Archive for April 2009

Newgrass Voices: Sarah Jarosz covers The Decemberists; Sara Watkins goes solo; new coverage from The Greencards

April 28th, 2009 — 10:28 pm

The inbox is filling up fast with Spring releases, but the unseasonable heat’s got me thinking ahead to festival season. How to reconcile these seemingly disparate urges? Why, by featuring new works from a trifecta of femme-voiced artists I’ve seen at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival! Enjoy the tunes, and the change in the weather…

The new Sara Watkins is all over the blogs, and it’s a killer, albeit with caveats. But this newgrass-lovin’ folkie’s eyes and ears are first and foremost on nineteen year old emerging star Sarah Jarosz, a Texas-based picker, vocalist, and songwriter who came off fresh-cheeked and cowboy-booted this past summer at Northeast bluegrass mecca Grey Fox. Sarah-with-an-h has inherited the innocence that Sara-without has shed since her time with Nickel Creek, and this sweet cover of the Decemberists’ Shankill Butchers proves it, turning what was a gypsy ballad of local retro-hoodlums into something pensive and mystical and darkly gorgeous while retaining just the right measure of melodic naivete.

The rest of Song Up In Her Head is much of the same: full and complicated, primordial and neo-traditional and original all at once. It’s Little Red Riding Hood looking with wonder into the forest, with just a touch of the introspective adolescent watching her peers develop their dark side, and wondering how much of herself is in them. It’s full, and rich, and exquisitely produced by Tim O’Brien, who knows how to pick ‘em, bring out their full sound, and set ‘em up for glory.

The up-and-coming Jarosz is already poised, if still a bit bashful and dewey around the edges; her voice is pure, and her playing keen and masterful; it’s no wonder she draws a crowd of peers and horizon-watchers wherever she goes. Song Up In Her Head, which will have the full support of label Sugar Hill, doesn’t drop until June 16, but I’ve got label permission to share, and the song is well worth celebrating now; listen to a few more new tracks on Sarah’s MySpace page while you watch the buzz grow, note that her friend’s list there is a veritable who’s who of today’s young bluegrass superstars, and prepare to see Sarah Jarosz blow the socks off the neo-grass world as she continues to develop confidence.

PS: there are some partial YouTube covers of Sarah Jarosz covering Gnarls Barkley classic Crazy at Grey Fox out there, but I’ve been unable to find a full recording. Anyone got one?

Speaking of Sara Watkins: did I mention her new album has a handful of well-chosen covers hiding among the original tracks? Reception has been deservedly mixed — as others have noted, her attempts at covering Jon Brion’s Same Mistakes and Tom Waits’ Pony are maudlin and a bit unfocused — but her sweetly swinging countrified take on Jimmie Rogers standard Any Old Time, and a gentle indiefolk take on Norman Blake’s decades-old Lord Won’t You Help Me, are worth the price of admission for coverfans.

It seems like every blogger but me got a copy of Sara’s solo debut from Nonesuch, but I was lucky enough to inherit someone else’s free ticket for tonight’s show at the Iron Horse in Northampton; though Sara’s airy voice was overshadowed by her stellar uke and fiddlework until the last few songs of the set, after being blown away by a holy host of great covers from the fourth row (including all four of the above-mentioned songs, a surprisingly fun ukulele cover of Different Drum, a solid take on gospel classic River of Jordan, and a double-cover encore of John Hartford fave In Tall Buildings and Dylan standard Forever Young) I’m happy to trade in my pride for secondhand songs.

The live John Hartford cover below, taped earlier this week on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in performance with brother Sean, producer and ex-Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones and ?uestlove of Fallon’s house band The Roots, comes via Culture Bully; Fiddlefreak first streamed Lord, Won’t You Help Me. If you’re interested in label-sanctioned originals, Slowcoustic has All This Time, while Sean has Where Will You Be; listen, then pick up Sara Watkins’ self-titled solo debut here.

Last but not least, Fascination, the newest release from genre- and border-busting newgrass trio The Greencards, dropped just this past week. After keeping it on rotation all week, I’m pleased to report that the album, which debuted at #23 on the indie charts, proves the band is just as poised for greatness as their solo sisters above.

