Archive for December 2010

Vacation Coverfolk: Elvis, Covered

December 28th, 2010 — 06:17 pm

As noted Sunday, I’m in Memphis over the holidays, staying right on Beale Street in the thick of the scene. Though I’ve pre-scripted these entries in the interest of truly taking some time off, by now, we’re either on our way to or have already visited Graceland, so let’s dive right into our usual Vacation Coverfolk celebration, wherein we feature the songs and songbooks of local musicians of influence in the regions where we travel. Ladies and Gentlemen: Elvis Presley, covered in folk.

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that the King holds a highly significant place in the pantheon of American music. Entire books have been written about Elvis, both man and myth, and as many more on Elvis’ influence on the modern musical spectrum.

Far be it for us to cover Elvis in a single entry, then, or even claim to be able to summarize his influence appropriately as we winnow down towards today’s tribute set. But our particular ethnographic standpoint does offer a glimmer of perspective worth noting. To wit: like Columbus, Elvis is often reviled in the post-PC age, dismissed as a complicit participant in the theft of music from Black musicians, or relegated to the back burner as a mere interpreter of song. But cover bloggers, folklorists, and ethnographers alike know that interpretation itself is oft undersold as a genuine craft. Elvis may not have written all his greatest hits, but his ability to transform songs and deliver them to the masses authentically, riding the wave of rock and blues and pop even as they transformed the culture around him, is worthy of our admiration.

Which is to say: as a man who made his mark almost primarily through coverage, even as his particular case brought light to the challenges of copyright, color barriers, and due diligence in recognizing those who truly wrote and first recorded the defining songs of his era, Elvis gets our grudging respect, though we fully expect to be making fun of his adopted jumpsuited lifestyle and his still-rabid fan base as we drive to and from the once-unassuming home which he so gaudily remade in his own rhinestone image.

And it’s not just us, of course – thousands have recorded the songs which Elvis made famous, in every genre imaginable. Indeed, we actually did a specialized Elvis feature two Septembers ago, focusing on new folk artists covering songs made famous by the man who did more to bring Black music to white people than perhaps anyone in the past century, save maybe Alan Lomax, or Sam Phillips himself. Today, we mix and match these older songs with some long-standing favorites, skipping Blue Christmas, since we posted a pair of favorites just last week, and sticking to the obvious top-40 hits, though they are just the tip of an immense iceberg of musical influence which Elvis represents.

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

1,356 comments » | Elvis, Memphis, Vacation Coverfolk

Vacation Coverfolk: Talk Memphis
(Songs of Beale Street and beyond)

December 26th, 2010 — 12:41 am

We haven’t traveled together since last summer’s journey to Germany, and we’ve got the time. So my father and I are on the road again, just an hour or two ahead of an old-fashioned New England blizzard, off to Memphis, Tennessee, for the short gap between Christmas and New Years.

So far, we’ve penciled in The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the National Civil Rights museum, Sun Studios, and a chance to see the Gibson luthiers in action; the Smithsonian Rock ‘N Soul Museum is actually in our hotel, so we’ll be sure to cover that, too. The plan also includes blues, barbecue, and the inevitable trip to Graceland, so expect a full coverset of songs made famous by Elvis later this week.

For now, in keeping with the vacation spirit, I’ll keep it short and sweet: here’s a set of coverfolk in tribute to the city itself, home of Beale Street and the blues, capped off by a couple of glitchy, catchy electrofolk covers of Paul Simon’s tribute to the journey itself.

1,082 comments » | Memphis, Vacation Coverfolk

Silver and Gold: Favorite Songs from 2010
Plus a few last-minute also-rans from the audioverse

December 22nd, 2010 — 11:43 pm

As I noted earlier this week, we don’t hold with ordered lists at year’s end, preferring instead to recognize the diversity of greatness we hear and rediscover as part of an ongoing process. But in keeping with our ongoing mandate to bring you our subjective best in folk and acoustic coverage, in the hopes that you might pursue our recommendations and passalongs to support those artists directly, it seems fair to note which songs still remain high on our playlist, echoing through our head long after we introduced you to them through the pages of this blog.

Today, then, we present a hybrid feature of sorts, revisiting the year’s stickiest songs and earworms, and tossing in towards the end a few very recent discoveries which – though they arrived at our door too late to truly sink in in time to make the collection – just might have that selfsame staying power in the new year.

If I had to pick a favorite new cover this year, it would likely be Peter Bradley Adams‘ stunning interpretation of Matthew Ryan’s I Hear A Symphony, which emerged as a startling gem amidst the chafe and chatter on LML Records cover compilation In My Room. Though the song itself was new to me at the time, the combination of Ryan’s words and melody and Adams’ lush, hushed acoustic “landscape pop” won the coveted “most played on iTunes” spot in the Boyhowdy house for 2010 – no mean feat, given that it didn’t come out until April, and that on a covers compilation which I didn’t discover until even later.

