Archive for May 2010

Memorial Day Coverfolk, Redux:
Soldier songs for the next generation, and those gone by

May 30th, 2010 — 04:54 pm

We’re off today, burning the social calendar at both ends for the long weekend. Instead of something new, here’s a repost from last year’s Memorial Day – plus a few bonus tracks for our regular readers.

For most of my life, the military has been an abstraction. Though war itself lives everpresent in our newsdriven culture, and memorial statues and parades a recurring part of community, my concept of life in the armed forces, and the risks and stresses thereof, is based on popculture parables, mostly: fictionalized movie and television portrayals fleshed out by fleeting glimpses of men and women in uniform in airports, reporting to places I cannot imagine, to carry out tasks I could not describe.

My connection with family members who have served has been long after the fact. My father spent some portion of the sixties as a clerk typist in the Coast Guard reserves, but other than a truly dorky picture which he kept in his bedside drawer, and a few well-worn tales of short-haired inspection wigs and furloughs which I have evoked over the years, I could not identify those parts of him, if any, which were forged in service to his country.

Similarly, though my grandfather’s work developing radar in the Army is an important part of the family mythos, it was long over by the time I came to consciousness. Though I carry his dog tag in my wallet, the man I knew as Grandpa was a quiet shirtsleeved man, his service so much a part of who he had become that I never really considered how his military past had made him until it was too late to ask.

Surely, both of these men, and the usual assortment of greatuncles, met men along the way who never came back. But their stories are not mine. Their losses, if any, are their own. And so, for most of my life, Memorial Day has been a secular holiday, atheistic, with no trace of sentiment.

But teaching in a school with an ROTC program means living with a daily reminder of the armed forces as peopled by real, three-dimensional human beings. Students show up in class crisp and confident in uniform; I pass them in the hallways lined up for inspection, or pacing out their cadences.

Jerome and Lori Anna, my two graduating ROTC seniors, are still just kids, off to Prom on Thursday, on the cusp of graduation. Their lives are ahead of them, but their choices are limited. For them, service is a way out of the inner city, perhaps the only one available to them. It will pay for college, and help them focus their abilities. It will give them a future.

And so they choose to lend their bodies and hearts to the protection of our shores and skies. And their very real and present future — fighting wars, combatting terrorism — lends new credence to the need for memory.

May they serve proud, like our fathers before us, and our grandfathers before them. May their service be swift, and their burden light. Rest assured; we will remember them.

Repost Bonus Tracks, Memorial Day 2010:

PS: Still got room for a few more Memorial Day covers? Cover Freak’s got you covered.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: more delicious new and new-to-you folk covers, including yet another well-worn songbook Covered In Folk. And don’t forget to stay tuned for a chance to win a pair of FREE passes to Falcon Ridge Folk Festival 2010!

1,053 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, reposts

Single Shot Coverfolk: Venice Is Sinking cover Galaxie 500
Plus bonus Dream Pop covers from Dean Wareham past and present

May 28th, 2010 — 08:36 pm

Dreampop has always been defined by its lush atmosphere. But though we’ve come a long way since the mopey guitar-driven sounds of Galaxie 500 filled my adolescent ears, the sparser side of the genre has crept onto these pages several times, most recently through the delicate soundscapes of This Mortal Coil, and the post-millennial work of Dean and Britta, helmed by Luna founder and one-time Galaxie 500 guitarist Dean Wareham.

Today, we start the long weekend with an irresistibly mellow cover from Athens-based dream-slash-orchestral pop quintet Venice Is Sinking, who take the dream pop journey full circle, bringing beloved 1988 Galaxie 500 single Tugboat down to the level of acoustic folk, albeit with a touch of Death Cab’s buzz and Calexico’s horns. Even with its chaotic build and crescendo, the song, which appears on the band’s upcoming acoustic release Sand & Lines: The Georgia Theatre Sessions, makes a strong case for inclusion of the softer side of the genre among the various folkforms. The album, a spacious, utterly devastating set recorded in the now-defunct Georgia Theater, also includes Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings covers among equally dreamy originals; head over now to preorder.

Bonus Track:

Don’t forget to click on the other two band names above to check out some other dreampop coverage. And because the singer-songwriter Harvard alum has been one of very few constants in my musical upbringing, here’s some additional bonus tracks from the Dean Wareham canon, a nomination of sorts for his inclusion in the folkstream:

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and sets every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,625 comments » | Dean Wareham, Dream Pop, Single Shot Coverfolk

Burning Up: Songs For A Heat Wave
Coverfolk from Nelly to I’m On Fire

May 26th, 2010 — 10:55 pm

By day the heat is intolerable. My students wilt in my presence; I suffer in theirs. Finals are two weeks away, but we will lose this lesson. My last period classroom blazes like the sun: too many windows, and too many well-intentioned adolescents to open them, letting out the residual comfort of dim lights, linoleum, stillness.

Back home, the garden wilts. Its overgrown grasses and weeds bear the scars and indentations of cats trying desperately to bask in the coolness of an earth long scorched beyond any ability to do more than sustain the barest of yellowing life. I make supper alone, and go to the basement in a fruitless search for cooler air.

