less obviously folk, but the quirky, sparse instrumentation of the band, which features stand-up bass, vocals, drumkit, and trumpet, and the one-mic one-take recording on Fun Machine, fit squarely into the indiefolk mindset, even as the covers take on The Jackson 5, George Michael, Hall & Oates, and Paul and Linda McCartney, and the performances yaw towards an iconoclastic folk club lounge band’s modality.

  • BONUS TRACK: Lake Street Dive: I Want You Back (orig. Jackson 5)

Possibly defunct Scandinavian Americana-folk collective Hyacinth House was around for a while, it seems – a quick internet search reveals old MySpace and pages that describe the band’s progress for a period of three years, from their inception at the hands of singer and producer Mack Johansson in 2003 up through the studio recording of their second album in 2006; a deeper dig nets blog mention of Swedish awards nominations for a 2008 album of originals which may or may not be that same second album, a rarities and b-sides album from 2009, and word of Johansson’s solo debut in late 2010. But if nary a homepage can be found anymore, perhaps it is a lesson in nomenclature: naming your band after both an entire artistic movement and a song by The Doors is always going to bury search results a bit, especially after you let your band fall by the wayside.

Still, if their fragmented history is to be believed, even after their possible passage, Hyacinth House remains a local favorite in the Netherlands, and their Dylan tribute A Tribute To Bob is worth hearing beyond those tiny borders. Recorded live on the road in the second half of the decade, and released this summer, the five tracks show a range of tonality – as might be expected from a group that in its earliest days ranged up to 17 members, though generally based on a core quartet of singer, guitar, cello, and alternating banjo, harmonicas and dobro, and unfailingly centered around Johansson himself. But whether it’s the sparse guitar-centered Springsteen feel of In My Time Of Dyin’ or their jangly contemporary dustbowl Buddy Miller take on Masters of War, the overall feel is wholly consistent with the quiet, contemporary acoustic roots music that we love to hear here on Cover Lay Down. Which is to say: it’s all folk, and it’s all quite good.

Finally, we’re going to go wide, and declare a professionally-recorded, single-session series of YouTube covers equivalent to an EP, even though we generally insist that medium matters, and even though only two of the cuts have been released as of yet, making declaration of session length and content comprehensively premature. But give us some credit for not wanting to wait to bring you the best coverage we’ve heard this month: though we snuck one of her collaborative works with fellow Berklee grads The Boston Boys in a few months ago, we’ve been looking for an excuse to feature 23 year old jazz-slash-folk singer-songwriter Emily Elbert for a while, not hardly because of her fondness for video coverage, and the two amazing covers she’s already published from last month’s home studio sessions with her piano-playing father Roland are simply stunning, with Emily’s powerful, soulful voice and subtle guitar framed adeptly by the rolling jazzfolk piano her father sets behind her. Check ‘em out below, and then bookmark Emily’s YouTube and Facebook pages to make sure you catch the rest as they emerge.

3 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Emily Elbert, Lake Street Dive, Tribute Albums, Zoe Muth

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2012
Part 1: Rickie Lee Jones, Rory Block, and a trio of metal voices

September 21st, 2012 — 05:37 pm

It was a relatively sparse Summer for tribute albums and cover collections, but we did miss a few during our long hiatus – and Fall has been bringing in a rich harvest, too. In honor of what we’ve fondly called the coverlover’s bread and butter, over our next few posts, we explore a host of new and impending albums for the covers connoisseur, with our usual mix of all-folk albums, hybrid genre sets, and singleton acoustic tracks from multi-genre collections sure to please all listeners – starting today, with a trio of totally folk cover-and-tribute albums from artists generally associated with other genres.

After five decades on the road and in the studio, multi-genre living legend Rickie Lee Jones has taken a number of turns in and out of the folk canon in her long and storied career, producing plenty of folkpop alongside full albums of radiopop, R&B and Jazz standards and crooners along the way. But where too many artists of her age and influence have turned to the maudlin and trite in their old age – see, for example, James Taylor’s dreadfully shallow post-millennial cover albums – Jones’ newest work sets her alongside Johnny Cash and his final quartet of albums, painting her aptly as a vibrant, deliberate artist to keep watching even as she continues to reinvent herself.