I had been peripherally aware of Adams’ work since discovering his previous work as one half of undersung dustbowl alt-folk duo Eastmountainsouth, though I missed most of his forty-odd appearances on TV and film soundtracks in the past few years thanks to a tendency to avoid the CW network. But hearing this single song converted me instantly, and since then, his originals have received almost as much play. Indeed, I’ve become an avid collector of Peter Bradley Adams’ growing catalog of deep, pensive, inspirational craft, from his debut Gather Up to his 2009 release Traces, and am eagerly awaiting release of what promises to be a strong fourth solo full-length in 2011. If you’ve not yet been struck by the beauty of his work, I highly recommend Peter’s Free EP, which showcases a single, gorgeous song from each album.

Any song which so draws you to an artist and so powerfully frames your life for so long deserves the replay, and the kudos. And, as a bonus, his collaborative cover of Hard Times Come Again No More, which we featured among other interpretations of the same song at this time last year, is timely as ever, reminding us that appreciating what we’ve got in the midst of strife and sorrow, trouble and pain, is a year-end trope that remains relevant today.

One of the biggest joys a coverhound can receive is when a favorite artist covers another, giving new and warmly familiar voice to a beloved set of lyrics and chords. This year, the best such package came to us secondhand, off of the 41 song compilation from environmental leaders 1% For The Planet, with Lori McKenna and her touring compatriot Mark Erelli breathing new vibrancy into my absolute favorite song from southern grit singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier.

It was especially wonderful to hear McKenna, who took her chances with country a few years back, coming back to the folkfold, with something sparse and broken yet ever-beautiful, proving that it’s where she truly belongs. As much as I love the hoarseness of the original, the transformed song wails with renewed hope more than enough to do justice to it and then some, standing on its own as a paean and plea for a better world that will live in my ears for good. And the sentiment is aptly seasonal, to boot.

Lucy Wainwright Roche has been heavy on my mind, having spent a few days moping around the house after missing her opener for brother Rufus up in Northampton last week due to other obligations. But Lucy’s songs have stuck with me, with that sweet and somehow innocent voice ringing in my ears long after her full-length debut Lucy hit the streets in October. Both her richly harmonied cover of Paul Simon’s America and her older take on a Crash Test Dummies hit were among the first to make it to my newest portable listening device; though we posted the former when the album hit the shelves, we never shared her crooning, almost delicate transformation of Superman’s Song, which hit me just as hard in the aftermath, so here’s both, for keeps.

Though I had heard and scavenged from their lo-fi kitchen-recorded Valentines Duets cover series for years, this was also the year I truly fell in love with Devon Sproule and her husband Paul Curreri as both solo artists and performing partners, finally garnering the chance to see them live, and finding them as potent a combination in person as they are in their respective studio recordings. I think I said all I needed to back when I first touted their work as part of our July feature on folk couples, so I won’t repeat myself here, but both their new albums have stuck with me, with Devon’s Plea For A Goodnight Rest haunting my dreams ever since.

Duo of the year goes hands down to Dala, who won my heart for real at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Fest after a long, slow burn sparked by their double-dip appearance on American Laundromat Records’ 2008 tribute to Neil Young. The twenty-something popfolk Canadians released cover-laden live album Girls From The North Country early in 2010, which fueled the buzz on the summer festival circuit; a subsequent appearance at the Canadian Songwriter Hall Of Fame produced a sweet live take on an old Doris Day standard, and their delightfully retro cover of Dream A Little Dream Of Me was a standout on ALR’s popular emopop Sing Me To Sleep: Indie Lullabies collection, too.

The biggest news on the Dala front these days is the January 2011 major label US debut of Everyone is Someone on Compass Records, an album which has already hit my living room, where it remains on rotation pretty much full-time. Though the latter has no covers, it’s chock full of the same etherial harmonies and dreamy lyrics which we’ve come to expect from the pair of young rising stars; the songs range from playful to sentimental, and their youth and giddy cheerful spirits allow them to get away with it all. And those gorgeous voices make it well worth the purchase, too.

Closer to the bluegrass end of folk, local college student Sarah Jarosz continues to impress a growing crop of bloggers and fans, showing increasing maturity as she leaves her teen years behind. We dropped a teaser of her newest 45, including a sample of a transformative b-side take on an old Bill Withers tune, just last month, but I keep coming back to her turn with Black Prairie on this year’s Shel Silverstein tribute, where it stood out among several other gems.

