Archive for March 2009

All Folked Up: Gangsta Rap
(Sincere, Streetsmart, and Straight Up Folk)

March 31st, 2009 — 11:03 pm

This post was such a success last year, rather than try to top myself, I’ve decided to repost it for April Fools 2009. Enjoy the coverfolk!

As a culture vulture, I have a particular fondness for the iconography of Hip Hop and Hardcore Rap; as a fan of trope and politic, I’ve always admired the complex rhyme and rhythm they bring to the table.

But I never really made a connection with hardcore rap as a cultural form. I’m an outsider on the streets; I can appreciate their gritty reality only as a sociologist can appreciate the poverty dynamic of his cityscape under the microscope. Though a six month stint in Boston’s inner city as a member of Americorps makes me somewhat more than an urban tourist, I make no claim that it gives me credibility to speak to the relative merits of, say, East Coast over West Coast style.

Even when I try to embrace the less hardcore side of the hip hop world, I know I’m just visiting. I’ve seen De La Soul and KRS-ONE in concert, but I felt awkward in the audience. I tried to write a rap lyric, but my friends were right to laugh at me. (Two words: iambic pentameter.)

But where the plastic lip-sync spectacle of Britney Spears (see All Folked Up, Vol. 1) is the polar opposite of folk, and where the lighter forms of Hip Hop are probably closer to R&B spoken-word poetry and Funk than anything else, I think Gangsta Rap can make a legitimate claim as street folk.

Sure, musically, anything built predominantly out of beatboxing, drum machines, and an atonal delivery is about as far from the singer-songwriter model as it gets; you’d be hard pressed to find a folk song with no melody to carry it. And the highly stylized, high-adrenalin street pose of the Gangsta lyric is hard to reconcile with the open-hearted communion that most associate with the folksinger in performance.

But the way that Gangsta Rap captures the authentic experience and emotion of an urban generation is most definitely “of the folk”. The collaborative process which typifies Rap and Hip-Hop performance – both onstage and with the audience – is very much in a vein with the traditional relationship between the folk performer and his audience. The use of sampled sound is a kind of cultural recycling which could arguably be compared to the tendency towards community ownership of traditional song in the folkworld. And if we make allowances for the differences in environment, both the storytelling and the narrative structure of hardcore rap forms turn out to be surprisingly consistent with the way folk has always used the natural world to speak for the inner life of the song’s subject.

To note that today’s songs are, one and all, truly beautiful in their own way is not to deny the beauty of the originals. The high tension between Nina Gordon‘s sweet voice and gentle acoustic guitar and the obscenity-laden lyric of NWA signature song Straight Out Of Compton merely reframes the deeply personal history and strong, complex emotion of the original, making it newly accessible. The etherial layers Ben Folds brings to Bitches Ain’t Shit only exposes the frustration family man Dr. Dre feels about the unavoidably mysogynistic pose of the streets to which he owes his life and livelihood.

Gin and Juice comes off wild and desperate in The Gourds’ juked up bluegrass, but wasn’t it always a song on the edge? Alt-punkers Dynamite Hack join in with a great, mellow acoustic take on NWA’s Boyz in the Hood (thanks to Adam, John, and Sledge for the recommendation). U Penn a capella group Off The Beat’s oft-mislabelled version of Gangsta’s Paradise is gorgeous and gospel, more tribute than interpretation.

Grandmaster Flash recorded The Message in 1982, long before urban blight turned to the gangsta life, but the weary note young alt-folkster Willy Mason brings to his recent rendition reminds us how prescient a warning the song really was. And the fact that the highest energies post-dorks Barenaked Ladies can bring to bear on Public Enemy’s political hip hop anthem Fight the Power fall far, far short of anything remotely resembling anger only reinforces just how far most of Canada really is from the streets of the hardcore world.

I seriously considered switching out today’s covers for the originals as an April Fools spoof. But the best hoaxes are subtle, almost beautiful in their believability. And each of these performances is something special, simultanously a hoax and a masterpiece, teetering on the edge of sincerity like a gangster caught between the rock of urban decay and the social pose that is, in the end, all that is left to matter. So mind the language, folks. And enjoy a short set of the folk of the street.

Happy April Fools’ Day, everyone. We’ll be back again on Sunday, with a serious look at some real folk artists.

1,113 comments » | April Fools Day

Danny Schmidt covers Bob Dylan & Tom House
Live at A Tree Falls House Concerts, 3/29/09

March 30th, 2009 — 10:36 pm

Texas singer-songwriter Danny Schmidt played a concert at my house on Sunday, fresh from his Red House Records showcase at SXSW, and the whole thing was so incredible, I’m having trouble putting words to the experience.