Too hot to sleep. Too hot to teach. Too hot to blog. Too hot to think, or eat properly, or even give proper due to tonight’s School Committee meeting, where dozens of students have come to decry recent cuts to the last remaining electives in the face of budget cuts. Certainly, too hot to put on a jacket and tie and speak loudly over the whir of fruitless fans. We suffer through, and run long, in the name of civic responsibility.

Driving home close to midnight, lightning flashes on the distant horizon. But the skies above remain clear, the air still and stuffy. The temporary wind of wide open windows offers little peace. Overhead, the full moon shines brightly, laughing at our plight.

Let there be a paean to heat. Though the world is full of importance, it is our every thought, and all we can do to tolerate it.

Cover Lay Down posts hot new coverfolk features and sets every Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,398 comments » | Theme Posts

Pre-Festival Coverfolk: Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, July 23-25
featuring live tracks from Falcon Ridge Folk Fests gone by!

May 23rd, 2010 — 10:02 am

Running a music festival in this economy is a real challenge, but after a weekend with friends and co-coordinators of the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I’m proud to announce that once again we’re rarin’ to go for yet another wild weekend of singer-songwriter, folk rock, world music, and folk-pop. Add in the proverbial mix of friends, vendors, kid-friendly fare, hilltop up-and-comers in the label and coffeehouse-sponsored tents all night long, and dancing ’til the wee hours, and as always, Falcon Ridge 2010 is shaping up to be the best time I’m planning on having all summer.

Sure, there’s a few changes in the works. Most notably, after a few years trying to sustain a four-day fest, the festival will be returning to a three-day format, Friday through Sunday – though camping will continue to open on Wednesday afternoon, which should lead to a nice mellow day of pickin’ and grinnin’ before the bands kick in. But this year’s lineup promises a strong mix of familiar faces and new bands, from Cheryl Wheeler, Tracy Grammer, John Gorka and Jimmy LaFave to Red Molly, Dala, Ellis, and Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams – who I am assured will close either Friday or Saturday night with a slammin’ set in the dance stage.

As with every year, the Festival will also feature the winners of last year’s Emerging Artist Showcase, and I’m thrilled to announce that, once again, the fans and judges have chosen a delightful cross-section of bands and solo artists. To cap off our own planning weekend, showcase winners The Brilliant Inventions, Swing Caravan and chuck e costa will play a house concert for us this afternoon, and having heard the latter two artists in the aisles last year, I’m very much looking forward to hearing them without all the noise from the passing crowd. And though I’m running too close to deadline to wait to post, you can be sure if they’ve got any strong covers under their guitar straps, you’ll be reading and hearing more about them as the festival grows closer.

We’ll have a pair of three-day camping tickets to give away in early June – a $300 value, just for playing along – along with some favorite studio tracks from this year’s performers for all comers, so check out the full schedule, and start shuffling your schedule now to make sure you’re free to join us in Hillsdale, NY, July 23rd-25th. in the meanwhile, here’s a set of live tracks from Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals gone by to tempt you towards making the pilgrimage.

live from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2003

live from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2005

live from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2007

live from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2008

live from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival 2009

Like what you hear? Check out the full lineup, and then pick up your Falcon Ridge Folk Festival tickets here…or wait a week or two for your chance to win two full-fest camping passes worth $300. And don’t forget: if you love live festival coverfolk, you can get our exclusive Summer ’09 17-song bootleg sampler by donating to Cover Lay Down.

1,155 comments » | Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, Festival Coverfolk

(Re)Covered, XVI: More covers of and from
Townes Van Zandt, Arborea, Annalivia, Broadway Shows and more!

May 19th, 2010 — 06:54 pm

Like a rain-swollen river, the late Spring rush of music from blogs, readers, labels, and other friendly pass-along sources continues unabated. The bounty is rich, and though we remain committed to bringing you only the best and brightest of the coverfolk world, there’s more than enough gems to tempt the palate and confound our preference for tightly organized artist-centered features and themes.

Happily, however, much of this month’s flood calls us back to themes and artists previously covered in these pages. Which makes it high time for yet another edition of our popular (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover new and newly-discovered songs that bobbed to the surface just a little too late to make it into the original posts where they rightfully belonged.

A surprisingly large quantity of great Townes Van Zandt covers came in on the heels of our October tribute to the softspoken troubadour. Several of these are still in-the-works and unbloggable, awaiting the official go-ahead to begin the buzz for a late summer double-sized Townes tribute album, a lovingly compiled collection which will feature a smashing set of 25 songs from some of our favorite US and UK singer-songwriters – including new tracks from Danny Schmidt, Devon Sproule, Johnny Dowd, Fionn Regan, Jeb Loy Nichols, Boo Hewerdine, and more. The as-yet-unnamed tribute, which will benefit the QE2 Activity Centre, is due in August on Righteous Records; watch this space for exclusives as the summer goes forward.