The Greencards aren’t new, but the trio is newly Americanized, having relocated to Nashville last year to take advantage of the US newgrass market after two strong albums put them on the map, and their newest outing finds them in excellent form. Strong songwriting, lead singer Carol Young’s powerful, sultry midrange, some blazing fast stringwork from the boys and a penchant for mellow, high-reverb production make for a rich mix — poppier and more fluid than Nickel Creek — but they sure can make the old tunes swing authentic and wild when they want to.

As with previous ventures from the “two Aussies and a Brit”, Fascination is predominantly originals, with one exception: Davey Jones, a tune originally penned and recorded by Cape Breton altpop singer, songwriter, and producer Gordie Sampson. The original is up for an International Songwriting Competition award, and can be heard on Gordie’s website; the cover is a fair bit more tender, but offers a solid introduction to the best of both artists. I’ve included a bonus track from each of the Greencards’ last two albums — a lovely Patty Griffin cover and a surprisingly true-to-the-original Fleetwood Mac cover, both of which I seem to have missed in earlier features — to get you in the mood to buy Fascination.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features Wednesdays and Sundays. Coming soon: my kids help me review some kidfolk, and my cup runneth over with new discoveries.

1,475 comments » | bluegrass

Single Song Sunday: Who Knows Where The Time Goes
(Kate Rusby, Eva Cassidy, Kate Wolf, Nanci Griffith and more)

April 26th, 2009 — 01:25 pm

Leaving the North Carolina sound for the long drive north is always bittersweet. Grateful for the respite from the scheduled world, saddened that it has to end, we shake the sand from our shoes one last time. The long road ahead of us looms large, threatening our carefully recovered sense of self. By the time we arrive, late and tired from the miles, there will be but tatters left.

Who Knows Where The Time Goes is properly a song of autumn’s end; the lyrics speak clearly of winter’s impending fire, and the scattering of migrant birds which mark its ascension. But inside our bodies and hearts, where seasons know neither weather nor calendar, leavetakings are leavetakings: the beaches recede in our memories, put away for another year, and back we go to the cold, cruel world, keeping the warm spark of summer in ourselves and our love for each other.

Pre-eminent sixties Britfolk goddess Sandy Denny recorded her own song several times over: as a solo artist, with the Strawbs, and most notably as part of Fairport Convention on their seminal album Unhalfbricking. Her pure voice was a perfect match for the simple lyrics, and though it took Judy Collins‘ slow-building 1968 cover, on her album of the same name, to truly bring Denny to light in the U.S., it is Denny’s voice that most old folkies hear when we read the lyrics: crystal clear, delicate and strong in all the right places, with crisp, almost clipped phrasing, and that slight and unmistakable vibrato on the long notes.

Though each has its own subtleties, the cycle of early versions created a strong sense of definition for the song. Over forty years and as many as eighty covers later, the vast majority of interpretations perpetuate the sweeping sense of loss and longing through the same soaring female vocals, laid over the same building surf-sound brushes and strum pattern, and the same broad range of emotions between the hushed early verses and high sustained title phrase.

But there are many gems, from the acoustic quietude of Kate Wolf‘s deep alto or Maggie Reilly‘s light Scottish soprano to the subtle neo-traditional sound of Kate Rusby‘s gorgeous warble, from Mary Black‘s slower Irish folkpop ballad to Nanci Griffith‘s post-country folk, from Eva Cassidy‘s poignant blues club vocals to Cat Power‘s typical piano deconstruction. To listen to them all is to study nuance: the way different hearts evoke the majesty of time, and the passage thereof, is an infinity of horizon.

So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again / I have no fear of time. It is, after all, a short winter, from April to June. Too soon, the school year will be over, and true summer will begin again. Until then, here’s the subjective best of a long list of covers, to hold the tides of time dear.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: new singer-songwriter coverfolk from the increasingly mainstream neo-bluegrass world, and a look at Peter Yarrow’s recent series of folk songbooks for cool moms and dads. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

1,128 comments » | Single Song Sunday

Carolina Coverfolk, 2009: The Carolina Chocolate Drops
An African American String Band recreates the original Piedmont blues

April 22nd, 2009 — 01:36 am

Last year’s trip to the American south provided an opportunity to explore the works of Elizabeth Cotten and Doc Watson, two pre-War progenitors of style who, by taking the music of their own communities and reinventing it for the masses, helped define the scope and breadth of modern folk music. I quite enjoyed the research, and though the tracks are long gone, I think the features stand on their own as some of our better work since the blog began.