Even if you’re a fan already, you’ve never heard anything like The Devil You Know, Jones’ brand new full-album tribute to her contemporaries and influences, a hugely powerful collection quite sparingly produced by fellow Grammy winner Ben Harper. The all-but-one-original covers album is a stunner from start to finish: quiet, broken, dark, and truly folk in every way, consistent and rich with slippery, sultry notes of blues and jazz. Try the broken wail of Comfort You, the slow, low buzz of Sympathy for the Devil, the dustbowl blues slide of Reason To Believe, the dreamy beauty of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. And then consider that the entire album goes on like this, and buy two copies – one for yourself, and one for a friend – because this is Rickie Lee like a blazing comet, with a promise of more genius and genre-stretching to come even as she reaches an age and stature that could have easily excused a well-deserved turn at easy listening.

Equally torn, yet from way on the other side of the origin spectrum, is Scott “Wino” Weinrich, Scott Kelly, & Steve Von Till’s Songs of Townes Van Zandt, released this summer to little fanfare or recognition. The ragged, growling set from three seminal underground metal voices gone sparsely acoustic, a three-way split CD which features the trio trading off solo takes, rings of Robitussin lethargy dreams – neither the sound nor the sentiment that typical fans of Kelly and Von Till, Oakland-based artists who have long made their names as members of doom-and-gloom post-metal band Neurosis, and Weinrich, who is better known for his iconic work in the same doom scene, might expect, and a likely cause of its lack of attention from those both outside and in the world of alt-metal upon its release in July.

But this is truly a singer-songwriter’s anti-folk album, even if it wasn’t marketed as one. And if not all the tracks on this album are equally to my taste, as is often the case with nominally collaborative albums which actually turn out to have been created using the pastiche method, those used to hearing the tormented troubadour covered by the melodic and the past-their-prime folk set will quite appreciate their consistent sentiment, which truly illuminates, showing just how suited the slow speeds, low tones and surly, ragged style of metal-gone-folk are to Townes’ songbook. In my book, that makes the work quite a success overall – and worth our consideration here.

In her long and celebrated career, Mississippi Delta Country Blues singer/songwriter and guitarist Rory Block has drifted back and forth across the folk and blues lines, just like the country blues form itself: we’ve featured her work before in our thematic sets, and these days, the multiple W.C. Handy Award winner is just as likely to be found at blues festivals as folk fests, even as the folk festival scene implodes into indie, rock, blues, R&B, and roots. But I remember her mid-career works fondly from my childhood, where I found them a staple of my father’s folk collection, and I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis, which popped up in May, is just as fresh and raw as those early works, making it an apt addition to any folk collection.

I Belong To The Band is the third in a series of recent tribute albums to the elder masters of the form, and as with previous tributes to Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell, it’s tempting to treat the album as a one-take throwaway – stylistically, Block hews closely to what she knows best, and surely, after all these years, she can pump out this sort of loose, wailing work in her sleep (assuming that she sleeps with a slide guitarist and a few gospel singers at her bedside, that is). But with equal parts Christian celebration and bleak despair, the vibrancy and tenderness comes through eminently all the same, showing an artist still in her prime paying adept tribute to those who forged the way. For novices and collectors alike, then, and highly recommended for both.

Enjoying the ride? Then stay tuned this week and next for our continued short series on recent cover compilations and tribute albums, with feature posts on mostly-covers EPs and LPs, multi-artist multi-genre tribute albums, and more to come!

3 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Rickie Lee Jones, Rory Block

Coverfolk, Live & Kicking
(On the perils and potential of concert recordings)

September 16th, 2012 — 02:15 pm

If tribute albums are a coverlover’s bread and butter, then in-studio covers are quite often the wine: sweet, dry, subtle, and the perfect complement to the studio recordings which bring one to a musician in the first place. But if I take an arms-length approach to live concert recordings, it’s because so many cause me more pain than pleasure. Years of ear training as a choral vocalist leave me unable to appreciate instrumentation which is even slightly out of tune, a problem endemic to the live session, where crowd-pleasing can rush the re-tuning process. Similarly, a somewhat snobbish demand for purity of sound turns me off of crowd noise, speaker fuzz, and muddy recordings that, sadly, are so common to the format.

My insistence on such standards often causes me to eschew tracks that other bloggers celebrate. Live stage sessions can produce otherwise-unrecorded rarities, a temptation for any collector – and I acknowledge that for many true fans, the opportunity to hear their favorite band take on a familiar tune can be more than mere novelty. But for me, far too often, the set-list cover is a vehicle for disappointment, as the perfect pairing of artist and song is marred unforgivably from the very first sour note or yahoo yell.

Which is to say: we celebrate execution here, not merely concept, and recordings made in front of an audience often trade one for the other. But if I nonetheless listen to the live recordings that come my way, it is because every once in a while, the live setting brings sound and sentiment together in a way that the studio cannot reproduce.