I’m especially glad it was Danny who came to help us christen our home-as-venue. In person, he’s a gentle soul, easygoing and easy to chat with, perceptive and playful, with a fine sense of humor and a clear affection for kids and the natural world around him. He made the whole thing feel more like having a houseguest than guest of honor — I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, as warm and satisfying as it was overwhelming.

But I suppose I should have expected as much from his records. Danny’s songs delve deep and powerful, and in person they are exquisite. From the fragile and broken to the hopeful and the hushed, the stories he sets to his picked guitar style uncover universal truths like moss under a stone. In lyrics, delivery, and sheer emotive power, they rival the best works of other, older Texas troubadours, from Townes to Robert Earl Keen.

As he notes in the intro to the Tom House cover below, Danny doesn’t play many covers, but he was nice enough to make an exception for a hosting coverblogger. Here’s the two he did on Sunday, raw and unmastered; the whine you hear in the background is probably the fridge, unfortunately, but otherwise, I think the field recording captured the raw power of Danny’s performance pretty well.

Danny Schmidt’s albums are a perfect showcase for his original songs, and they’re pretty incredible too. Head on over to Danny’s website for a whole mess of crisp studio-recorded downloadables, and the usual purchase links; I especially recommend the new album Instead the Forest Rose to Sing, plus older tracks like Company of Friends and This Too Shall Pass, both of which were stunning from two feet away. And if Danny ever plays your neck of the woods, grab a friend and head on over immediately.

Oh, and here’s a bonus cut, too: a great cover of Danny’s Happy All The Time, courtesy of friend Susan, to whom I owe a great debt for bringing Danny to me in the first place. It’s just a touch lighter than the original, but still a strong showcase for the mystical, darkly optimistic lyricism of the original.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: April showers, May flowers, and school vacation. Plus: collaborative blog Star Maker Machine celebrates its one year anniversary next week!

1,104 comments » | Danny Schmidt, House Concerts

Live and In Studio:
Covers from Daytrotter, Hinah, World Cafe, KCRW, the BBC and more!

March 28th, 2009 — 11:00 pm

Far be it from me to mistake “unplugged” for folk; as we’ve been discussing since day one here on Cover Lay Down, if folk is anywhere, it is predominantly in the sense and sensibility, not in the accident of instrumentation or performance.

But there are an increasingly large number of folkblogs and small folk labels such as Song, By Toad and Hinah running their own sessions, and sharing them via the web. And though they’re not exclusively folk, the musicians that other small-scale, live-session-producing blogs and recording studios like Daytrotter and HearYa favor are generally authentic, quite often storytellers of one or another, and — surprisingly frequently — define themselves as performing under the folk umbrella.

Similarly, due to the limited amount of space available, and the transient nature of such visits, the cover performances which tend to emerge from radio station sessions, especially those which lean towards roots and singer-songwriter music, are most often characterized by a particular sort of stripped-down intimacy which could easily be mistaken for folk, even if the artists performing don’t always categorize themselves as such.

We’ve featured plenty of session work on this blog, of course; after all, there’s something about live performance which engenders coverage. There will certainly be more to come, too, as artists and bloggers, radio stations and small labels feel their way through the changes in the industry which fragment the power of the popworld and its chart-watchers. But with tomorrow’s Danny Schmidt house concert just hours away, intimate live sessions are on the top of my mind. Here’s some of my favorites from a very large and ever-growing collection of covers captured live and in studio.

Live Daytrotter sessions:

Live Hinah sessions:

Live HearYa sessions:

Live on WXPN’s World Cafe:

Live on BBC’s Peel Sessions:

Live on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic:

Live on KEXP:

Live at A Tree Falls Productions (a.k.a. my house!)

Artists rock, of course. But today, we’re celebrating the places where they play, acoustic and quiet, intimate and stripped to the bone, so that you can find ‘em. So visit a small venue, and tune in to the ongoing sessions your local radio and ‘net-based session producers create anew each day. Because without such small spaces, new artists would have nowhere to go to begin their careers, and you’d have nowhere to hear ‘em.

Cover Lay Down posts new features Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: April.

1,153 comments » | Shawn Colvin, Uncategorized

New Artists, Old Songs:
Roosevelt Dime, Cody Adams, Spider, and Laura Tsaggaris
cover Neil Young, Radiohead, Simon & Garfunkel, Britney Spears and more!

March 24th, 2009 — 10:10 pm

No, I’m not coming off a SXSW buzz, though I do love watching the music blogs reposition themselves as they return triumphant from the biggest fest of the year with their ears ringing and their adrenalin high. Instead, I’m thinking new artists because it’s just 4 days to our first house concert, starring Danny Schmidt.