But as we mentioned in our original post, the Texan poet has many admirers. Today, unsigned emerging Americana prodigy Mark Bates comes in with an exclusive cover of Flyin’ Shoes, a serious alt-country ballad, dark and sweet, with just the right elements of pop and blues, off his highly recommended debut album Down The Narrow. Local favorite Mark Erelli turns in a lovely lullaby cover which missed round one on a technicality, but deserves to be heard. And prolific UK singer-songwriter Michael Weston King, whose cover of Marie will appear on the aforementioned tribute, passes along his deliciously crisp-yet-maudlin tex-mexified take on A Song For off his 2007 all-covers album Loves A Cover; his upcoming protest songs collection I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier, which is due to drop in August as well, is worth watching for, too.

Bonus Track:

Speaking of tribute albums: late word of a Grass Roots Records tribute to Graham Nash’s 1971 debut album arrived just yesterday via fan-to-artist connection service The ConneXtion; the digital download went up just this week, and now that I’ve listened to it twice, I’m here to declare definitively that Be Yourself: A Tribute To Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners is a delicious indie- and nu-folk collection, ranging from ragged country-folk band-driven songs to delicate medieval flute-and-strum pieces, featuring many familiar faces, from Alela Diane and Marie Sioux to Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Port O’Brien, Vetiver, and Robin Peckinold of Fleet Foxes. Fittingly, a portion of the proceeds will go to Wavy Gravy’s circus and arts camp, Camp Winnarainbow. Don’t eat the brown acid, kids.

In a similar vein, last month’s featurette on Maine indie-folk duo Arborea noted the impending release of a tribute to musical philosopher and acoustic steel string pioneer Robbie Basho; we posted a partial track at the time, and though I tend to be reluctant to post partial tracks, it proved to be one of our most popular downloads for the month.

Since then, I’ve received my very own copy of We Are All One, In The Sun, learned much about the Eastern-influenced contemporary of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and fallen in love with the man, his music, and the delicate work that Arborea frontman Buck Curran has collected to pay him tribute. By popular demand, then: here’s the full version of Arborea’s take on Basho’s Blue Crystal Fire, plus Meg Baird’s cover of Moving Up A Ways, with grateful thanks to the artists and their promoters for granting permission to stream the full tracks. Don’t forget to pick up your own copy of We Are All One, In The Sun for the full effect – the album is gorgeous, a well-curated journey through a branch of the folkworld well worth preservation and celebration.

Of course, it takes more than just tribute albums to float the coverfan’s boat. Our recent feature on Broadway Showtunes brought out the comments like nobody’s business, and as always, I’m greatly appreciative of all recommendations – after all, I lay no claim to completism, and indeed depend on the ears and hearts of others to help ensure that the joy of discovery is ever in the air we share.

Many of the covers mentioned in that particular aftermath were pre-millennial or upbeat; as I noted at the time, my aim was to stick to more recent covers, and mellow ones at that, but I couldn’t resist digging up The Lemonheads’ older take on Frank Mills, originally from Hair, and the decidedly upbeat Annie tune from Dan Zanes’ recent folky Broadway tribute 76 Trombones, after others mentioned them. More fitting, however, was Arlene’s reminder of Emmylou Harris’ 2008 take on Millworker, which I seem to have overlooked during my original search despite being a huge fan of both the countryfolk songstress and the James Taylor original. Here’s the goods.

Finally, in other non-tribute news: Though – as we noted on Sunday – buzz for the upcoming Crooked Still album continues on the eve of its release, I’m actually a bit more excited about the newest from fellow Bostonians Annalivia, who we first featured in our preview of last year’s Boston Celtic Music festival.

Annalivia’s early MySpace cuts, self-released debut, and live performances fell closer to raw Irish/Celtic tradfolk fusion, and the Scottish, Irish, Appalachian and other influences remain strong here, but Barrier Falls – their first “official” label debut, which dropped yesterday – shows movement and maturation towards a fuller, smoother, and less derivative sound, thanks in no small part to some utterly wonderful, warm production dynamics that retain all the energy of their performance while really setting their beautiful vocal tones and masterful stringwork alight. The difference in tone and tenor between the below tracks is stark and telling; if it doesn’t make you want to run out and buy Barrier Falls right away, then one of us is off our rocker.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and coverfolk sets each Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival preview tour, and other dreams of summer.

1,213 comments » | (Re)Covered, Tribute Albums

Bluegrass On The Edge:
New releases from The Farewell Drifters, Keller Williams, and Crooked Still

May 16th, 2010 — 07:40 pm

The breeze outside is gentle, and the temperature hovers in the low seventies. Our garden is overgrown with tall grasses, I can hear the kids calling breathlessly to each other from the woods behind the house, and the best damn ‘grass festival in the Northeast is just two months away. Perfect for an afternoon on the porch with the laptop, a glass of lemonade, and a stack of new and upcoming releases from the broad borders of bluegrass.

Nashville-based up-and-comers The Farewell Drifters are my favorite kind of bluegrass band: talented, young and energetic, with chops and poise beyond their years. Which makes me especially happy to report that their sophomore album Yellow Tag Mondays is a well-balanced delight, revealing a hidden pop side and an ear for perfect tenor-led harmonies, making it clear that this quintet of fresh-faced, clear-voiced singer-songwriters and instrumentalists are more than ready for the main stage.