As I noted earlier this week, this year finds us once again on the outer banks of North Carolina. Rather than mess with a successful formula, our trip occasions a look at some modern inheritors of those traditions. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

There are two ways to learn music, really: by formal study and by direct transmission. The vast majority of musicians these days learn through the former method, a mixed bag of training, recorded music and noodling, balancing their books on a combination of heart and chords, songbook and soul.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se: originality, after all, comes of such ownership, coupled with a sense of creation. Indeed, the folkworld thrives on such evolution, depending as it does on a connection to an everchanging culture. Those of us who love modern confessional and coffeehouse folk, not to mention the myriad hybrid forms which have emerged over the last few decades, appreciate the way music stretches and evolves in the hands of such practitioners.

But the transmissionary model isn’t dead. Just as there are audiophiles who insist on the scratchy authenticity of their original 78s, there are still folk musicians who believe that to truly become part of an authentic tradition of music, one must learn the trade authentically, too. From blueswoman Rory Block to Kentucky Appalachian Brett Ratliff, such modern followers of the folkways eschew records and scales, and look to the older ways, seeking out the ancient progenitors of their forms to listen and play along, learning the scratchy, earthy sounds and songs from their elders as if through osmosis.

The result isn’t generally polished, but that’s the point. Instead, such performers tend towards a raw sound, rich in feeling but often sparse in instrumentation, which favors emotional impact over consistent tempo. There’s no gloss here, only timelessness. And folk needs such old blood, too, lest it evolve so far it becomes unrecognizable; lest we lose touch with our origins, and forget that without the old ways to refer to, we cannot have them to reinvent.

Writ large, the Piedmont or “East Coast” blues emanates from a vast swath of rural East Coast America; popular in the early days of recorded music, from the twenties to the forties, its most famous tracks, such as Blind Boy Fuller’s 1940 recording of “Step It Up & Go”, sold as many as half a million copies to blacks and whites alike. Generally, the ragtime-based fingerpicking style which characterizes the once-popular African-American dance music is located as far North as Richmond, VA, and as far south as Atlanta, though of course the emergence of records helped spread the sound much farther in its heyday.

The rediscovery of acoustic blues by folk fans in the sixties brought the music back into the mainstream, bringing many artists out of hiding and into the festival circuit, where they began to trade licks. Today, the Piedmont style and its repertoire can be found in the modern playing of many formally trained folk musicians, from Leo Kottke to Paul Simon.

Modern inheritors of the Piedmont sound, the “African American string band” Carolina Chocolate Drops may have found each other through the newest technology — two of the three met in a listserv and chatspace for Black banjo fans and players — but they picked up their music the old way, seeking out the oldest surviving members of the Piedmont style, learning at the feet of fellow North Carolinans Algia Mae Hinton and Etta Baker, who passed just before the ‘Drops released their debut albums Heritage and Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind in 2007.

Learning from North Carolina musicians magnifies the Carolinan connection in this particular incarnation. Fans of Baker, Hinton, and Carolina Chocolate Drops mentor Joe Thompson of Mebane, NC, said to be the last black traditional string band player, will hear the mannerisms of each in their playing. Even their name, which recalls that of 1920s fiddle-led band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, pays tribute to the combination of form and geography.

Mountain strings — the banjo, guitar, and fiddle — feature heavily in the Piedmont sound, though not all at the same time; these, plus a smorgasbord of washboards, jugs, combs, and other household instruments round out the Carolina Chocolate Drops performance. But in the end, the instrumentation and the process are subservient to the madcap, heartfelt, almost desperately gleeful energy of the Piedmont style itself, as reincarnated here. It’s dance music, designed to get you jumping, appealing to your basest instincts, your wildest primal hopes and fears.

Here’s a short set of samplers — a modern cover done up old style, a video link to a great version of an old classic learned from Etta Baker, a handful of traditional tracks from their albums, soundtracks, and live appearances — which, in their timelessness and raw beauty, prove the value of the osmotic process, even as they celebrate the eternal spirit of the music itself.

Like what you hear? Carolina Chocolate Drops will be appearing at Merlefest this weekend, way on the other end of the state, but there’s more than one way to support the old ways; musicians can’t survive without fans who buy records, and though they’re not due for a new disk until early 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops catalog is well worth owning. Buy direct from the artists, or head out to your local record store; both strategies help spread the word and warm the heart while keeping music small and local.