Amazing as it is, Danny’s newest album is cover-free. And we’re deep in the throes of nervous housecleaning, so this will be pretty light. But I’ve been sitting on these covers for a while, and they’re still on the top of my list after all these weeks. I think it’s time to let ‘em fly.

Cody Adams and the Hurricanes reached out to me a few weeks ago with the most low-key email ever, just a couple of casual, fragmented sentences about an upcoming, mostly unrecorded covers EP. It was such a nice change from the usual overly-polished promo material I decided to follow the links, and two weeks later, with two already-recorded cover efforts and a few MySpace cuts still stuck in my head, I’m happy to report that you should do the same immediately.

This is prime “bedroom folk” territory, hushed and atmospheric like an indie lullaby, perfect for fans of Jose Gonzales and Sam Amidon. But it’s no amateur production: the sound is well-constructed and layered, and subtly produced for maximum effect. The way the vocal balance in this Simon and Garfunkel cover brings the harmony to the forefront, for example, letting the melody fade into the swirling atmosphere, is a masterstroke, leaving ample room for the listener. I have always loved this song; now I love it more.

How Marvelous… has more, including a cover of Sloop John B, and samples from previous album Hair Of The Dog. And coverlovers note: Cody Adams and the Hurricanes are currently soliciting cover choices for the project over at their MySpace page, so head over without delay.

Speaking of NYC, the recent trend towards upbeat, earnest neo-applachian roots music from Brooklyn continues with the strong debut of Roosevelt Dime, who released Crooked Roots just last week. They call it “rock-inspired banjo music”, and I suppose there is something of a slightly less confessional Avett Brothers sound buried in there somewhere, but there’s also a lot more diversity, from the funky acoustic beat and fuzzed, old-timey vocals of web-only track NuNu (Sweet Love) to the jazzpop rhythms of Rants & Raves to the electrictrified banjo jam of Good Man Do.

And then there’s this wonderfully delicate, just-ragged-enough newgrass ballad of a Radiohead cover, which sold me immediately.

Fellow Brooklynite Spider (nee Jane Herships, which frankly is an awesome name as well) comes from the other side of the folk spectrum, producing broken, naturalismo work with a note of eerieness and a whole heap of quiet. Her 2007 album was picked up by a few blogs, including tastemaster Muruch, but I was still a naif then; I’m late to the table on this cover, too, but I didn’t want to assume all my regulars read Sweetheart of the Radio or Wears the Trousers, either, even though you really, really should, and not just for the Spider originals.

Spider’s new album will come out this Spring; if it’s anything like this Neil Young cover, the freakfolk crowd is going to be all over it, and I’ll be right there with them.

Bonus points this week go to Laura Tsaggaris, who has the sheer unmitigated gall to cover both Lucinda Williams and Britney Spears and get away with it. This is bare-bones singer-songwriter performance, just a strummed guitar and some tambourine, but boiling these songs down so simply works, and Laura’s earnest, clear voice is a well-suited instrument for her chosen approach.

In the studio, Laura’s output trends towards grungy electric folkpop production in support of that same strong delivery, and that’s good stuff, too; you can hear samples of album-to-be Keep Talking, which drops in May, on Laura Tsaggaris’ MySpace page.

Other covernews in the air includes a few great takes on a few old songs, including a subtle, sparse version of Hang Me and a rollicking old-timey appalachian June Apple, on Waltz of the Chickadee, the wonderful new release from Mike and Ruthy, who we featured here a while back. Also the gorgeous new iTunes session from Matt Nathanson has a lovely, airy acoustic cover of The Everly Brothers classic All I Have To Do is Dream. Oh, and that great roots-rock Doug Sahm tribute we mentioned in last week’s feature on tribute albums dropped today, too.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features every Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Got a cover to share? Pass it on here, or via the comments below.

1,121 comments » | New Artists Old Songs

Single Song Sunday: Come On In My Kitchen
(Rory Block, Greg Brown, John Renbourn, Crooked Still & more!)

March 21st, 2009 — 11:38 pm

It’s been a long time since we put together one of these Single Song Sunday posts. But we’re hosting our first House Concert next Sunday, and the prospect of inviting folks into our kitchen has left this tune ringing in my ears…

Come On In My Kitchen was first recorded in 1936, back when the country blues was a form of folk music; the song is itself a partial cover, having lifted much of its melody from The Mississippi Sheik’s depression-era hit Sittin’ On Top of the World.

But unlike much of the Robert Johnson canon which would permeate black culture in the following decades, the song didn’t truly take hold until its rerelease in the sixties, when – despite a lack of the standard 12-bar blues structure – it was picked up by the emerging blues/rock/folkstream of the day and carried out to its logical conclusion by (predominantly British) white boys with electric guitars and a growing affinity for the blues.