Which reminds me: Decemberists side project Black Prairie rocked the year, too, and I am startled not to find their March release Feast of the Hunter’s Moon on more bloggers’ end of year countdowns.

It’s hard to isolate the songs on Be Yourself: A Tribute To Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners, the full-album tribute to Graham Nash’s earliest solo work released earlier this year – the album works so well as a collection, it feels like sacrilege to strip the songs of their sequence. But playing it for a room full of fellow mid-level organizers at last Spring’s Falcon Ridge pre-fest staff meeting, I knew we had found something special. Today, the indie-folk feast, first featured in May, remains my most played album of the year – no small feat, in a post-digital world of pay-per-song singles and one-shot releases. And though it’s the journey itself which truly makes this album great, Robin Peckinold and Alela Diane’s covers remain standouts. So here they are again.

And what’s on the list for the coming months? Though there’s only originals to be found on their homepage, I’m eager to hear more from They Will Hate Us, a Boston-based “Gothicana” duo reminiscent of early A.P. Carter and other dark gospel harmonizers from before the split between folk and country music, who will be releasing their first major album at a late afternoon Passim show on Sunday January 23, playing authentic instruments and evoking the ghosts of the past through originals and coverage alike.

I’m loving the tension between the atmospheric production and the narrative delivery on this broken-voiced Steve Earle cover from Brooklynite Arron Dean, an “ornate songwriter” a la Bon Iver or Nick Drake, who came to his current countryfolk style via jazz and punk, and New York via South Africa; the song comes via email in support of his first solo record, titled MPLS.

And already in the spinner, and staying there, is local singer-songwriter Jason Spooner‘s newest, titled Sea Monster: unlike earlier work, which went for the acoustic folkrock trio sound, it’s more produced than spare, and subsequently more pop than folk, which explains why it’s currently in heavy rotation at Starbucks. But we won’t hold that against him. Indeed, having seen him at Falcon Ridge Folk Fest several years running, and shared a pair of his older covers back in March, I’m eager to share the funky, horn-laden Terence Trent D’Arby cover he sent along just a few weeks ago, to see if you hear what I hear.

Happy Christmas! I’m off to Memphis just after the New Year for a short vacation, so stay tuned for the usual vacation coverfolk features on the regional songs and setting. In the meantime, if you’re still looking for that last minute holiday gift, and you’ve already bought your fill of the CDs and downloads we tout here, we hope you’ll consider donating a buck or two in someone’s name to help keep Cover Lay Down going into 2011 and beyond…Thanks!

1,282 comments » | Uncategorized

A Last Minute Christmas Gift from Catie Curtis & Friends

December 22nd, 2010 — 09:04 pm

From a commercial perspective, dropping a newly-recorded holiday album three days before Christmas seems risky enough. But this afternoon’s newest release from Compass Records, a digital EP from Catie Curtis aptly entitled ‘Twas the Night Before the White House, captures a moment in time too precious not to share.

And though I’ve only had time to play it through twice, it may well turn out to be my favorite holiday release of the year.

Catie’s sweet, warm voice and delicate delivery carry an authenticity which we truly need after weeks of store-bought Santas, commercial radio, and favorite carols ad infinitum. The rich acoustic setting provided by compatriots Elana, Ingrid and John on guitar, harmony, and violin is stunningly gorgeous, a perfect match for Catie’s breathy optimism.

And the album’s serendipitous back-story is utterly darling: four friends, rehearsing the night before a command performance at the White House just last week, find so much to love about the sound in the room that they decide on the spot to record five favorite holiday tunes, staying up until the wee hours making sure that the magic of the night could be preserved for years to come. And within days, it’s in our hands, leaving us to marvel at the intimacy we find in the confluence of technology and community and art, at the rapid speed and global closeness of the modern folkways.

So yes, the time is tight indeed to promote this one last great new album of the season. But the album’s digital-only format is perfect for the immediate gratification we crave. And as an antidote to the oft-ragged ears still struggling to maintain some semblance of holiday cheer in the last throes of the long build-up to the day itself, ‘Twas The Night Before The White House is a timely star, providing something rejuvenating and very, very special, just in time to help us make it through the next few days with joy in our hearts and our ears alike.

Here’s the lead-off track, with hopes that you’ll drop the fiver to pick up the whole beautiful thing from Catie’s site or from Compass Records tonight.

In case you’ve forgotten, we also heard Catie at the tail end of 2009, in last year’s last-minute feature on Rose Polenzani’s holiday songs:

804 comments » | Catie Curtis, Holiday Coverfolk

I’ll Be Home For Christmas: Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 3
(Plus bonus coversongs of holiday longing and loneliness)

December 19th, 2010 — 09:01 pm

One of my favorite Christmas themes is homecoming. The concentrated call for togetherness, whether wistful or wanton, is tied tightly to the seasonal trend towards family and friends, the desire for closeness around hearth and heart, a ward against the chill and the commercialism.