Today’s Bonus Tracks feature a few more covers learned by and from harmonica player Sonny Terry and blues picker Etta Baker, both members of the older generation of North Carolinan-based Piedmont blues musicians.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • On Race and the Folk Community
  • Carolina Coverfolk, Redux: Songs of the South
  • 1,537 comments » | Blues, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Regional Folk

    Carolina Coverfolk, Redux: Songs of the South
    from Red Molly, Steve Forbert, Cris Williamson and more!

    April 18th, 2009 — 09:12 pm

    I’m down in the Outer Banks region of North Carolina once again, just like last year, on the cusp of a whole week of for what is fast becoming an annual gathering of extended family and friends.

    We left just after school on Friday, and I did the lion’s share of the driving, just over twelve hours of overnight while the kids and spouse napped in the car; since we hit the sandy soil of Kitty Hawk just before sunup this morning, we’ve hit up sand and surf, sucked down breakfast barbecue and beer, eaten sweet frozen custard and bought new floppy hats on the tourist walkways, and stared at enough ocean to resalinate a nation’s saltcellars.

    Unfortunately, what with the overnight drive and a wee bit too much time in the sun this afternoon, I’m feeling far too loopy to cope with anything new. So here’s last year’s set — a host of coverfolk which celebrates the Carolinas, heavy on the southern appalachian sound — with the promise of something slightly more original when my brain recovers. Hope no one minds the reposted material. After all, this is a vacation.

    • Mud Acres: Carolina in My Mind (orig. James Taylor)
      Another song by a native son, this one reinvented as a ragged hootenanny by Happy Traum, banjoist Bill Keith, bass player Roly Salley (who penned the oft-covered Killin’ The Blues) and others from the mid-seventies Woodstock, NY Mud Acres music collective.

    Cover Lay Down publishes every Sunday, Wednesday, and the occasional otherday, regardless of stress or relaxation. Stay tuned later this week for a feature on at least one regionally-relevant folk band…plus more tales of sunburn and surf!

    1,069 comments » | reposts

    Queer As Coverfolk:
    Songs About “Alternate” Genders and Sexualities

    April 15th, 2009 — 03:27 pm

    via awesome GLBT blog

    Cover Lay Down is hardly a political blog; first and foremost, our mission is spread the gospel of good music, in the context of its culture and community. But it is no accident that folk music has a long history as an engine of social justice and change. By its very nature, folk assumes that music is not merely inseparable from its culture, but that it speaks to and for its culture.

    My own tendencies towards progressive social values, from pro-feminist parenting to the importance of preserving equity in community spaces, may not originate in folk, but they are embedded in it, just as they are embedded in the practice of my daily life as a parent and teacher. And among these values, I am proud to include a belief in the universal right of all individuals to love and commit in the ways that they see fit, regardless of sexual or gender preference.

    When my children were born, we modified the traditional Jewish blessing for their naming ceremonies, dropping gender and any assumption of sexual preference from the text, rather than assume that they would someday want to have “traditional” relationships. I was grateful to have the opportunity to take my daughter to the Northampton courthouse the day gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts; I celebrate the recent moves towards further normalization of what were once considered “alternative” lifestyle practices here in the U.S.

    And just as past movements in school libraries to ban books about gay parents once drove me to donate a copy of King & King to our own school library, so has the recent debacle with Amazon’s cataloging error that banished queer and feminist books to “adult” purgatory driven me to consider applying my own meager counterweight to the universe once again — this time through the compilation and distribution of a full set of folk and folk-related coversongs which present LGBT life and lifestyle choices as perfectly normal.

    Folk music is hardly the only place where music has been an engine of change for queer culture; as we see in the choice of covers taken on by folk artists, glam and other alt-gender cultural movements have each had their own inroads into mass culture through popular music.

    But there’s a particularly long history of LGBT folk performers. Lesbians, especially, have found a place in the modern folkworld, following dozens of gay and gay-friendly artists from Joan Armatrading to the Indigo Girls, and from Melissa Etheridge and Catie Curtis to Dar and Toshi and Ani, descending on folk festivals in droves whenever such favorite performers appear.

    That said, it is surprisingly difficult to find songs which explicitly speak to same-sex relationships. Perhaps there are folk/culture/political issues at the heart of this; after all, not all queer performers have been as up front about their sexuality in their music as they are in their personal life; even musicians who present as queer in their work are generally known for just a few songs which speak explicitly to same-sex relations.

