Archive for January 2011

RIP: Charlie Louvin, 1927 – 2011

January 29th, 2011 — 01:24 pm

We pay tribute today to Charlie Louvin, long-time Grand Old Opry member and elder statesman of Country music, who passed this week after complications from pancreatic cancer.

Charlie Louvin’s work with his elder brother Ira in the fifties found familiar placement on the Country charts – indeed, until the brothers split up two years before Ira’s death in ’65, the close harmonies of the brothers Louvin, with their mandolin-guitar accompaniment, were arguably among the most heavenly sounds on the radio. And though he was ever-dismissive about his own contribution to the songs for which he was listed as co-author, claiming that he was the music-watcher, who brought titles and concepts, new sounds and instrumental flourishes to his alcoholic, inward-turned brother to turn into songs, it is these self-same connections to the world of music at large which Charlie brought to the table that make his legacy so notable from the folk-watcher’s perspective.

Originally trained in the country gospel tradition, Charlie and Ira started adding secular songcraft to their repertoire early in their career on the advice of a sponsor. In the end, though the broader base of inspiration surely helped bring them further recognition, their songbook remains dominated by hellfire and angels, the core question of how to live in balance between the demands of both the spiritual and secular worlds running throughout. And though his later solo work may have had less of an impact on the overall canon, it, too, continued the thread, marking Louvin as a keeper of the country tradition.

Thanks to its heavy, heady influence on harmony duos from The Everly Brothers to Simon and Garfunkel, and on country rockers The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris, it is predominantly their early duet work for which The Louvin Brothers will be remembered – and sure enough, it is that work which we find covered most often, as seen below.

But Charlie Louvin’s continued output in the half-century since deserves our recognition and respect as well. In the last ten years alone, like Johnny Cash before him, he enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, receiving two Grammy nominations – one in the traditional folk category, the other for best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album – recording with Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello, opening for Cake and Cheap Trick, and headlining Bonnaroo. Check out today’s coverage, a set unsurprisingly dominated by bluegrass, country, and americana folk, and then turn your ears to both his older recordings and the final decade of his work for broken, heartfelt takes on a myriad of originals, classics, and traditional country gospel ballads.

As always, Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to connect artists and fans, for the betterment of all. If you like what you hear here, we encourage you to follow the links in each entry, to learn more and to purchase works from the artists we tout.

But it’s also worth pointing out that because we believe that advertising would interfere with the pure relationship between you and the music, we depend on your donations to support the continued existence of this blog.

All who donate will receive – within the next few weeks – a sampler of bootleg cover tracks recorded by yours truly at various concerts and festivals throughout 2010, and available nowhere else. And until the end of this month, 20% of all donations will be paid forward to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the better to support the local community through the long winter. We’ve already raised over $100 for the cause. Won’t you consider helping out?

1,155 comments » | Charlie Louvin, Louvin Brothers, RIP

All Folked Up: Frank Sinatra
(coverage from Joshua Radin, Anna Ternheim, Jason Mraz & more!)

January 26th, 2011 — 09:16 pm

My maternal grandfather was a huge Frank Sinatra fan: one of my most powerful memories of him, in fact, is of my grandparents dancing in their Florida living room, strangely graceful and oblivious to the watching world, their wistful smiles and laugh lines framing faces aglow with an otherwise unseen affection, the swell of strings and Sinatra’s voice pouring from the record player like a fog.    A year later, they would give up the house, move North, and start their relatively short decline towards death, but it’s here where I would remember them best: gliding in rare partnership, recapturing a lifetime I can only imagine.   

Like many of us just now starting to tip over into middle age, I suspect, my awareness of old-school singers like Frank Sinatra is peripheral, and predominantly second-hand. For my generation, the man is more present through satire than anywhere – that, and the fragments of original sound that clutter the stream, the pop cultural echoes that slip into commerce and language, marking class consciousness and an undeniable Americanism. Doo be doo be doo, that Jersey accent, the mafia posturing, the Mia Farrow connection: these things flit like retinal floaters in us all, and need not be rehashed, for they are eternal as our ancestors, are as much a part of who we are together as butterflies, Woodstock, or the fault line which threatens the land mass of California.