Like many young five- and six-piece bluegrass bands, The Farewell Drifters push their own strong songwriting heavily; in two albums and one EP, their total coverage count remains small enough to count on one hand, with room left over for hitchhiking. That’s not a bad thing – primary songwriters and band co-founders Josh Britt and Zach Bevill have a knack for hook-heavy composition and solid, sweet countrypop lyrics that, when added to the band’s rich sound, engender apt comparison to Nickel Creek. Still when the boys do go outside their own book, it’s a genuine joy, and thanks to their reps, I’m proud to present an exclusive covertrack from the new album, plus a bonus cover from their 2008 River Song EP, and one more from their debut which reveals just how far the road has taken the band in three short years.

It’s been a long, long while since we visited the Beatles songbook, but it’s good to hear a young band prove there’s still life in those old familiar tunes. Listen, then head over to their website to check out The Farewell Drifters’ back catalog, and to save your place in line for the June 8 release of Yellow Tag Mondays.

Keller Williams is hard to categorize – though the irreverent and self-indulgent singer-songwriter spent much of his career on the jamband circuit, he most often performs in full solo folksinger mode; his albums tend to stick to a particular sensibility throughout, but taken as a collection, they run the gamut from electrojam to acoustic folk. But with the sweet flatpicking, acoustic bass, and occasional harmonies of husband and wife duo Larry and Jenny Keel layered under his signature choppy guitar style on every track, just like in previous 2006 Keller and the Keels collaboration Grass, his new all-covers album Thief comes closest to bluegrass than anything.

Though both Keller and his detractors often have trouble taking his performance seriously – check out the utter silliness of his Moondance cover from 2003 live release Stage below to see what I mean – the approach here is comprehensively successful, transforming a vast array of songs from the hidden recesses of alt-radio and popular culture into delightful summery tunes, playful and light. I’ve included a few favorites, but the whole album is worth pursuit, if only to hear tracks such as signature Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses, and the Butthole Surfer’s Pepper totally revamped as lazy jazzgrass jams a la perennial cover favorites Hayseed Dixie.

Of course, the biggest news in the increasingly rich world of crossover folk/bluegrass these days is the newest from Crooked Still. All eyes are on Some Strange Country, due to drop on Tuesday, and available for full-album streaming at NPR until then. I’m a huge fan of Crooked Still, and there’s a lot to love here: their album-closing cover of the Rolling Stones’ You Got The Silver is fun, sure to please both cover lovers and newcomers alike; first single Half of What We Know is a strong radio-ready composition that works well with the band’s fluid, dark atmosphere, and it’s wonderful to hear a full record’s worth of new covers and originals from Crooked Still – a band with a well-known reputation as perfectionists who hew close to their catalog in concert, and take few risks on stage and between albums, as evidenced by Crooked Still Live, last summer’s under-the-radar live album.

But though I highly recommend purchase to old fans and new, I’m also finding a grain of salt in my celebration of Some Strange Country. The press release, as might be expected, touts the record as a sonic expansion, and it’s fair to say that lead singer Aoife O’Donovan lets go a bit more than on previous releases, but other than that, I’m hard-pressed to describe it as anything but a continuation and perhaps a crystalization of the same wonderful sound we’ve been privy to before.

Am I asking too much? Are familiarity and comfort an inherent drawback to defining your own sound outside of traditional genre lines? Check out both the above-linked original track and this totally revamped take on my youngest daughter’s favorite traditional folksong, move on quick to NPR before the stream turns into a pumpkin at midnight tomorrow, and make the call for yourself.

Speaking of NPR: I managed to catch the tail end of a Mountain Stage rerun last week which featured barely post-adolescent sibling trio The Lovell Sisters originally recorded in June of last year, and the set was such a stunner, a blow-your-socks-off fusion of folk, bluegrass, country and old-timey acoustic, I can’t help but pass it along.

The Lovells Sisters broke up in January – seems college takes short-term priority over performance for sister Jessica – and there’s nothing but wonderfully vibrant originals on the first EP from the remaining duo, now performing as Larkin Poe. But the EP is well worth note and promotion, so click here for the NPR archive of The Lovell Sisters on Mountain Stage, covering Jimi Hendrix, Massive Attack’s Teardrop (aka the theme to House, MD), and In My Time of Dyin’.

Oh, and as a total afterthought: legendary Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio passed away today after a long battle with cancer. War Pigs predates his work with the seminal heavy metal band, but here’s a Hayseed Dixie cover in tribute anyway:

1,430 comments » | bluegrass, Crooked Still, Keller Williams, The Farewell Drifters

Ron Sexsmith Covers:
NRBQ, Leonard Cohen, Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin, Sesame Street & more!

May 12th, 2010 — 02:22 pm

As folk critic Scott Alarik notes in his seminal 2004 essay compilation Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground, though the original American folk revival presented a plentiful mix of both female and male voices and songwriters, a quick “where are they now” look at the last few generations of folk artists reveals numerous women who went on to folkpop stardom – take, for example, eighties Fast Folk movement graduates Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin – with few male counterparts. In their stead, we find a set of male voices from that era who, while well-respected, barely managed to sell enough records to live off the residuals.