Plenty of Robert Johnson tunes live on through the folkworld, of course. But because its cultural emergence is grounded in the same time and space as modern singer-songwriter folk music, this one is especially common in the genre, especially in the hands of white folk musicians who look to the blues for their inspiration.

The range of coverage here is surprisingly diverse, though the slide guitar and slow tempo linger in the vast majority of interpretations. Folk blues musicians Jo Ann Kelly and Rory Block stay close to their roots, for example, but the difference in tone and tempo between Kelly’s full-bodied acoustic blues and Block’s muddier, hollower take speaks of broad possibility even within the subgenre. Polish bluesman Romek Puchowski may be farthest from the Mississippi delta, but his cover is equally true to the original, though his accent lends a lovely air.

But the song has a lot of room for silence, and the loose tempo creates an opportunity for play; it is how musicians manage this space which makes all the difference. The addition of a simple harmonica has a transformative effect on John Renbourn‘s take, while Cat Power‘s simplified and shortened title anticipates its strummed, repeated chord and typically breathy vocal treatment. Iowan Greg Brown doesn’t drift far, either, but he still manages to produce something low and tender with just a guitar and that deep, wry basso growl.

Farther out on the other end of the spectrum, the full band treatment makes for something richer and broader in potential. Cassandra Wilson‘s loose approach floats crooning scatvocals over drumtrap, slapped bass and concertina, making a typically bluesy mood piece of the familiar lyrics and tune. By adding a gospel woodblock rhythm and barrelhouse piano, Delaney and Bonnie take the piece halfway to church. Meanwhile, the full sawed strings and banjo undertones of Crooked Still nurture a slow driving pace, creating a folk blues with rhythm and swing.

As always, folks, the songs posted here at Cover Lay Down are designed to entice and spread the good word. If you like what you hear, follow links above to purchase albums and songs direct from artist-preferred sources, the better to support the next generation of working musicians.

Just for fun, here’s a bonus video track from amateur uke bluesman The Baron.

PS: If you’re a regular reader with a hankerin’ for some incredible up-and-coming singer-songwriter folk, you’re free from 2-5 on Sunday, March 29th, and you live within driving distance of Springfield, Massachusetts, contact me for more info about our upcoming set with Austin folk troubadour, dust poet, and Red House Records recording artist Danny Schmidt. Like all house concerts, it’s friends-only, but if you’re a nice person, I’m sure we can work something out.

1,322 comments » | Single Song Sunday

Covered in Folk: U2
(Bell XI, Peter Mulvey, The Walls, Luka Bloom, and seven more!)

March 17th, 2009 — 08:23 pm

In introducing last year’s surprisingly popular St. Patrick’s Day entry on the folkier side of Sinead O’Connor, I noted that I had almost exhausted my collection of U2 covers. Since then, however, discovery and a surprisingly rapid pace of coverage have widened the playing field of potential, making for a lovely set.

So raise a glass, and let’s begin. It’s St. Pat’s, and the folk is flowing.

I came to U2 too late to be cool, hitting Top 40 puberty in the beginning of their stadium days. I hardly remember the single mid-eighties show I attended at the Boston Garden, though I do remember the experience of being too far back in the maddening crowd to make out anything except a tiny stage, and a tinier blob that was supposedly Bono, and deciding that I never, ever wanted to be that far back from the stage again.

But there was a time when The Joshua Tree was a regular on my turntable, and a time, a bit later, when a turn towards alt-radio pop in the very early nineties meant following the band into their experimental, post-ironic anthemic phase. And I do have an affinity for the band as a symbol, having traded a copy of Achtung Baby to some girl in college for a bathrobe.

Years later, “that girl” and I have been together for almost two decades, our copy of Achtung Baby has long since been hocked to pay for food and rent in our leaner days, and I don’t really care that U2 came out with yet another disk in the past few weeks. But I still appreciate their songbook, their evolution, and their influence. And if the vast and varied covers and tribute albums out there are any indication, so do a whole mess of current artists, including those with a sensibility on the folkier side.

We begin our exploration with a quartet of Irish musicians and bands playing tribute to their own, as befits a late St. Pat’s Day tribute to what has turned out to be perhaps the most influential Irish band since the Pogues, or perhaps ever.

And here’s more U2 covers from around the world that easily make the cut, from Mulvey’s slinky skifflebop growl to the Cash classic, from the quiet folkpop of WAZ to UK indieband Elbow’s folk-rock anthem. Vieux Farka Touré is some serious African worldbeat delta blues, while Waldemar Bastos rings delicate and powerful all-at-once like Cesaria Evora, putting that old Sixpence None the Blander cover to shame. Ol’ Yeller is a bit country, but pulls it off nicely, too.