The intimacy that results – just us and the tree, or perhaps the crowd brought into the home – frames a set of a songs that celebrate being home, or express a longing for it, depending on the narrative stance. But in all cases, the motif is clear: Christmas is a time for love, in its infinite forms, and love from afar is always a poor substitute for love up close.

In our case, that means a renewed commitment to the family itself – a topic on our tongues in the Howdy house, as we look back on an unusually hectic year, in which we allowed management to supplant the true rituals of home, and lost sight of the noble goals which we have long established for both partnership and parenting. It’s early, yet, for resolutions. But a last minute argument-slash-decision not to compromise on the Christmas tree, which now stands proudly decorated in the midst of pre-party chaos, reminded us that the struggle to regain the introspective closeness we have lost will need to be at the top of our self-improvement list in the coming months.

I know that we are blessed to even have the opportunity. Not all of us have the luxury of family nearby, or a home to come home to. But home is something that lives in our hearts, an ideal as much as a roof and a bed. Just as a house is not a home without the love it represents, so can a home be a person, a helping hand, even a familiar voice on the telephone this time of year.

So love the ones you’re with, but love the rest of the world, too. Make peace with your enemies, and bring cookies to the neighbors unannounced. Skip the flat tone of the facebook message, and call that long-lost friend instead. Head out for that drink with a coworker or friend you’ve postponed for far too long. Empty your closet, and give your extra clothes to Goodwill; take that extra present to the Toys For Tots drop-off center in your town. Send a belated Christmas card to an anonymous soldier. Volunteer to serve Christmas dinner at the local senior center. Pay the toll for the cars behind you, and drop that extra dollar into the open hand of the lost and lonely.

Make everywhere part of your home this holiday season. Open your heart to the world, and the world will fill your heart. And may you, too, be together for Christmas, whatever that means for you and yours.

…and some bonus hope and longing songs, for those whose homes will be empty this season…and those who can’t go home again, just yet.

Cover Lay Down is still feeling the holiday spirit. Are you? Then don’t forget to check out our previous Holiday Coverfolk features from this year and last!

2,205 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations 2010, Vol. 3:
Late year releases, missed gems, and new holiday compilations

December 16th, 2010 — 12:17 am

As regular readers are surely aware, we tend to stay out of the ubiquitous year’s-end “best of” fray, leaving compilation to those blogs that focus on the ever-new. In part, that’s because we’re archivists and folklorists, not tastemakers, here at Cover Lay Down – which is to say, you’re just as likely to find a song from last decade as you are a release from last month being presented in our biweekly missives.

Too, as a matter of policy and preference, we prefer not to play favorites among the best players, believing that there is much to be said of and for the broad and vast diversity of successful songs and interpretations that comprise the threads of the modern folkways. Instead, we work hard only to bring you that which is worthy of pursuit, regardless of origin, as long as it fits into the intimate niche which we have carved out for ourselves.

But it’s hard to pretend that we haven’t trended towards the new a bit more this year than we had before – a fact that is driven as much by a renewed interest in the way that younger artists rise through the ranks, and in how older artists mature as they try to stay current and true to their own development, as it is by the fact that, after three and a half years on the circuit, we’ve featured a good many of my favorite artists in thorough detail by now. And as part of our ongoing focus on the everchanging world at the intersection of folk and coverage, we do try to keep tabs on the best tribute albums on a roughly quarterly basis throughout the year.

As always, we recommend all the songs and artists we tout here on these pages; those looking for something special for that special someone would be well advised to pick up pretty much any of the albums we’ve celebrated throughout 2010, or indeed, since our 2007 inception. But if you’ve scoured the archives, and are still stuck, here’s a few late-year releases and newly discovered collections which might make perfect stocking stuffers for the coverlover on your list.

Like the work of the artist it honors, Versions of Joanna is an eclectic, often strange mix of music, delicate and full of drones and creaky voices, typified by long narratives, pulsing instrumental swells and soaring melodic lines. But Joanna Newsom’s knack for abstract, often cryptic lyrics and fragile nufolk atmospheres translates well in the hands of this well-chosen collection of independent, often genre-bending artists – a list that includes M. Ward, Billy Bragg, Owen Pallette, and Ben Sollee, in addition to an international cadre of modern folk artists new to my ears but eminently worth watching.