Meanwhile, thanks to the recent resurgence of delicate, often lo-fi indiefolk, and the move towards inclusion of the alt-country and true-blue radio-ready singer-songwriter in the AAA radio mix, there are plenty of new male voices in our midst, from Josh Ritter to Jeffrey Foucault. It’s wonderful to find the newest forms of folk so flush with gender parity, at least on the surface.

But dig a bit deeper, and the fact remains: Foucault gets more cred than commerce; Ritter’s success, which is stronger in Ireland than at home, makes him an exception, not the norm. Other than Josh Rouse‘s newest, and a free (and therefore unprofitable) sampler from new CLD favorite Peter Bradley Adams, the majority of bestsellers in the Folk category over at are an equal mix of older reissues from Neil Young and Paul Simon, and new albums from both rising-star females and categorical mainstays. In many subgenres, it seems, there is still a tendency towards a “lost generation” of popular male solo voices.

The issue of singer-songwriter gender disparity in the commercial realm is complex, and it surely has something to do with the fact that many male singer-songwriters have decent but unique voices, which have less mainstream appeal than strong, beautiful female vocal tones. But it also seems to be grounded, at least in part, in differing standards of where both artists and listeners can and should draw the genre line for singer-songwriter production dynamics.

Although hardcore folk listeners often focus on lyrics and tune – something which balances out regardless of voice and gender – the masses, who like a bit of pop production behind their studio releases, often go for Dar Williams over John Gorka, Sheryl Crow over John Hiatt, Aimee Mann over Michael Penn, and Ani DiFranco over Amos Lee, despite comparable instrumentation in studio releases from these artists.

Similarly, a close scrutiny of the diversity of various music festival schedules reveals that, while we continue to accept female voices as part of the folk rock and popfolk canon, and allow such artists to move fluidly among listening audiences, those male artists who tend towards folk rock, folk pop, or alt-country production but still define themselves within the singer-songwriter realm – A.C. Newman and Ryan Adams among them; Elliott Smith, Tim Hardin and Nick Drake before that – tend to be marginalized as “indie”, and thus end up much less accepted as a natural part of both “folk” and “pop” lineups, even as a song or two of theirs may garner some modicum of critical attention from a broader base of listenership in one or the other category.

Conveniently, a recent fascination with Elvis Costello’s musician-to-musician Sundance Channel program Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, prompted by an utterly heartbreaking Jesse Winchester performance that made Neko Case cry, led me through the archives to Ron Sexsmith, who Costello touts as having “resurrected” Everyday I Write the Book for him. In turn, “discovering” Sexsmith, whose sales have never been as strong as some of his female counterparts despite strong reviews, reminds me of the cultural dynamic which makes it harder for musicians like him to find commercial success, both as “folk” artists and as a general case.

I find myself just as guilty as anyone in too-easily marginalizing male Pop Folk artists; though we heavily feature the songbooks of male artists here, a look back at our Covers features reveals a preference for female voices much like that of the general public. Today, then, as a kick-off for a long-overdue corrective trend, we turn to Ron Sexsmith as an interpreter of song, hopefully just the first of many performance-centered posts featuring male artists whose financial success seem to eternally lag behind their well-deserved reputation.

Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith has been around for quite a while, though he didn’t manage to find enough support to start recording as a solo artist until he was almost thirty. Still, the man who started out covering the songs of Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and others at local dives in his native Ontario has produced ten major-label albums since his 1995 self-titled Interscope/Warner debut, and won praise from the very same artists he once claimed as progenitors.

Defined as a Pop Folk artist on Wikipedia, Sexsmith’s output has indeed flowed back and forth between delicate, sensitive balladry and more band-driven numbers throughout his career, and you’ll hear both below. In poprocker mode, Sexsmith tends towards a pretty traditional three-piece guitar-driven sound, much like that of Lowe and Costello; in ballad mode, his voice comes further forward, and the combination of guitar and voice move closer towards a particularly familiar, wistful, self-depreciating form of folk, echoing the balanced sound of Elliott Smith or Nick Drake.

But both ends of his spectrum feature personal, prescient songcraft. And though Sexsmith tends to stick to his own compositions on his albums, most of which feature nary a co-write or cover, when choosing to interpret the songs of others, he tends towards the confessional, finding the secret emotional heart of pop songs as easily as he casts a shadow of doubt on the honesty of their narrative voices.

Thanks to his regular inclusion on tribute albums – itself a mark of the respect the singer-songwriter enjoys from his fellow artists and producers – I’d heard some songs by Ron Sexsmith through coverage, most notably tribute album title cuts Crayon Angel and This Is Where I Belong, which you’ll find featured prominently below. But I’m still working my way through the back catalog, and if you care to join me, there’s some great stuff here. And that recognizably weary, oddly angelic tenor, with its deceptively lazy rasp, slippery delivery, and sliding pitch, is a perfect match for heartbreak and triumph, celebration and caution alike.

Tribute and Compilation Album Cuts:

Ron Sexsmith Album Cuts:

According to Ron Sexsmith’s website, where you can and should order off his back catalog, there’s a new album in the works, still waiting for mixing and a late 2010 release. No word yet on whether it yaws more towards the rock or the folk, but either way, I’m looking forward to hearing more originals from the sad-faced singer-songwriter.