But let us give the man his proper due: a self-made man, confident and cool, Sinatra had an incredible impact and meaning for his time. Most relevantly, for our purposes, Ol’ Blue Eyes was known for a particularly stylized vocal delivery - a perfect-pitch power just right for Vegas, easy to parody but hard to get just right, one which always struck me as a bit over the top even in his more tender moments.  

To translate these songs in the folk idiom is to attempt a very different sort of success by definition, then: to find the emotional core in a way that seems more authentic, more organic, more about community than performer and performance.

Like Elvis, Sinatra was as much of an interpreter and arranger of song as anything, popularizing and reclaiming strand after strand of the pop, jazz, blues and showtunes canons, weaving them together through his own inimitable approach.   From an ethnographic standpoint, this fuzzy, often second-hand ownership of his song is a relatively strong case for the Rat Pack as a branch of the folkways, but it makes it hard to justify using that songbook as fodder for one of our Covered in Folk features, which tend to focus on songs sourced from original performance, not popular performance.  

But it does allow us to return to a much more fun lens – one which rears its head but occasionally here on Cover Lay Down, when we turn our attention to those who are often covered with a tongue-in-cheek flavor, even if sincerity results. Seldom-seen explorations in this vein have previously included Britney Spears, Modest Mouse, Punk, and Gangsta Rap, with Rihanna on deck for the coming months.    And sure enough, today’s coverage yaws wide, though it leans towards the folkie-gone-crooner side: from a multitude of indiefolk and Americana artists in gleeful lounge mode to Cat Power’s total indie-blues deconstruction of New York, New York to the sweet, gentle strains of Joshua Radin, who – as we’ve learned previously – can make even the Sesame Street theme song sound maudlin and coy.    

Listen, and enjoy.

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Hayward Williams covers Fred Astaire original (and Sinatra standard) One For My Baby.

1,284 comments » | all folked up, Frank Sinatra

Single Song Saturday: True Love Will Find You In The End
(A birthday tribute to outsider musician Daniel Johnston)

January 22nd, 2011 — 12:01 am

Yes, we’re posting our Single Song Sunday feature a bit early this week. But infamously bipolar songwriter Daniel Johnston turns 50 today, and I can’t think of a better way to honor his impact on the music world than with this collection of covers of his best-known composition. The hope and pain inherent in the brilliantly simple lyric and melody of this piece and many others have touched a nerve in many artists both well-known and obscure since Johnston’s first cassette hit the streets in 1981, prompting a multitude of covers, and seven full-length tribute albums – making ours a long overdue tribute, indeed.

It’s not necessary to be familiar with Daniel Johnston’s history as a fringe artist and mentally unstable personality to make sense of his songbook and its influence, but it helps. As I noted two years ago over at Star Maker Machine, where I posted the original and two covers of Johnston’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances:

If a severe manic depressive with an unhealthy appetite for Mountain Dew, who is known for such manic episodes as throwing an airplane ignition key out the window while the plane was still in the air, gives you advice, should you take it?

Oft-hospitalized indie musician Daniel Johnston is known for being a serious oddball, an outsider in a world of outsiders, but his lyrics and songcraft are celebrated by a significant slice of music world and beyond – from David Bowie to Kurt Cobain to Simpsons creator Matt Groening, themselves a fairly untrustworthy group of advice-givers. His lo-fi production and wavery falsetto first hit the world through a series of self-released cassette tapes recorded on a $59 boombox; according to Wikipedia, common themes in his music throughout his career have included “unrequited love, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and comic book superheroes…a propensity to proselytize for his conception of Christianity, warning about the devil, and a fixation on the number 9.”

Johnston himself, in other words, is one of a kind: a childlike, weird, and damaged soul whose hallucinatory relationship to the world around him has produced a wisdom which has touched numerous artists who see themselves on the fringes of society, or even sanity. And indeed, many artists who cover Johnston’s best works choose to channel the thick haze which surrounds both his incredibly lo-fi production method and his chemical imbalanced personality, resulting in a surprisingly varied set of portraits unified nonetheless by more than just the words and music which make the song what it is.

As with Johnston’s original take on Grievances, it’s hard to listen to the original of this piece: Johnston’s pain is wide open, and it comes through powerfully in his wavering, thin tenor voice and his often arrhythmic performance. But as much as we feel for Johnston’s innate discomfort with a universe that doesn’t always make sense to his fractured, scattered brain, there is something vibrant, enthusiastic, even loving in the way we see his engagement with the world, in the way he paints the foggy glimpses of hope he sees through his cracked mirror, in how both his craft and his very continued existence acknowledge the pain as a necessary condition for appreciating the benefits of life, when they finally arrive.