At heart, though many of its songs are framed within production that pays apt tribute to Newsom’s frozen sonic landscapes, and though there are a few exceptions to the rule – like Joel Cathey’s amazing, upbeat harp-pop take on The Book Of Right-On, Versions is still mostly sparse singer-songwriter indiefolk, on piano and/or strings, with a few cello-and-bell exceptions. But it’s all beautiful, with a consistency that belies both its sonic diversity and the worrying first impression that it’s a bit early to do a tribute album for a living artist with only a few albums under her belt. The best part: sales from the 21-track digital album, which dropped just last week, will benefit Oxfam America’s Pakistan Floods Relief Fund, making your purchase a true gift in more ways than one.

Jennifer Schmidt: This Side Of The Blue (orig. Joanna Newsom)

Owen Pallett: Peach Plum Pear (orig. Joanna Newsom)

Rosa Hinksman: In California (orig. Joanna Newsom)

(from Versions of Joanna: A Tribute to Joanna Newsom, 2010)

We covered Boston-based altfolk siren Marissa Nadler way back in 2008 as a follow-up to our original freakfolk post, and again in May of 2009, in acknowledgement of the large-but-not-comprehensive bootleg collection of predominantly lo-fi covers which was floating around the webs at the time. But we seem to have missed the midsummer 2010 release of an untitled, “non-official” covers collection from Nadler herself, currently available via crafter’s website Etsy. The collection includes several songs which we already had – but who wants a downloadable set for gift-giving when for just 12 bucks, you can get a personalized collection of 17 favorites lovingly curated by the artist herself, burned on demand, and packaged in a delightful handmade cover with an original linotype designed by the artist herself.

Nadler is due to begin recording her next album in January, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign at the beginning of this month; in the meanwhile, here’s a few of my favorite covers from her past.

Of course, holiday albums are an especially relevant treat this time of year, with inevitable nods to songs old and new, and we’ve featured several of this year’s best already, from the Indigo Girls multifaith collection to Sam Billen and Josh Atkinson’s newest kickstarter-driven freebie. Joel Rakes’ ongoing holiday EP project is in rare form this year, with twangy, hook-laden indie pop production filling out the once-a-week-’til-Christmas tunes to great and catchy effect. And the aptly-named Merry Ellen Kirk, whose still, lovely Do You Hear What I Hear we featured last year, has added an yet another song to her own ongoing free holiday EP well worth including in the mix, as well.

Though we included a track from Christian singer-songwriter Sara GrovesO Holy Night Tour: The Prison Show, a raw, bluesy set of folkpop carols recorded in an Illinois women’s prison, on Sunday, the free digital-only album comes highly recommended, especially as a gift for the empowered women in your life. In fact, I’m so in love with this collection, I couldn’t help but share a second gem, which totally and delightfully transforms a familiar carol into something sweet, gentle, new, and eminently folk.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention my new and growing affection for Dogs on Tour, a Chicago/Midwest based multi-musician collaborative, who forwarded me their second annual Christmas compilation just last week. Though it’s a cross-genre feast, as much a gorgeously experimental soundscape as a collection of discrete songs, there’s strong folk elements rounding out the mix, and like so much of the best of the season’s underground, it’s free, too, though you’re encouraged to donate a buck or two if you like the work. Plus, it comes with the best terms-of-use notice ever: “If downloaded you are agreeing to the terms of sharing it with everyone you possibly can, passing this link on to others all over the world, and having a Merry Christmas.” Done and done. Pass along the link, and the ones above, for a gift that costs nothing, yet means much.

1,034 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Holiday Coverfolk, Tribute Albums

Mass Media Monday: She & Him & CoCo
cover Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

December 13th, 2010 — 03:57 pm

They can be a little twee. He can be a little silly. But together, backstage, her pure, sweet voice and the gentle strum and tickle of two true-blue guitar masters make for something heartfelt, a sonic hearth just perfect for the holidays. Thanks to Wears The Trousers for the passalong.

Christmas Eve is 11 days away. Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?

754 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 2: The Christmas Story, Covered

December 12th, 2010 — 09:18 pm

As a defining event at the heart of the Western world’s most dominant religion, the Christmas story is perhaps the most sung-about narrative in history. But it’s not just religious importance which makes Christ’s birth so present in the air and the airwaves. The prophecy foretold; the kings, the star, the road; Bethlehem and the manger; Mary and Joseph – as a text, the multifaceted story breaks down into a dozen moments, stretching far enough for a myriad of narrative approaches, from a multiplicity of perspectives. And whether we grow up in Christianity or just aware of its vitality, there’s no denying that the importance of the coming Christian Mass, and the long slide into the season which precedes it, begs for a diversity of song, to sustain the fold as the season draws nigh.