In the meanwhile, as it turns out, Sexsmith is well-covered himself. Today’s Bonus Tracks compile several favorite interpretations of his better-known songs – most of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, were recorded by women. Odds are, even if you haven’t heard much from Sexsmith himself, you’ll already know at least one; the Feist, especially, has made the rounds in the last few years.

And finally, as an afterthought: it’s not technically a true-blue cover – Costello and Sexsmith trade off on the lyrics here – but since I mentioned it above, here’s that gloriously mellow folk reinvention of Everyday I Write The Book, recorded on Spectacle last December, which led me to today’s feature in the first place.

1,186 comments » | Ron Sexsmith

Single Song Sunday:
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (x16)

May 8th, 2010 — 10:58 am

We’ve had great success with previous Single Song Sunday compilations from the Dylan songbook. But they say the third time’s a charm, and it’s been a rough couple of days, with the passage of a town icon and long-time educator whom I had grown to respect deeply in these past few years, and news of the divorce of an old friend and long-time crush, coming right on top of each other. This, plus the impending annual migration of this year’s senior class, have left my mind lingering on loss and loneliness as the week comes to a close.

And love him or hate him, Dylan’s a master poet of such sentiment.

The shortest song on Blood on the Tracks – itself an unequalled masterpiece of confessional folk, one which comes in at #16 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest records of all time – You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go nonetheless plays out as an infinite anthem of pain, easily looped ad infinitum, its sentiment and sound perfect for sorrow-drowning on endless repeat. Unusually direct, for a Dylan lyric, its explicit recitation of love at its penultimate hour is nonetheless easily understood; unusually realistic, in its portrayal, it is nonetheless chock full of the poetics we’ve come to expect from the man at his best.

Dylan’s songs are generally open for interpretation, as all good folksong should be; the result is evident in the constant return to his canon here at Cover Lay Down, and in the world of coverage writ large. We’ve previously posted Shawn Colvin‘s sweetly definitive cover of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome, for example, along with Mary Lou Lord‘s ever-grunged, clearly derivative version of it; Madeleine Peyroux‘s more recent jazzfolk version of the song, too, has been a favorite since it first hit local radioplay after 2004′s Careless Love, and you’ll find all three below.

But a search through the stacks reveals dozens more covers, and some of them are quite good, indeed. Our resultant sixteen-song set, as always, has been carefully selected for breadth and balance as much as for sheer talent and performance, yet though it is, in the end, a diverse and beautiful collection, it barely scratches the surface of the coverage out there.

With so many out there, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find that several of today’s tracks come from whole-cloth Dylan tributes. Included here: The melodic, from Irish-based Tom Roger Aadland, off his most recent release, a delightful all-Norwegian version of Bob Dylan’s complete ‘Blood On The Tracks’. The slow, bluesy take from Tom Corwin And Tim Hockenberry‘s Mostly Dylan: New Perspectives On The Songs Of Bob Dylan, which owes as much of a debt to Marc Cohn, John Hiatt, and other raspy-voiced piano balladeers as it does to Dylan himself. And on It Takes A Lot To Laugh, their 2001 tribute to the rough-voiced troubadour, Andy Hill & Renee Safier transform the piece into a countrified ballad.

Back in the world of single-shot coverage, Naked Eyes guitarist Pete Byrne chimes in with a pretty, thoughtfully-paced presentation, a soft folkpop ballad tinged with indie echoes, synth-flute accents, and overdubbed retro harmony from a wonderful all-covers acoustic comeback album. Ben Watt – the male half of 80s popfolk duo Everything But The Girl – turns in an early pre-fame solo take steeped in pulsing guitar-pedal reverb, minor falls, and a slight latinesque beat without losing its essentially gentle, equally dream-like atmosphere. MySpace acoustic guitarist and singer Antonio Cruz adopts Peyroux’s vocal lag, coming off like a melodic, late-night Nick Drake. And then there’s Andy Solberg‘s version of the song, perfectly imperfect, with a touch of Tom Waits’ rasp and a ragged acoustic blues band sound that falls somewhere between Keb’ Mo’s slower stuff and any one of the jamband world’s elder statesmen on a good night.

Other women, too, have their gentle way with loneliness. Marissa Nadler‘s home-recorded take on the song is etherial and airy, more intimate than any, a true delicacy that builds from tentative nufolk to a beautiful, brave wallflower’s blues before melting away into nothingness. And the dreamy distance of Danish girl trio My Bubba and Mi, whose brand new release How It’s Done In Italy is high on my current playlist, is simply exquisite.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the energy spectrum, that high, lonesome sound meets mellow summer in the bouncy yet gentle folkgrass of the Brewflies; Tony Trischka and Skyline, too, take a grassed-up approach, albeit slightly more strained, and with a bit more pop and twang. Raul Malo, Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes, and friends find their own twangy drobo-driven middle ground among several southern genres, including bluegrass, southern rock, and true-blue country, on their 2004 Nashville Acoustic Sessions release. Even clear-toned alto singer-songwriter Robin Greenstein, who would otherwise not get mention within a paragraph about the ‘grass element, floats her own sweet, clear vocals and acoustic pop guitar over a Hartford-esque banjo pitterpat and the occasional Joni-esque high range peak.