The classic example here is Shawn Colvin’s stunningly beautiful take on The Only Living Boy In New York, recorded just a few weeks before the 9/11 tragedy. But live albums, sound-board singletons and full concerts, radio broadcasts, and video-sourced concert tracks are ever emerging, and every once in a while, we find one worth celebrating on its merits. Here’s a few recent finds we love.

When We Get To Shore, the new live album from American roots singer-songwriter and banjo player Coty Hogue, is a perfect kick-off here. Performed in front of a studio audience with fellow Bellingham musicians Aaron Guest (vocals/guitar) and Kat Bula (fiddle/vocals), peppered with traditional tunes and a few great popular songs from both the country and pop canons, including the below takes on Second Hand News and a startlingly sweet, banjo-driven I’m On Fire, plus more from Hazel Dickens, Bill Monroe, and Hogue herself, the mostly-covers album is a revelation of sound, with harmonies galore, a comfort level that belies the musicians’ collective youth, and an edge sure to please the neo-traditional crowd. Those interested in follow-up should also check out To The West, Hogue’s twangy countryfolk studio debut, which hit #1 on the Folk DJ charts in 2009 for its rendition of traditional title track Going to the West; the album is well worth pursuit, both on its own merits, and to see just how far this singer-songwriter has come since her return to the Northwest Americana scene.

I make a fine distinction in today’s post between in-studio performances and live concert recordings for a reason: as I note above, the urgency of performing for an audience shapes sound and sentiment in ways which are much more likely to prioritize energy over sound, both in the performer’s hands and mouth, and in the recording itself. But there are several fine folk and roots radio shows performed and produced from stage, and here we find a balance of sorts, with practiced engineers mixing for the folks at home while artists perform for the respectfully quiet audiences that sit before them.

The most notable of these revel in the energy of the live, and if a few sets suffer from the same haste and cavernousness as any concert, most benefit greatly from the high stakes of radio opportunity. Both of my favorites – Mountain Stage and eTown – drift past folk into the larger genre mix, with Mountain Stage prioritizing those who touch on the broad roots of and from their home in the West Virginia mountains, and eTown featuring particularly earth- and community-supportive bands and artists who generally claim the singer-songwriter mantle regardless of sound, but in both cases, the performances are well worth revisiting. And for those who love coverage, e-town provides a special treat: each show ends with all the bands who have performed that night performing a cover together on stage with the house band; the songs are often cut on the radio broadcast, but a visit to eTown’s YouTube page will net you the entire track.

I’m not a huge fan of mega-festivals, preferring intimate workshop stages and medium-scale outdoor events with a decent chance at seeing the performer’s faces from the crowd. But in an age of digital distribution, not being able to attend doesn’t mean missing out completely. This year’s Newport Folk Festival live sessions, for example, are generally quite well recorded, and while they’re not as comprehensive as one might wish, the sets which currently remain live in the NPR archives are worth the link. And covers abound, if you know where to look: Wilco’s set, for example, begins with a folk rock take on Woody Guthrie’s Christ for President, and includes a couple of the Guthrie-penned songs which helped them make their mark on the music world, while First Aid Kit’s take on Joan Baez classic Diamonds and Rust is a shining star in a sweet but short set. Similarly, Sara Watkins’ cover of John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Day is a sing-along delight, and her take on Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time is poignant indeed.

Finally, I can’t help but take the opportunity to tout and thank Molly Venter and Eben Pariser, aka Good Night Moon Shine, for last weekend’s house concert, held at our very own venue in rural Monson, Massachusetts. Both artists have been featured here for their work with their respective bandmates – Molly is the newest member of folkgrass girl trio Red Molly, who we speak of fondly and frequently here on Cover Lay Down; Eben is a founding member of the Brooklyn-based acoustic Americana band Roosevelt Dime, whose plunky, plucky banjo-driven cover of Radiohead’s High and Dry graced these pages upon its debut release in 2009 – but they sound easily as sweet in duo form; we’re honored to have hosted their debut as Good Night Moon Shine, and look forward to their future endeavors.

I should note, before you listen, that these recordings are the exception that proves the rule for today’s feature – in the case of Molly and Eben’s performance, the artists’ preference for echo in the mix was exacerbated by an audience-based recording setting, the use of a lo-fi recording device, and the resonance of the space itself, resulting in tracks that my wife aptly describes as sounding “live”. But as with Shawn Colvin’s Only Living Boy In New York – the gold standard here for live recordings – the historical relevance of the sessions, coupled by the lack of audience noise, tips the scales towards listenability. And since no other recordings of Good Night Moon Shine exist as yet, I cannot help but share them, in the hopes that it will help serve our primary mission: to support artists, especially those who deserve our support as they embark upon new paths to well-deserved glory.