The forecast for Sunday includes warm weather, a bit of drizzle, and yet another of our popular Single Song Sunday posts. Until then, why not check out the green over at Star Maker Machine?

1,156 comments » | Covered in Folk, Holiday Coverfolk, U2

Tributaries: On Influence and Coverage
(New and Upcoming Tribute Albums from the Folkworld and Beyond)

March 14th, 2009 — 11:35 pm

The tribute album is a relatively new phenomenon, historically speaking. After all, like all covers, the tribute is predicated on a model in which performing artists are thought of as both originators of and owners of song, a conceit which itself did not become common in modern culture until the cross-genre singer-songwriter movements of the fifties and sixties.

But where cover albums, through their very diversity, celebrate a spectrum of sonic influence on the cover artist, by acknowledging those musicians whose influence on culture and art go far beyond that of a single hit, tribute albums reinforce the very model of song as owned through performance. Tribute albums pay homage: the tribute album is a sign that the influence of a particular artist-as-originator has reached a kind of critical mass within a particular genre, or among a certain group of artists, or in the culture at large.

To record a tribute album is not to canonize, then, but to acknowledge that broad and long-lasting influence. Indeed, as a specialized subset of cover compilations, the tribute requires a full album’s worth of coverable song; as such, it re-establishes a body of familiar work, or of work worth re-imagining, thus reinforcing original artists’ familiarity and power.

This is not to say that tribute albums cannot function as a mechanism for cultural canonization, of course. In the last few decades, artists whose influence among a particular group of musicians is not yet recognized among a broader listenership, from Daniel Johnston to Mark Heard, increasingly merit tributes, especially in recognition of death or illness. But whether a tribute trades on popularity or seeks to spread it, the earnest tribute album has long been a way for artists to recognize their influences and peers, while at the same time grounding their own musicianship in a body of work, a history, a tapestry much larger than themselves.

Those horrible cross-genre tribute albums which merely ride the coattails of popularity to sell product have given the word “cover” a bad name, and I curse them in all their string-tribute anonymity. But a good tribute album is the cover lover’s bread and butter, a collection which serves to survey and reestablish all at once. And if the current crop of new and upcoming tribute albums are any indication, it’s going to be a very good year. Today, we survey some of the best of the bunch.

The project which would become Singing Through The Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips started life last year as a vehicle to defray medical expenses for folksinger Utah Phillips, who had been ill for some time. When the long-time union organizer, hobo, and storyteller died in May of last year, we did our own tribute here, and the project continued on as a vehicle to acknowledge his life and influence, with proceeds going directly to benefit Utah’s family.

Curated by fellow folksingers Dan Schatz and Kendall and Jacqui Morse, and released through Righteous Babe Records, the label started by Utah’s friend and fellow activist Ani DiFranco, the double CD is a fitting tribute and celebration, featuring three generations of folksingers whose music “springs from the same rich vein of the people’s history that Phillips chronicled throughout his life.” Many of these voices, such as Pete Seeger and Si Kahn, are torn and shaky after decades of hard roads and coffeehouse venues, and a few tracks sacrifice sweetness for emotive power, but overall, Singing Through The Hard Times is highly recommended, especially for celebrants, chroniclers, and members of the folkways crowd.

Longstanding staple of the curious intersection of blues, rock, country and R&B, and an originator of “Tex-Mex rock & roll”, Doug Sahm was an unknown to me until very recently, having grown up without much exposure to the roots world. But recent coverage over at Setting the Woods on Fire and The Adios Lounge, featuring Sahm solo and with Sir Douglas Quintet and the Grammy-winning Texas Tornados, has made me a convert. Even if I’m still not sure if this is folk, it counts as americana, I like it, and it’s too good not to share.

I’ve been sitting on the promo EP for Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm since Christmas, in fact, by label request. But though I haven’t heard the full album yet, nor heard much press about it elsewhere, Vanguard has been pushing their live SXSW tribute to Doug Sahm, which, like the album, will feature Sahm’s son Shawn and a holy host of others from the roots/americana world, so I’m going to assume that the deluge has started. Teaching, parenting, and the loss of stamina that accompanies encroaching middle age make SXSW attendance unrealistic at best for this old folkblogger, but as these great cuts from Dave Alvin and Alejandro Escovedo should demonstrate, the show, and the coming album, are both well worth the time and money for anyone with a penchant for rocking out to deep southern roots music.