    Still, our goal here today is to celebrate the universality of songs themselves, as agencies of change — to recognize, as it were, that in a world where the National Organization for Marriage still has enough money to make scary, homophobic videos “protecting” marriage, to stand up and be counted through song continues to be an act of courage and of necessity.

    As such, today’s songs are NOT mere gender bender covers — that is, they are not songs of hetero attraction which have passed from a male voice to a female voice or vice versa, such as Patti Smith’s wonderful interpretation of Van Morrison’s Gloria. Neither are they songs which have been adopted by one LGBT group or another, and thus have come to represent a particular community or movement.

    Rather, they are covers of original works which unabashedly celebrate what once were considered alternative lifestyles, from transexualism to the bisexual glam lifestyle, from same-sex parentage to plain old homosexual attraction.

    Some of these songs, and some of the performances, come off as a bit tongue-in-cheek. Others verge on precious. But the diversity seems appropriate. And that so many are so familiar, and that all are so palatable, says much about how close we are to the day when my children, and yours, will truly have the freedom to be who they are, without shame or struggle. Here’s a setlist of hope, a soundtrack for change, to help things stay on the right track.

      There are two versions of this mythical story of mate-finding and attraction on tribute compilation Wig in a Box, which takes on songs from queer musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Jonathan Richman’s distinctively cracked vocals and acoustic strum beat Rufus Wainwright’s high pop by a landslide.

      Jose Gonzalez‘ typically rhythmic, atmospheric guitarplay and high vocals are a perfect match for the loneliness and homophobia experienced by Bronski Beat’s young protagonist as he searches for friendship and family.

      …You’ve got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl… Bowie’s paean to the androgynous Glam culture takes on a gentle samba tone in the hands of Brazilian master Seu Jorge on his lovely, delicate soundtrack to The Life Aquatic.

      My father and I once attended a Joan Armatrading concert; I swear we were the only men in our section. Austin-bred acoustic roots troubadour Kris McKay turns Armatrading’s call to the unobtainable into something sweeter and more southern, yet equally mournful.

      A repost, but I still think Corin Joel‘s slow, cracked, self-conscious take on this Katy Perry song about experimenting with bisexuality beats the Max Vernon version hands down.

      Acoustic alt-fauxabilly from German country coverband The BossHoss, who we last saw taking a crack at Britney, with a tune from Russian faux-lesbians t.A.T.u.

      Old folkies Holly Near and soon-to-be-featured PP&M take on this tender tale of teaching diversity amidst a diverse neighborhood originally penned by Bitchin’ Babe Sally Fingerett. Slightly syrupy, but worth the experience.

      Canadian indie popstars Stars give Morrissey’s tale of the underground gay scene an upbeat, high-production folkpop sound, lush and modern yet reminiscent of the very electro-club scene it claims to reject.

      This typical acoustic country ballad from the wry-yet-tender Willie Nelson was the first LGBT-themed country song by a mainstream artist — and a brave step forward for a man whose audience has traditionally consisted of Red State Republicans.

      Finally, four takes on two songs about the same Warhol-era star, transsexual Candy Darling. Albert Pla‘s half-whispered worldbeat popfolk comes with bouncy acoustic guitar and organ, while Jesse Malin turns the same song into a grungy, almost anthemic folkrock tune. Meanwhile, freakfolk vocalist Antony takes cello and sparse guitar for a warbly torch song, while CLD fave Kathryn Williams turns in a mellow, ringing folk take with bells on.

    Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday. Stay tuned for Sunday, when we’ll begin a week of blogging from the Outer Banks of North Carolina!

    1,185 comments » | LGBT

    (Re)Covered IX: More covers of and from Mike and Ruthy, Richard Shindell, U2, and YouTube

    April 11th, 2009 — 09:33 pm

    It’s been a busy week, what with re-election to the local School Board, midterm grading, and Passover coming to a head all-at-once. To compensate, I’ve timeshifted this post a bit, writing ahead in time stolen from sleep and paperwork, so that the family can spend the weekend in Boston while I pass words and coversong along via some template trickery.

    Which is to say: as you read this, I’m not here right now. And since we’re drifting in the complex currents of past tense grammar, why not reach back in time a bit more? Here’s yet another installment of our popular (Re)Covered series, wherein we cover new and newly-rediscovered songs that dropped into our laps just a bit too late to make it into earlier features on the same subject.