Which is not to deny the immense driving force which culture itself has brought to the fore in spreading this particular gospel, either. The way in which singing and hearing Christmas has become a social phenomenon far beyond the trappings of pews and preacher – in home and hearth, in the community hall and the streetlight carol-sing – has only spread further the demand for a rich and eminently singable songbook. And as its time frame stretches back into November, driven by stores desperate to sell us a commodified Christmas spirit, batteries not included, the modern cry for spirituality in the midst of an ever-expanding commercial culture only strengthens our desire for the authentic.

The result is a canon unparalleled in scope. And where one finds such a vast array of song, coupled with the modern tendency to filter the stories of the past through both community and celebration, it is inevitable that we will find such song in the hands of the people. Indeed, it may be fair to say that there are more folk songs – and more folk versions of songs – about the various events surrounding the birth of Jesus than about any other single event in history, bar none.

There is heavy irony in this, of course. For much of the last several thousand years, the folk tradition and the Church tradition represented opposite, even opposed poles of the musical spectrum, with the Church struggling to displace the folk element with the imposed formality of its own liturgy.

But as we have noted time and time again here at Cover Lay Down, to pursue the folkways is to engage with common, shared understanding of the universe in ways that create communion. And for those of us who sing and listen to find the world in ourselves and ourselves in the world, to take familiar songs with deep meaning and a high recognition factor – such as those of our church childhoods – and filter them through intimate performance, is the very core of this practice.

Which makes for ample choice, when compiling a collection of acoustic and folk versions of Christian hymns and canticles for the holiest of seasons.

Indeed, even in source material, we find a broad selection. Many of the Christ child songs are “newer” hymns penned in and for churches; others come from old poems set to music by later generations, gospel spirituals grafted in the fields of the American south, true folktunes penned in homage to history by singer-songwriters. Regardless of their origin, their modern place among the canon speaks clearly to the relevance of true Christmas music throughout the ages. And though them, we celebrate the birth of every child, and of the presence of the holy spirit in our lives.

What follows, then, is by no means definitive, neither in song nor in version. But the songs I have chosen represent what I consider the core of the Christian mix for my own Jewnitarian home, where we struggle each season to honestly explain each diverse element in a world rich in faith and practice, allowing the true history of Christian retelling to take its place among the Buddhist and pagan elements, the humanistic and Jewish rituals which drive our multicultural household, even as we continue to profess our own core beliefs in something else entirely as part and parcel of raising healthy seekers.

Which is to say: you’ll find no Christian sermon here. But as a multitude of choir liturgies taught me as a child myself, to seek both deep joy and solace for the soul is anathema to a practice of exclusion. Here, then, are quiet songs of meaning, with joy and peace on a depth that transcends belief – even as they recount Christian teachings about a particular child, conceived of a particular mystery, foretold with a particular heavenly sign, born in a particular manger. Do What Thou Wilt with them, with my blessing for a truly meaningful holiday season, whatever you may practice.

See also Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 1: Christmas, (Re)Covered for new and newly-found holiday songs from singer-songwriters previously featured here on Cover Lay Down. Or, if you’re looking for something a bit more secular, why not try Wednesday’s feature set of Nondenominational Carols?

1,727 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Secular Seasonals & Nondenominational Carols:
Snowsongs, sleigh rides, & more folk covers for a winter’s night

December 8th, 2010 — 10:46 pm

Though the basic tenets of the movement include finding truth in a diversity of sources, thanks to the large number of post-Christian seekers in their membership, Unitarian Universalist congregations can be a bit oversensitive about “the Jesus thing”. This makes seasonal celebration a bit tense. For example, in our own UU Society, though no one balked at last weekend’s celebration of Hanukkah, and though we expect solid support for similar services on both Kwanza and Solstice in the coming weeks, past practice suggests we’d do well to avoid mention of the trinity, angels, miracles and the like for our upcoming Christmas service, lest we merit scowls and complaint in the midst of what should be holiday cheer.

But avoiding the overtly religious doesn’t mean swinging towards mass culture, either. Crass commercialism is anathema to UU’s humanistic pillars, knocking songs of bows and gift wrapping off the list as well; gift-giving in the spirit of recognition and sharing is all well and good, but the relevant tropes we find in mass culture are both too trivial and too suspect for Sunday services. Santa’s just not spiritual enough for worship. And though many come to us bearing gifts of honest, illuminating messages, for their characters and their iconography, holiday specials belong in the home, not in the meeting hall.

Thankfully, song selection for this year’s UU Christmas service isn’t up to me; it’s up to our dear friend Elisabeth, who – as Music Director for the congregation – knows far better than I which carols will slide through the oddly narrow space defined by what might offend the masses. But I know well the dilemma she faces, having for years searched for just the right collection of song for our own little Jewnitarian, humanistic, anticommercialist brood at holiday time.