True Love Will Find You In The End is simultaneously a perfect prototype for this duality, and a manifesto for taking charge of our destiny: True love will find you in the end, he says, but how can it recognize you unless you step into the light? Don’t be sad – you know you will – but don’t give up until true love finds you in the end. And though there are many ways to find the right balance between pleasure and pain – from A Whisper In The Noise‘s drowsy shoegaze opium dream to Alela Diane‘s aetherial voice floating on the heady electro-Americana pulse of one-shot coverband Headless Heroes, from the cheerfully emphatic grungy handclap harmonies of 20 year old identical twins Taxi Taxi! to the ache of Richard Walters‘ gentle guitarplay and tender vocals, with their sudden build into soft acoustic indie-folk in the second verse, from Matthew Good‘s sparse, raspy Americana to the playful, almost carnival-esque atmosphere which Boise, Idaho indie-pop band The Very Most bring us by setting the song at a rapid pace, and using a toy piano as their primary instrument – the genius of Johnston shines through every version, from simple and sparse to rich and atmospheric, reminding us that no matter how slow or muddy or psychedelic the interpretation, under all the syrup and insanity, there is hope aplenty.

So Happy Birthday, Daniel. May you live on, in body and spirit, through your songs and your visions.

We don’t usually include bonus tracks in our Single Song Sunday features, but since the songs up at the Star Maker Machine post mentioned above were long since gone, in the interest of letting you follow the threads of his world, I’ve put ‘em back up. Head on over to June, 2008, to listen to covers of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances from Clem Snide and Dot Allison, and to experience the broken, beautiful original for yourself.

[UPDATE - 1/22/11 12:14 PM: Daniel Johnston is soliciting birthday messages for his afternoon podcast. If you've been inspired by Daniel, tell him. Sing a song, leave a msg or say Happy 50th Birthday! Call (936)-463-4688!]

1,005 comments » | Daniel Johnston, Single Song Sunday

Ani DiFranco Covers:
Greg Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs, Nat King Cole & more!

January 19th, 2011 — 06:25 pm

I’ve seen Ani DiFranco live in concert twice – once in a packed concert hall, and once outdoors, at a folk festival – and in both settings, she provided an amazing show, full of passion and pain. But my memories of those two shows are easy to differentiate, and not just because the vast difference in space and time framed her work differently.

In the first, which I attended as a chaperone for a busload of high school students, I remember bright lights and stagecraft, an electrified performer with a back-up band, a hard-rocking duo of an opening act entitled, embarrassingly enough, Bitch and Animal, and a crowd of screaming, bopping teenagers and young folks. In the second, I recall a girl with a guitar, intimate but self-assured, who fit right in amidst both the other predominantly solo acoustic acts who played that year’s Clearwater Revival Fest, and the old folkies and young acousti-punks who peppered the warm summer field that bright afternoon.

Different, indeed, in crowd and tone, space and subtext. And yet both rank up there in my top 50 concerts of all time. Because seeing Ani is a revelation, just as hearing her is.

On paper, Ani DiFranco can be hard to pin down. Two camps – the sensitive-yet-grungy indie-alt-rockers and the hardcore folkies – claim her as their own, in part because her music works both ways, in part because her work as a feminist and a champion of social justice fits neatly into both worlds. She has a child, and she has had two husbands, but she identifies as bi, and thanks to her proudly feminist stance, her most avid fan base includes a disproportionate number of lesbians. Her style is diverse: this is an artist unafraid to evolve, and equally sensitive to the nuances of stripped-down solo work and high-concept rockers. She channels anger and despair poignantly – many of the songs I turn to when I need a good cry are Ani’s – but she also does proud defiance exquisitely, too, as befits her rightful place in the canon of modern feminist music.

But much about the artist and her work is, ultimately, consistent. The utterly crushing emotional core, that gleeful yet determined grin, that slippery, throaty voice, the hanging notes and the punk chordplay, the deeply personal narratives which blossom into critical cultural reflection and biting satire, are an innate part of her charm and her success. Call her what you will: Ani is Ani, and one of the factors that makes her such a powerful voice in the community is, indeed, that ability to be her strong, joyful self, on stage and through song.