I know even less about Chris Gaffney, another southern roots rocker of similar cross-genre sound who died of liver cancer last April, though I do recognize his name and sound from his work as a member of the Hacienda Brothers, and know that he spent much of the last decade playing backup for Dave Alvin. But the roster of artists on his upcoming Yep Rock tribute A Man Of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute To The Songs Of Chris Gaffney is pretty similar to the Sahm tribute roster — both include Dave Alvin, Escovedo and Los Lobos; the Gaffney tribute will also feature Peter Case, James McMurtry, and even Calexico on the roster — so if the Sahm tribute sounds like it’s right up your alley, you’ll like this one, too.

The release date for A Man of Somebody’s Dreams — which, like the Utah Phillips tribute above, was started by fellow musicians as a mechanism for defraying medical expenses, only to become a posthumous tribute — has been pushed back to May since songs:illinois covered it in January, but in the interest of keeping the buzz going, here’s the twangy honky-tonk Robbie Fulks cover Craig originally shared.

Meanwhile, over at naturalismo, host Tyler has been talking up an upcoming album of covers of Kath Bloom, a singer of delicate, fragile folkblues who recorded a half dozen albums in the late seventies before allowing herself to fade into obscurity and local community. Loving Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom, will be a double CD set, with the first disc covers, and the second originals; the paired set should serve as an especially powerful way to introduce fans to both the songs and the influence of this obscure ancestor of the freakfolk resurgence.

My letter to Chapter Music asking for a promo copy resulted in silence, but I’ve grown to trust naturalismo, who has since co-sponsored a short Kath Bloom tour on the West Coast in anticipation of an April 7 album release. Sweetheart of the Radio has a lovely Bill Callahan cover from the album, too, and a trio of older cuts for those who haven’t heard Bloom’s dreamy freakfolk originals. Though I’m eager to hear what the likes of Josephine Foster, Mark Kozelek, Bill Callahan and The Dodos are able to glean from Bloom’s catalog, the diversity and strange beauty of both the Meg Baird and Devendra Banhart covers here are a sweet foreshadowing.

It’s been a while since the buzz started on Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes: Jeffrey Foucault Sings the Songs of John Prine, one in a long line of folk tributes from one singer-songwriter to another — but no compendium of the best folk tribute albums of early 2009 would be complete without celebrating this excellent tribute, released back in February.

Jeffrey Foucault‘s genius in interpreting the songs of others was well-established by his work with singer-songwriter supergroup Redbird, and by the continued release of web-only outtakes such as the Townes Van Zandt cover we posted just this past week. But these priceless, powerful sessions, recorded late at night in the president’s office of an old bank over the course of a year, turn a catalog of well-chosen Prine classics and obscurities of power and despair into something a little less broken but perhaps a little more lonely. Here’s two, from the vault.

Of course the biggest tribute news in the coversphere this week is the announcement that Steve Earle has recorded and will soon be releasing an album of Townes Van Zandt songs. It’s hardly a revelation to find Earle covering Van Zandt so deeply — after all, deservedly celebrated singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle got his name from dad Steve — but the streaming tracks on Steve’s MySpace page are solid, if a little formulaic. This Mornin’ I Am Born Again has a tracklist and links to two more preview streams, while Beat Surrender adds a few great Steve Earle covers.

Finally, right on the heels of Bruce Springsteen’s own YouTube coverproject, distant news comes to us of PLAY SOME POOL, SKIP SOME SCHOOL, ACT REAL COOL, a gigantic tribute to this iconic and oft-covered stalwart of truly american music from Where It’s At Is Where You Are. The track list isn’t available yet, and the only cuts out so far are a pair of “non-album singles”, whatever that means. But the reps assure me that the album will be about 1/3 folk of the indie persuasion. And if this frozen, fragile gypsyfolk take on I’m On Fire from brooklyn-based quintet The Snow is any indication, someone with a keen ear for good coverage is behind the helm.

Honorable mention here goes to Aquarium Drunkard’s wonderfully-produced collection RAM On L.A., which pays track-by-track tribute to Paul McCartney’s 1971 solo album RAM; the album, which features new bands from the LA scene, isn’t really folk per se, but has a local authenticity and charm all its own. And rumor has it there’s a Shel Silverstein tribute in the works out there, too, with star turns from Alison Krauss, Black Keys, Dr. Dog, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, and Andrew Bird.

Cover Lay Down publishes new features Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: something a little less strenuous.

1,350 comments » | Tribute Albums

I Got Nothin’: Songs of Absence, Loss, and Stasis
(5 Dylan covers, plus covers of Prince, The Kinks, Van Zandt and more)

March 11th, 2009 — 10:55 pm

I had planned to post a huge survey of new and upcoming tribute albums from the folkworld here in this space today, but after a week of bedside Zen, Sunday’s late-night sociopolitical rant, and a full-bore reentry into teaching and town business meetings, exhaustion seems to have caught up with me.