Seems there’s a whole host of nuanced approaches to loss: the bluesy and the bold, the delicate and the driven, the wistful and the spare, the heavy and the lighthearted. Something for everyone, surely. And appropriately so, for such a universal emotion, given such powerful voice. Without any further ado, then: You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.

As always, Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to support the artists we feature, that the folkways might continue to spread throughout our lives and history ad infinitum. If you like what you hear, please consider clicking on artist and album links above to discover more.

1,105 comments » | Bob Dylan, Single Song Sunday

Covered In Folk: Show Tunes
(Rosanne Cash, Mark Kozelek, Dar Williams, Colin Meloy & more!)

May 5th, 2010 — 05:05 am

I was one of those arty middle-class music-and-theater kids – you know, the ones who spend their free periods in the band room, stay after school to paint sets, seem utterly disconnected from the mass media-driven marks of popular consumer culture, and demonstrate a complete and utter lack of coordinated ability in running shorts.

But it wasn’t just desire or common interest that kept me there. Natural talent, a strong ear, and an ADHD sufferer’s tendency to misplace my instrument had led to formal voice lessons and private choruses as a child (lose your clarinet, and mom gets pissed; lose your voice, and it comes back on its own). From there, I found myself on stage, and until I discovered that teaching could provide the same inner thrill, I fully expected to spend my life at its center, singing under the spotlight.

Thanks to this combination of talent, training, and opportunity, my adolescence was marked by more than just solos in the school chorus and lead roles in the high school play. Sure, I played Pippin in Pippin in my freshman year, losing my virginity to one of the older chorus members a few hours before opening night, but I also missed a lot of school in those years, thanks to active engagement in several major production companies in and around the Boston area before I cleared middle school. I even spent a late eighties summer at the Boston University Theater Institute, dressing like a Chorus Line extra, staying up late with the next generation of aspiring stars, burning through showtunes, improv exercises, Tennessee Williams monologues, and obscure Brecht/Weill operettas while my schoolmates got sunburned on the fields at soccer camp.

If the Internet is to be believed, many students growing up in the arts and theater crowd ultimately hew close to musical theater in their adult lives, finding preference and even pleasure in the songs of the stage. But for me, the theater was merely a means to an end – a love affair with the self, a mechanism for being at the center of attention, and a route to popularity and fame.

Though the stage was a place where I could shine, on my own time, as I’ve noted here before, my tastes ran towards the radio, the rising grunge and alt-rock movements, and the vast LP stacks of an audiophilic father heavy on the blues, jazz, folk and country. My mother’s small collection of original cast recordings of South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, and My Fair Lady may have been an endcap in our record cabinet, but just as my father never turned to those records, so did I eschew them, and groan alongside him when they came out of their sleeves for the occasional holiday.

As a result, though I recognize much of the canon of Broadway musicals – from Gershwin to Porter, Gilbert & Sullivan to Rogers & Hammerstein – unlike, say, the Top 40 of the eighties, or the East Coast alt-grunge movement, the genre does not interest me much as a fan or collector. To me, the Broadway songbook is something to sing, not something to listen to. To each his own, I guess.

In many ways, musical theater is the opposite of folk. The staging is formal; the audience is distant. The performers wear make-up, and are not themselves. And the distinct origin of song, lyric, and performance are clear, though attributed authorship is generally eschewed in favor of the shows from whence such songs came to us.

Where folk connects audience and performer within a complex of cultural feedback and communality – a sharing strategy which prioritizes emotional accessibility over pitch-perfect performance – as an ideal, the nuances of show tune performance are grand and showy, thanks to the trappings of character and grand narrative which underlie the very nature of theatrical production. Hearty where folk is delicate, melodramatic where folk is honest, stylized where folk is organic, show tunes don’t just come from a different part of the culture than folk music – they come from a very different place in the heart and the mind than the music we find and feature here.

Yet as a strand of the popular, the songs of the stage and screen quite often find their way into the folkways – most commonly via that melting pot of the popular, The Great American Songbook. Coverage, as such, is not uncommon, though it is rarer in the world of the solo singer songwriter than, say, the smoky realm of pop, jazz or blues vocalists – more common, even, for folk musicians to “go pop” or “go jazz” with these tunes, than for them to truly lend their folk sensibility to the popular songbook of musical theater.

But when it happens, it’s a beautiful thing. Given the difference in style and function between the two forms, the folk approach to the songs of Broadway and beyond tends towards the transformative, as the songs are localized, closing the vast gulf of spectacle which the stage mandates, replacing scale with intimacy. And so, as in coverage writ large, the song is born anew, with new meaning.

Here’s a broad set of coversongs, timeless and up-close, with a post-millennial focus, to help you see what I mean.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features and multisong sets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. As always, if you like what you hear, please follow the links above to support the artists we promote.