Don’t get me wrong: As a listener, I’m an avid multiculturalist, with a love for holiday hymns brought in no small part by a Jewish childhood spent coveting the way in which the true songs of Christmas past were so familiar, so meaningful and dear, to mainstream society. Indeed, this weekend we’ll be swinging to the other pole, bringing forth a set of deeply religious songs which, thanks to stunning melody and memorable imagery, nonetheless ring relevant and true for me this time of year.

But today is for others who, like our family, are determined to seek out honest, inclusive songs of authenticity in a world of creches and boxes. And happily, somewhere along the way, an awful lot of songs of universal peace and joy, winter and cold have been folded into the Christmas canon. In fact, looking through the archives, I find that our very first Christmas here included a post collating those songs which – though generally found on the same radio playlist and popular songbooks alongside the religious ones – belong to Christmas only by association. And two years ago, a kidfolk feature on songs originally taken from TV specials led us again towards songs which serve to skin the proverbial cat, offending none, yet retaining the spark of the spirit.

So here’s today’s roast with the fat trimmed, a re-collated set of songs which celebrate the season without yawing into the twinned, polar harbors of religion or marketing. You’ll find neither mangers nor malls here; instead, you’ll find stories of homecoming, love, and longing, and plenty of simple paeans to both the quiet peacefulness and the raucous joy of snow. Some are romantic ballads; others were penned for children, and speak to the utter glee of the winter world. But all acknowledge the season authentically, even spiritually, without bringing Christmas, church, or commerce into the mix.

Whether you choose to mix them in among the larger canon or not, for the sake of your neighbors and your children, remember to play nice this year. Honoring those who wish to eschew religiosity while retaining the spiritual center of the season may not always come easy, but it’s always worth the work.

    If this Paul Williams-penned tune wasn’t familiar from two of Jim Henson’s most magical Christmas specials ever, it would fit perfectly in the gospelfolk canon. Here, on a live radio cover posted on her own blog a while back, singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani comes on sweet and rough, delivering a gorgeously balanced take which manages to let the faintest hint of the season creep in through a sparse, bell-like hand on the piano. Head back to last year’s Polenzani holiday feature to hear a produced version of the title track.

    Gordon Lightfoot’s mellow Song For A Winter’s Night fits the folk mindset perfectly: the hearth, the snow, the story of us in a house. Sarah McLachlan’s ubiquitous pop cover is a bit too too, but a spare cover from Erica Wheeler and the rich harmonies of Canadian folk supergroup Quartette do it justice, twice over.

    Solo indie darling and occasional Grizzly Bear cohort Robin Allender takes on the theme to the poignantly silent British holiday classic The Snowman with aplomb. Worth seeing and worth hearing, lest we forget that not all children grow up American.

    An instrumental two-fer from a man I saw wow a standing-room-only workshop stage crowd this summer. Pretty sure they were recorded for the same set originally, but I picked up the first from the country-grass collection A Very Special Acoustic Christmas, and the second from Putumayo’s delightfully fun A Family Christmas collection, and recommend both.

    Trifectas are great, when we can find ‘em, and this one’s a gem, with three mellow yet vastly different takes on an increasingly old pop standard. Fiddle-playing post-folk singer-songwriter Laura Cortese turns in a slow plucked beauty, and indie duo A Weather goes dreamy, although with holiday bells. Oh, and keep an ear open here and elsewhere for more new work from Joel Rakes, whose yearly song-a-week holiday series has already begun with wonderful folkpop versions of both Deck The Halls and Hark! The Herald Angels.

    My favorite surprisingly quiet version of a jinglebell sleighride carol you forgot wasn’t about Christmas. From the mistress of authentic kidfolk, who’s been absent from these pages far too long.

    When she was little, my youngest daughter had a snowman fetish; she’d pull the old Rankin-Bass animated classic off the library shelf regardless of the season, and I caught her dancing to the credits more than once. Fiona Apple isn’t usually this folk, but her solo acoustic guitar version of the tune which started it all, via 2005 alt-rock compilation Christmas Calling, comes off as perfect lusty singer-songwriter fare.

    Two wonderful finds from previous years, for those sick of the same old soul: a sweet amateur folk duet from Hanft and Yonack, and an unusually sparse solo turn on uke and voice from still-rising star Allo, Darlin’, way back in her 2008 lo-fi demo days.

    Okay, it mentions Christmas in the first line. But Joni Mitchell’s song isn’t about Christmas, it’s about yearning for home and family, escape and empowerment. And Rosie Thomas does it so sweetly, skipping the darkness for the light.