I’ll be working on that tribute post throughout the week, and hope to have it up on Sunday at the latest. But in the interest of deadlines, and because the ol’ brain is really not up to much more than yet another themed list, here’s a set of songs about nothin’.

Thanks, by the way, to all who helped push back against the recent anti-populist changes at HypeMachine. I’m happy to report that, since yesterday, the default view over there has been changed to one which features a single song from each blog each day. It’s not ideal, of course — the new system will not favor blogs which post multiple songs twice a week (ahem), and it’s going to hide many posts from Star Maker Machine — but it’s better than the alternative. HypeMachine gets subdued props for listening to their core readership, and for owning up to their vital role as a space for discovery, rather than re-creating and filtering the Top 100 status-quo.

But Ekko’s reminder today — that the true core of our readership should grow from mutual pass-alongs and hat-tips — is a good one. Those who depend on the business models of others to drive discovery are playing a risky game; keeping those bigger venues honest is only one small part of the work of bloggers, fans, and musicians invested in keeping the music world broad, rich, and ever-wonderful.

So thanks for the continued support. And please — if you like what you read here, like Autopsy IV says, help spread the word about us, and the blogs we link to, so we can all continue to help spread the word about the artists.

1,250 comments » | Uncategorized

When Hype Machine Drops the Little Guys, We All Lose:
An Open Letter to Bloggers and Blog Readers Everywhere

March 8th, 2009 — 11:03 pm

Music blog aggregator Hype Machine – one of the best sources of traffic, and new fans, for thousands of music bloggers – decided today to change their front page default setting, so that it only shows the top 100 music blogs. In response, Craig, one of my favorite folkbloggers, has posted a call for readers to help him break into the Hype Machine top 100.

Craig is a stellar blogger, and a keen critic of the modern folkworld; if I was going to vote for my own top 100, he would be right there near the top of the list. But while I admire Craig, I believe that that the changes at Hype Machine are very bad for blogging, and bad for music fans, too. And so I’m writing today to ask you NOT to support this change, or act to perpetuate it in any way.

Instead, I’d like to prevail on readers and bloggers everywhere to help spread the word, quickly and effectively, that this new change at Hype Machine is a threat to a diverse, well-populated music blogosphere.

And we need to act fast and decisively, before the very act of vying for one of those top spots starts pitting blog against blog.

My position, in a nutshell, is that default settings are powerfully dominant. And turning the front page of Hype Machine from a welcoming, fast-moving space of multiple voices to a commodified, slower-moving space populated by A-list bloggers would have a significant and severe effect on music blog readership, and thus on the possibility of discovering new blogs and music.

Here’s how I put it over at Hype Machine:

My basic thesis: the new default system is ANTI-COMMUNITY and ANTI-WEB, because it will weaken all smaller blogs, and strengthen all larger blogs, thus creating a widening gap of “haves” and “have nots” not much unlike that huge disparity in wealth currently causing the collapse of the global economy.

Consider: The new system REINFORCES the status of the top 100 by exposing ONLY them, and by making the smaller blogs (thousands of them) harder to find, and thus makes it that much harder for blogs to come in and out of that 100. In other words: such infrastructures weaken the small to add value to the strong. Sure, such infrastructures abound more and more online. But I believe they represent the commodification of the caste system of the web, and will ultimately reinforce the current status quo at the risk of slowing down evolution and change.

Don’t get me wrong: I love that, as a reaction to this change, a few dozen people have immediately added me to their favorites list. But this is small consolation for a system that only lets YOU get more hits by letting you “beat” and then obscure others vying for the top 100. I’m sorry, but I believe that this sort of competitive system is inherently anti-web, antithetical to the very nature of the social ebb and flow that make the internet what it is, and constantly improving and self-correcting.

That it also means less ad-wealth going to smaller blogs, and more going to bigger blogs, is part and parcel, if only a symptom of my real concern of social eye-awareness and visiting. But that last bit is not trivial, either. Instead, please note you just cost many newer blogs from ever becoming part of the top 100, and thus made it MUCH harder for new bloggers to ever be found, thus ever enter the fray as the next generation of new bloggers.

Note that my case is primarily built on an assumption that anything which makes it easier for new and smaller voices to be seen and found is good, and anything which obscures smaller and newer voices is bad. This is especially notable here, because the folks behind Hype Machine believe this to be true too.

See, four days ago, the Hype Machine blog proudly posted the following quote from web industry guru Terry McBride: “I love music blogs because they’re music fans. They’re authentic and passionate about music … All they’re doing is spreading the word about stuff they like. The authentic will rise to the top, which is why I like aggregators like The Hype Machine. I think it’s brilliant.”