I’ve also posted a somewhat crisper cover from Mark Erelli, who played our concert series in April to mark the 10th anniversary of his live album The Memorial Hall Sessions, which he originally recorded live just down the street in our Civil War era granite edifice of the same name. And please note: those within driving distance of mid-Massachusetts are always welcome at our twice-a-season concerts; our next show, on October 6, will feature another new duo, The Sea The Sea, featuring Chuck E Costa, whose coverage from a 2010 solo show in the same delightful carriage house setting has been featured here before, but which bears repeating ad infinitum.

PS: Looking for a more regular coverfolk fix? Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features twice weekly…but we also share streams, videos, and other random finds throughout the week at the Cover Lay Down facebook page. Head on over for more, including two more eTown covers – a sweet bluegrass bonus featuring The Infamous Stringdusters covering Tom Petty, and Keller Williams and Marc Broussard turning Wild Horses into a funky acoustic reggae number – and a preview of an upcoming feature on local-girl-made-good Emily Elbert…and while you’re there, hit “like” to help spread the word about the artists we love!

2 comments » | Coty Hogue, Good Night Moon Shine, Live, Mark Erelli, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin

The Towers Fell, And Then We Were Silent:
A Remembrance, In Coverfolk and Prose

September 10th, 2012 — 10:28 pm

A repost, from last year. Because sometimes, you get it right the first time.

I was a media specialist the morning the towers began to fall: sole captain of a prep school video collection, and proprietor of the largest viewing space on campus. And so it was that the students came to me, one by one and together, by class and by cluster, as the word spread from teacher to teacher; so it was, indeed, that I ended up presiding over a grand experiment in media literacy, as the hour passed, and the cycle of not-news – that long hour of uncertain newscaster conjectures that accompanied the static, repetitive footage on every channel – took over the broadcast universe on that fated day.

As I noted last year, though we would not know until much later, we lost one of our own that morning: Chris Carstanjen, a sweet, geeky compatriot from the IT department, an almost-friend whose first drinking date we had scheduled for the following weekend, before he boarded that flight for California and never made it past downtown NYC. But what I remember most was the stunned silence of a hundred students or more, who in that moment, that sacred hour, were being born as the Terror Generation, though they would not know the deep societal scars which they would carry for a long, long time, if indeed they are still thoughtful enough to know now.

I remember, too, the Dean of Students and I deciding, finally, to turn off the screen, in the face of those somber and endless images and faces; to make a short and surely unmemorable speech about how the absence of news was not news, and commandeer the offices of librarians as impromptu counseling spaces for those who were scared, especially those who had parents and relatives in NYC and in the towers themselves, especially those who came from Muslim cultures and Muslim families, and seemed to understand, however vaguely, that they had suddenly become targets for other students’ confusion.

I remember feeling pride, for a moment, that I had managed to remember my calling in the face of disaster. And then I remember a long flash of shame, that I had somehow managed to make the day about me, thus cheapening the true scope of the disaster.

After that, I don’t remember anything at all. In my memory, it is as if turning off the television turned off the universe, too.

And ever since then, the world has been different. And I will always harbor a secret guilt, just like yours, that the world we rebuilt in the months and years that followed was not the same, even though we know, of course, that it could not have been.

Flash forward a decade, and here we are: one among a million paying tribute to the day the towers slowly fell. The world is faster, now, and more divided – two trends which spin into each other like two sides of a gyroscope, pulling at our psyches. I commute 40 minutes every morning to work with students for whom disaster is always personal and everpresent: homelessness, street violence, unemployment, the looming promise of dead-end futures. Some days it seems the only thing they own is their image, and who can fault them, then, for being so brash and sassy, peacocks with razor talons, angry at the world and taking it out on themselves without even realizing it.

I don’t know where to look for the the scars in this new generation, and I’m not sure I’d see them if I did. But their hardened hearts sadden me, sometimes.

There will be a moment of silence, come Monday’s morning announcements. And my students will speak into the air, loud against the voice of authority, unlistening and disconnected to their culture and each other, even as I am silent, and thinking of Chris, and of the moment I turned on the TV on the movie theater screen, and the smoking hole of culture flashed itself into my brain.

I can hear it, even now.