    David Pomeranz wrote it, and Dayna Manning‘s excellent folkpop version rings of Aimee Mann and fellow Canadians Chantal Kreviazuk and Sarah McLachlan, but it took John Denver and his beloved Muppets to make it famous in the late seventies. And so we end where we began: remembering Jim Henson, whose Christmas specials brought us so much joy as children, and still do, today.

Looking for something a little more Christmas-y? Come back Sunday for a set of true holy day hymns – and, in the meanwhile, don’t forget to check out these past Holiday Coverfolk posts.

980 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Covered In Folk: Nick Drake
(18 covers from Beck, Lucinda Williams, Solas & more!)

December 5th, 2010 — 01:08 am

It’s surely more understatement than hyperbole to suggest that Nick Drake was a man before his time. The Cambridge dropout who found Dylan and dope more engaging than his studies certainly impressed the members of Fairport Convention, who would go on to support his 1969 debut Five Leaves Left in the studio, but he only confused British audiences, who found the chronically depressed insomniac anxious and disengaged, and his ecologically-grounded poetics and organic chorus-less songs completely anathema to the world of sea shanties and traditional brit-folk with which they were familiar.

By the time of his death at age 26 – the coroner claimed suicide, brought on by an overdose of antidepressants – Drake had long since stopped performing, or even showing up in the studio; famously, his final album was delivered to his record company already finished, with so little fanfare that it wasn’t even noticed sitting on the reception desk until the following week. He had also withdrawn to his parents house, both for the moral support and, arguably, because his unwillingness to engage in live shows or promotion had led to such dismal sales, he could not support himself independently.

But though he died young and relatively obscure, with only three studio recordings and a trio of singles to his name, most modern audiophiles place Nick Drake in the canon, naming him among the most influential English singer-songwriters of the past 50 years. This recognition is driven, in part, by his influence on other artists who discovered him after his death, quite probably prompted by an undercurrent of audiophile demand, which in turn brought forth comprehensive box set Fruit Tree in 1979 – a record which neither sold well nor received much critical mention, but which seems to have furthered the underground spread of his sound and sensibility.

Since then, Drake’s posthumous renaissance has been driven by the usual suspects. Numerous musicians in the 80′s and afterwards, from REM’s Peter Buck and The Cure’s Robert Smith to Kate Bush, The Dream Academy, and The Black Crowes, named him as an influence, causing the British press to identify him as progenitor of a particular type of “doomed romantic” public stance common to musicians at the darker ends of the musical spectrum in the late stages of the 20th century. Since then, others, including Lucinda Williams and Lou Barlow, have also cited him as creative ancestors.

And after a 2000 appearance of Pink Moon in a Volkswagon ad led to a wave of sales that far surpassed his total up until that date, his star continued to rise in the public eye, predominantly via film and other mass media, which have in the past decade found his atmospheric style, his delicate phrasing, and his pastoral lyrics resonant with the post-millennial indie soundtrack crowd, placing his work on a par with the resurrected sounds of proto-indie artists like Nico, Elliott Smith, and Vashti Bunyan.

Today, Nick Drake’s music and name are common on the tongue and in the ears of the average music listener, though many are likely more familiar with a small handful of his songs than the full canon. And his influence is easily apparent in the style and substance of a broad spectrum of modern singer-songwriters, many of whom we have covered here in the past.

But so much of the power in Nick Drake’s work lies in his delivery, it’s no wonder that so few have covered him effectively. And it surely doesn’t help that the daunting task of recreating that rich, layered tone, and the gentle, genuine awe apparent in that hold-your-breath voice, pales next to the very real risk of stepping into the damaged mind which produced it.

It takes a confident artist to be willing to take on all that, and a true craftsman to try it without faltering, managing to still come out the other side with something which works as both homage and something fully owned and fully transformed by the covering artist. Many have tried, and failed – there’s as much as a dozen tribute compilations out there, if you know where to look, and though most are fueled by genuine appreciation, much of the work fails to go beyond simple resurrection.

Happily, there’s a few geniuses who have managed to pull it off. And though some add strings or other instrumentation to strong effect, as many or more favor Drake’s preferred delivery, aiming for the stripped down sound of the folk artist, the quiet, broken singer-songwriter who eschews the studio’s perfection for the raw, the private, and the intimate sound of the basement and the empty stage, making them perfect for our ongoing journey through the world of the folkways.

Here, then, a compilation of those best and brightest covers, most of which go well beyond the mere reproduction of tonality which so stymies the influenced. Taken together, they make for a multifaceted tribute: to the man, to the adoration and respect which he himself never received, and to risktakers all, who pay tribute to those who burn so bright and so quick, yet cannot stand their own flame.

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

2,172 comments » | Covered in Folk, Nick Drake

« Previous Entries