The irony of touting a quote which names you as a prime example of a model in which “the authentic will rise to the top”, and then only four days later changing your own aggregator to one which keeps the authentic and new from rising anywhere as easily, is pretty obvious, I hope.

Look, I believe in community and diversity and personal choice, and I see the web as one of the best community spaces we’ve got. But in my real life, I’ve got two degrees in social theory, cultural change, and community potential in the online world, and I know that seemingly small actions like this one can have a significant effect on our range of experience, and thus on what our quality of life and breadth of choice might be.

For a long time, Hype Machine has been a great supporter of that world, by prioritizing a cacophony, while letting people pick favorites and make lists so that they can make their own sense out of that world. But their new model supports a very different kind of world — one which constantly reinforces a small group of ever-more-monolithic content sources, while smaller voices get drowned out, and become invisible. And I believe that such scenarios are bad for culture, bad for music, and bad for everyone.

And if you believe that, too, I hope you’ll help me do something about it.

Convinced? Concerned? Think I’m crazy? If you, too, have strong feelings on this issue, I’d encourage you to join the conversation, either through the comments here at Cover Lay Down or over at Hype Machine itself.

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Covering The Past:
Songs From My Father’s Record Collection

March 8th, 2009 — 01:35 am

I’ve spent three days now by my father’s bedside, watching as he grows slowly stronger, and learns to measure and monitor the pain of his newly reconstructed back. I’ve held his hand, and learned its lines anew, even as I have learned to work around the bruising from the saline feed.

Each day is more tiring that I could have expected, for both of us. But no matter how exhausted I am, each night, I come home, and sit on his couch, and drink his beer, and play his records alone in the dark, just like he used to when I was little.

The records I treasure have been reorganized in the last few years since the move, but they still smell of my musical awakening — that particularly sweet smell of aging record sleeves, and the cherrywood cabinet they used to inhabit. They range far beyond folk, of course: this is a man whose tastes run deep and broad, from Bob Carlin country to Kool and the Gang funk, from sixties jazzpop to bluegrass, all the early masters of a dozen genres of American music.

One whole side of the collection, in fact — the blues stuff, the jazz stuff, the soul, the R&B — evolved later, and separately, as I grew, so that it never truly seems like it sprang from my childhood as clearly. But the collection in toto contains the origins of my belief that all music has merit, and that all genres have their masters; that it is the performance, the skill, and the talent which provide the platform for success, by even the most subjective measure.

My father’s records have always been organized by personal association; to follow their sequence — from Bob Dylan to Steeleye Span to James Taylor, from Little Feat to Steely Dan to Cat Stevens — is to think like my father, or at least understand the world of musical influence and genre in his terms. And I know this world well. I spent hours lying on the hardwood floor in front of that cherrywood stereo cabinet, head cocked to the right as if listening, running my fingers along these tall, thin spines, sliding precious vinyl in and out of their paper sleeves carefully, as if each album contained the family, the world, the self, the very meaning of life itself.

Looking at these records now, I find many albums I missed then, and have since come to on my own — Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine, John Hartford among them, on the folkier side. Too, some musicians my father treasured took longer to love than others — the nasal voices of Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky, for example, only truly blossomed for me when I was old enough to come to their work with an adult’s mature understanding of memory, love, and other common themes. I’m still working on a love for Richard Thompson.

But there are whole sections that I know as well as the back of my father’s hand.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that somewhere deep in this collection was a kernel of my father himself, though I did not realize it at the time. And indeed, though I never truly saw him listen to these records, or even buy them, more than anything else, the access he gave me to these records — and through them, to him — is the beginning of the bond between us.

Our listening has long been private, done in darkness; I cannot claim that this song or that is his favorite cover of that bygone era, could not truly name his own experience with these songs if I were pressed to do so. But these are the songs handed down nonetheless, through the very nature of their presence, and the very fact of their importance, as shared artifacts in time and space.

And, though it would take years for me to hear their nuances, long before I heard the originals, these songs of my father’s are the progenitors, the soundtrack to an audiophile’s birth. That they would become form and foundation of the deep love and friendship I am privileged to share with my father today makes them all the sweeter.

Not all these albums are still in print, and few are digitized; as such, there’s much on these shelves which cannot be posted. But here’s a few coversongs from those artists and albums I remember best — from those childhood hours sunk deep into my father’s psyche, made manifest in music.

Cover Lay Down posts new features every Sunday and Wednesday, come hell or high water. Stay tuned this week for a look at a lovely crop of new and upcoming tribute albums…

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