    I’ve made no secret about the fact that American expatriate Richard Shindell is one of my absolute favorite singer-songwriters. In fact, looking back in the archives, I find that we’ve covered the one-time Fast Folkie in depth several times, both as a solo coverartist and as a member of Cry Cry Cry.

    I last wrote about Shindell in (Re)Covered V, back when he was soliciting micro-financing for his upcoming album; since then, I’ve received my own copy of Not Far Now and companion alt-takes collection Mariana’s EP, and I’m happy to report that a) it’s a topper, and b) it contains a marvelous cover of Dave Carter’s The Mountain. One day, I aspire to a full set of covers of the late great Dave Carter’s work, both with and without his still-touring partner Tracy Grammer. In the meantime, this one’s just too good to hang on to.

    Richard Shindell Bonus: We posted a studio version of modern Celtic folkband Solas covering of Shindell’s On a Sea of Fleur de Lis way back in our very first post; here’s a hopping live version of the same from their 2004 live CD/DVD, which brought together all past and present members for an amazing set of songs.

    I’ve written about Ruth Ungar Merenda‘s work a few times here, too, most recently in her role as one third of nu-folk trio Sometymes Why. But as I noted in our first full feature on her work as a solo artist and co-founder of now-defunct neo-trad group The Mammals, these days Ruthy spends most of her time with her husband and fellow ex-Mammals member Mike Merenda and their new tiny son.

    It’s Mike and Ruthy we’re interested in today. The two just came out with a new album called Waltz of the Chickadee, and in addition to the usual diverse set of intimate, old-timey originals, it includes some wonderful covers of some familiar old tunes. Here’s two vastly different takes on the long-ago past from the new work: a loose acoustic old-time jam take on Guthrie classic Dust Bowl Blues, and a mellower, sweeter, more indie-folk Hang Me.

    Ruth Merenda Bonus: Dad Jay and stepmom Molly Mason invited Ruthy in to sing harmony on an old Leadbelly tune given the acoustic swing treatment on the title track to their 2003 album.

    I hadn’t planned on returning to our feature on native YouTube covers, but as I mentioned at the time, more and more artists are producing work in front of the cameras, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them or their producing organizations to strip the sound of its innate visual component without acknowledging the work in its original multimedia form.

    Here’s a simply stunning eighties cover from new folk-crush William Fitzsimmons, a still-rising star from the same hushfolk school as Sufjan and Iron and Wine, recorded last summer on a Deep Rock Drive session.

    William Fitzsimmons Bonus: Fitzsimmons’ modern indiefolk lullaby cover of James Taylor’s You Can Close Your Eyes is but one of many powerful tracks on the previously-featured sixties and seventies tribute Before the Goldrush.

    Speaking of video, and as a nod to our recent set of U2 covers, here’s a slightly precious but oh so gorgeous popfolk video cover from a recent TV appearance by a collection of Norwegian pop singers. Seems this cover is the first single from their new tour, or something. Totally guilty pleasure, but I love it all the same. (Less impressive, unless you like American Idol fauxfolk: their 2007 cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.)

    U2 Bonus: here’s an old Redbird outtake, ragged but equally gorgeous in its own fragmented way, rediscovered through a reader (thanks, Jeff).

    As always, Cover Lay Down is proud to support artists directly, without middlemen or megastores. If you like what you hear here, please consider following links to artist websites and preferred points of purchase.

    1,269 comments » | (Re)Covered, richard shindell, U2

    Passover Coverfolk: Songs of Pharaoh and Moses
    (On Finding Freedom in the Story of Exodus)

    April 7th, 2009 — 10:07 pm

    Ancient Diplomacy: Moses turns his staff into a snake as a show of power to Pharaoh

    Tomorrow night, Jews across the world are commanded to retell the story of Exodus. And here in the Howdy House, that means a night of roasts, toasts, revelry and ritual as friends and family descend on the house like plagues.

    The story of the Jews’ escape from slavery, and their emergence as a people, has much to offer as a modern parable of freedom. The seder meal is bittersweet, tinged with sorrow for those who had to die that others could be free. As a metaphor for struggle itself, it asks us to be aware that though freedom is paramount, violence is always a last, worst resort; patience and persistence go hand in hand.