It’s been seven years, now, since I left the prep school; seven years since we lived side by side with the kids in the dormitories, and shared the pain and joys, the proms and punishments of night and day with the smart and well-bred, the resourced and the right-raised. But I often think of that day when I’m in my inner city classroom, working with the children of the downtrodden, the recent immigrants who don’t speak english, the hopeless – all categories of children whose pain is everpresent and real, and who would never have sat in silence, or even identified with the children of the towers.

Teachable moments are the lifeblood of the vocation, and I’m proud, I suppose, that we turned the TV off that day. But there is nothing so powerful as silence shared, as stunned communion. Nothing so powerful as a generation who grows up to see airport patdowns as normative rather than violation. Nothing so powerful, indeed, as the nexuses themselves, about which we try to say too much, and never truly find the words to speak of.

And so today we mourn the losses: of Chris, yes, and his airborne compatriots; of the parents and families of those who passed in fire and fall, impact and explosion – but also of the innocence of once-students now dispersed to the winds, some of them already struggling to raise children of their own. On one hand, they are and ever will be the children of privilege. On the other, they will always be the first generation, the youngest to truly understand what the world has become, without another, older sense of what it replaced.

To them, this new world is normal, for it is all they ever had.

Whether that makes them blessed or cursed is a matter for debate. And some days, I wish I knew, for it seems like it should matter very much indeed.

I miss them, those kids. I wonder about them, too. If I knew how to define okay in this instance, I’d ask them if they were, and if they remembered.

But I’m not sure I’d believe them, no matter what they said.

5 comments » | Uncategorized

Festival Preview: FreshGrass @ MassMoCA, Sept. 21-23
(14 covers of John Martyn, The Pixies, The Police, tradfolk & more!)

September 8th, 2012 — 02:03 pm

It’s hard not to love the idea of a bluegrass festival with its own IPA, brewed and provided by Greenfield, MA locavore haven The People’s Pint. Nor is it possible to ignore the appeal of hanging out among the grand exhibits and well-curated artspaces of MASS MoCA, one of my favorite museums, which has long held my deep respect for its role in revitalizing the mid-Massachusetts contemporary arts scene, and has recently become well known among the hipster set for hosting envelope-pushing performing arts of all types, including newly-localized band Wilco, lush lo-fi hipster heroes Handsome Family, British indie-folkster Laura Marling (coming on October 26th), and others on the cutting edge of modern folk and roots music.

But the second annual FreshGrass Festival has more to offer than great beer and a quirky arts-oriented 19th century factory campus setting. Some of our favorite newgrass bands pepper the roster, with young high-energy faces and rising stars sharing the stages with some of the very founders of the genre, from Alison Brown, David Grisman and Tony Rice to Joy Kills Sorrow, Trampled By Turtles, Spirit Family Reunion, the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Haitian-American cellist Leyla McCalla, the Infamous Stringdusters, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, the Berklee Roots Roadshow, and more. Expect a perfect mix of new and old-time music, with strings and hollers galore, and a zest for life that typifies the broad genre-span that is post-millennial bluegrass.

Multiple stages, workshops and films, pop-up performances inside and out, and innovative exhibits and food vendors selling everything from the usual hearty organic festival fare to moonshine slushies combine to deliver an experience aptly described by its organizers as a “bluegrass amusement park”, where authenticity and exploration are the name of the game. So join me on the third weekend in September in North Adams, MA, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley. And save some time for an indoor/outdoor meander as well: festival and day passes include gallery access, allowing for a few hours out of the weather with a beautiful, grass-driven soundtrack – a stunning, envelope-pushing, multi-sensory experience not to be missed.

Here’s some coverage to whet your whistle, with previously-posted treats nestled snug among the newest performances from Bill Evans, Trampled By Turtles, Spirit Family Reunion, and more. From takes on Arcade Fire, The Police, Elvis Costello, John Martyn, The Pixies, and Dylan to old bluegrass and country standards done up with neo-traditional flair, the playlist – like the festival itself – is sure to offer something for everyone.

  • Trampled By Turtles: Rebellion (Lies) (orig. Arcade Fire) [via]

Yup, we’re back! Stay tuned for more features later this month, including a dip into the bulging mailbag for some great live folk recordings and more…a post which, barring technical disaster, will featuring exclusive footage from our upcoming house concert with Brooklyn duo Molly Venter of Red Molly and Eben Pariser of Roosevelt Dime. And don’t forget to check out the Cover Lay Down Facebook page for bonus streams and videos throughout the week!

2 comments » | bluegrass, Festival Coverfolk