1,499 comments » | Covered in Folk, Uncategorized

(Re)Covered: Rising Stars
Arborea, Sam Billen, Mike and Ruthy

May 1st, 2010 — 05:51 am

The newest twigs and branches of the folk movement are still growing strong, if this month’s inbox is any indication – and that’s a very good thing, indeed. So today, for our regular weekend feature, we present news about a set of relatively new, relatively young artists that we’ve posted about before, making them ineligible for inclusion in our regular New Artists, Old Songs feature series…but perfect for a particularly focused edition of (Re)Covered.

A majestic set came in last week from Arborea, a Maine-based indiefolk duo who I’m dying to see live. We’ve pushed the echoey, delicate, almost nufolk sound of Shanti and Buck Curran in the midst of several features, most recently for their work as part of last year’s excellent Odetta tribute from Wears The Trousers, but never truly written about their work alone. But these stunning new recordings force my hand: “spooky” and “shimmering”, inviting further comparison with the work of Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, Sandy Denny, Devandra Banhardt, and Sam Amidon, and with the birdsong tones and woodsy atmosphere of their rural origin.

Today’s trifecta, sent along on the tailwinds of their most recent release House of Sticks, aptly represents the fine balance between tradition and experimental delicacy which we’ve come to expect of Arborea. The two whole tracks – a Tim Buckley cover recorded at SXSW which will appear on their next studio recording, and a video from a February house concert in France which mixes an Arborea original with familiar Led Zeppelin and Dylan tunes – maintain the etherial tones of their studio sound, demonstrating once again that the raw, organic delicacy of their early work is neither fluke nor parlor trick.

There’s also a frustratingly partial halftrack sample from We Are All One, In The Sun, an upcoming tribute to American Primitive artist Robbie Basho, curated by Buck and featuring tracks from Meg Baird, Helen Espvall, and others, which – despite containing Basho-influenced originals as well as several covers – nonetheless joins an ongoing dead heat for the top spot in my list of this year’s tributes and compilations. And, as a bonus, I’ve included both of the Arborea tracks we’ve posted here before. Listen, and be transported.

  • Arborea: Phantasmagoria In Two (orig. Tim Buckley)

    (unreleased, 2009)

Bonus Tracks:

Way on the other end of the sound spectrum, Kansas singer-songwriter Sam Billen – whose “achingly fragile” version of Auld Lang Syne we posted at the New Year – has recently added two more tracks to REMOVERs, an ongoing covers and remixes project “of songs that influence [his] music” which he’s been producing in his home studio in and among the various stresses and joys of new fatherhood, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Trusting any artist’s listed influences can be a challenge in the catch-’em-all world of MySpace and promotional soundalike set-ups; it’s hard enough to know what to make of artists who cite folk, rock, and techno all at once, let alone those who, like Sam, include Todd Rundgren and The Yellow Magic Orchestra on their list, and yet come out with sparse, gentle, well-curated folk albums for the holidays. But whether you find yourself familiar with the modern indie alt-rock namedropping or just shake your head at the names listed for the coming project, there’s something both unifying and unified about this set, and it’s not just how Billen makes these songs sound right in his own voice and modality.

As you might expect from the premise, much of the sound on this album bleeds past the boundaries of electrofolk into a kind of gentle-beat DJ fare, hypnotic and chilled. But Billen’s relatively sparse treatment on tracks such as The Republic Tigers’ Made Concrete and his fuzzed-out remix of Capybara’s The Wimp come off perfectly balanced between the post-folk work of Sufjan Stevens and the electroindie moodmusic of The Postal Service. And sure enough, in apt acknowledgement of those influences, the series – which to date contains six tracks, all available for stream and download perfectly gratis via The Record Machine – includes covers of both artists. His take on Sufjan is a personal favorite, a deliciously etherial boundary-crossing dreamscape built from hoarse harmonies, bells, banjo, and just the right touch of electronic interference. Check it out, and don’t forget to pick up his previous albums, too – both the all-acoustic Tokyo Sessions EP and his most recent full-length Headphones and Cellphones, while vastly different, come highly recommended.

Bonus Track:

In other news: Folk Rock has always been a bit tricky to define on this side of the Atlantic Ocean; outside of the traditional grounding of the British Isles, most modern electrified music with a solid beat comes in categorized as just-plain-rock of one sort or another, and sure enough, hearing Mike and Ruthy‘s 2008 original I’m Going To Get My Baby Out Of Jail on this morning’s radio was more like a fresh blast from some delicious combination of the Velvet Underground and Cowboy Junkies than anything – and a far cry from the sometimes delicate, sometimes rootsy acoustic folk sound which has previously characterized the bulk of their work as a duo, as solo artists, and as members of The Mammals.

Which reminded me that Mike and Ruthy, who we first featured within a substantive post on Ruth’s work in various guises, are currently raising funds via Kickstarter to release their newest and upcoming album Million To One – which, judging from the album cover, the Kickstarter video, and the album description on their webpage, is bound to continue their move towards a broad redefinition of the American folk rock sound. Nothing new to post, yet – the album is recorded, but no tracks have been released – but with the recent decision to close our archives, it’s a good time to repost some older favorites from the married ex-Mammals, in the hopes that it will help spur donations to the cause…all of which come with the usual goodies, rewards, and extras, as good micro-finance models should.

1,213 comments » | (Re)Covered, Arborea, Mike and Ruthy, Sam Billen