    The seder traditionally ends with a call to return to and remember the land of one’s ancestors, but in more and more households in this day and age, it’s the freedom to go or stay which is emphasized in the telling. Many modern haggadot frame the tale explicitly with calls to ongoing struggles for freedom throughout the world, and reminders that as long as one human remains enslaved, none of us are truly free. It’s a powerful message for children, and I’m proud to be able to share it with my own, and thus help plant the seed of human rights and social consciousness in yet another rising generation.

    To tell the story now would be pre-emptive, of course — far be it from us to take the power of our own retellings, let alone risk trivializing them through popular song, however powerful that song may be. As such, I’ve chosen not to try to compile the story itself in song, though I admit such a task was mightily tempting, at least until I realized how few songs about lice, boils and cattle disease have ever been recorded.

    But whether you celebrate or not, every good story needs a cast of characters. Here’s a few favorite coversongs about Moses and Pharaoh, the prime agencies of good and evil in this particular retelling of the eternal struggle for all to be free.

    May we all be so blessed as to find our own leaders, in ourselves and our communities, and follow them to freedom in the year to come. Let the waters part, and the darkness lift; let the fetters fall, and the sky be ours again.

    1,014 comments » | Uncategorized

    Covered in Folk: R.E.M.
    (Redbird, Great Big Sea, Rosie Thomas, Grant Lee Phillips and more!)

    April 4th, 2009 — 09:23 pm

    I enjoy a good challenge. So when a recent and otherwise well-written treatise on the socio-economic function of cover songs past and present declared the R.E.M. catalog “too cryptic to survive being covered”, I set out to amass a collection of songs which would prove the author wrong.

    My dubious pursuit was confounded a bit by a long-time personal apathy for R.E.M.’s particularly angsty, often melodramatic performance style, as filtered through frontman Michael Stipe’s voice and phrasing, which just aren’t to taste. Sure, there’s a few songs I wouldn’t change the station for — the driving guitar of Fall On Me, for example, or the deceptively cheerful pop surface of Man on the Moon. But these are predominantly band-driven songs, where so many others of the canon are singer showcases.

    It’s a personal choice: I don’t like listening to Dylan either. But as with Dylan, and so many of the popular artists whose songbooks comprise our Covered in Folk features, there’s a recognizable genius under there, couched in a palatable form. It is no accident that R.E.M. is well established and well respected; love ‘em or hate ‘em, their influence, particularly in the emergence of college alternative radio, is legion and undeniable, and their reputation deserved.

    The combination of cultural cache and strong songwriting has produced a world of broad and eminently listenable covers. It’s telling that when Stereogum decided to solicit current indie darlings for their second cover tribute, it was seminal R.E.M. album Automatic for the People which they ended up reconstructing track-for-track. And, as with so many previous features, that many of my favorite cover artists have taken on the R.E.M. songbook speaks volumes to its appeal and its potential among folk musicians and fans of a certain generational outlook.

    My top ten list of covers consistently includes Grant-Lee Phillips‘ incredible version of So. Central Rain; I’ve posted it twice here before, and each time it has elicited comments from the readership. There’s more familiar covers here, too, from Rosie Thomas‘ lovely version of The One I Love, which pays tribute to Sufjan’s popular bootlegs of the same tune, to well-played cuts from folk supergroups Redbird and Cry Cry Cry.

    Tori Amos and The Corrs come from that same AAA and college rock region of the genre map R.E.M. helped establish. Great Big Sea trend towards the sea chanty made modern, but most folkies will know the name. Stereogum’s coverage is predominantly indie rock, but the names are recognizable to those who come via the indiefolk music blogs. In the end, there’s nothing rare here, except perhaps the live cover of REM obscurity Hairshirt from Glen Hansard‘s recent appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

    But surely that familiarity proves the point. After all, if folk is in the ownership and the interpretation of song, then cryptic becomes a relative term, and coverage itself proves palatability. For in the end, is there greater foundation for love than the recognition of the soul, the spark of something sensible to the self, and the subsequent struggle to own it? And is it not this love, in the hands of the talented and thoughtful, which makes coverage great, and tributes worthy? Listen, and judge for yourself.

    Today’s bonus coverfolk tracks give R.E.M. the chance to take on a few core folksingers, from Hall of Famer Leonard Cohen to the man whose original version of Gentle On My Mind won a Grammy for Best Folk Performance the same year Glen Campbell made it famous. After all, as the banner says, we do covers of folksong here, too:

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