Unlike many artists, Ani doesn’t generally place cover songs on her full-length albums – though she did include three on her 2000 EP Swing Set. Indeed, in a prolific career of over 20 albums since her 1990 debut, she has released just one cover, a deconstructed electrofolk take on Amazing Grace, amidst her studio originals, which we first shared way back in our first Single Song Sunday feature.

It’s tempting to suggest that her work is so proud and so personal that it crowds out the songs of others, that the deep, raw soul-delving journey of each of her albums overwhelms influence, that it would make little sense for her to interrupt her own narratives with even transformed takes on the songs of others. And for this, she can be aptly forgiven: her lyrics carry such emotion, and her albums hold together so cohesively, it’s easy to see why Ani would want to keep her narratives closed, though as cover fans, we’re grateful that she often performs a cover or two in concert these days, something which was much less true of her earlier sets.

But over the course of her career, others have clearly sought out the power of Ani’s voice, both as an advocate and as a performer. She’s done two songs with Prince, appears as Persephone on Anais Mitchell’s acclaimed “Orpheus meets the American Depression” folk opera Hadestown, and features as a vocalist on Dr. John’s 2008 New Orleans tribute The City That Care Forgot. Her take on Wishin’ and Hopin’ on the My Best Friend’s Wedding soundtrack is too-cute and best forgotten, but her interpretations of the songs of others with more meaning in their lyrics stand-out on tribute albums for the likes of Springsteen, Greg Brown, Pete Seeger, and more.

Ani has lent her voice to others, too, when she feels they need to be heard: through her label Righteous Babe, which she started at the beginning of her career in order to avoid the artistic compromises which she saw as endemic to major label affiliation, and which has produced the work of similarly strong female voices since its inception, and in partnership with labor organizer and hobo songwriter Utah Phillips, with whom she released two albums, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (1996) and Fellow Workers (1999). And she spearheaded ‘Til We Outnumber ‘Em, a Woody Guthrie tribute concert to benefit the Woody Guthrie archives and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Educational Foundation, which was released through her label in 2000, and which you can hear sampled below.

The combination of Ani’s songwriting and her performance are stunning; if for some reason you haven’t heard them, I urge you to seek out mid-career fan favorites Not A Pretty Girl, Little Plastic Castle, Up Up Up Up Up Up, and 1997 live album Living In Clip – which Rolling Stone named one of “The Essential Recordings of the ‘90s” – among other strong albums from her catalog. If nothing else, pick up both her 36-song “greatest hits” package Canon, and the exquisitely produced Knuckle Down, which contains my two favorite tear-jerkers: the moody, jazz-tinged Studying Stones, and the pulsing Recoil, which hides a climbing anger under a language of malaise and ennui so perfectly, it never fails to chill me at its climax.

But this is a cover blog, and we celebrate through interpretation unabashedly – believing, as always, that cover songs provide an easier, more comfortable avenue to connect with the work of a new artist. A collection of Ani’s coverage, then, strong and passionate, with a few bonus tracks to follow by a few others from the folkworld who have tried to do justice to her own masterworks.

As promised, Today’s Bonus Tracks offer a few covers of Ani’s better-known works:

Having fun? A reminder, then: Cover Lay Down eschews advertising as a distraction from our core purpose: to provide the strongest link possible between artists and listeners, to the benefit of all. But as noted earlier this month, we depend on the kindness of strangers and friends to pay the bandwidth bills, and those bills rise each year as more and more people find their way to our little home on the web.

If you, too, like what you hear here, we encourage you to click on the links in this and every feature, to purchase tracks and CDs from the artists we find and promote. But if you have any goodwill left after that, we hope you will consider a donation to help cover our costs. All who donate will receive – at the end of the month – a sampler of bootleg cover tracks recorded by yours truly at various concerts and festivals throughout 2010, and available nowhere else. And until the end of this month, 20% of all donations will be paid forward to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the better to support the local community through the long winter. Won’t you consider helping out?

1,031 comments » | ani difranco

Monday Madness: The Hillbenders cover 80′s hit Talking In Your Sleep

January 17th, 2011 — 01:30 pm

Up-and-coming bluegrass whiz-kids The Hillbenders have just been added to the lineup for this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, and I couldn’t be happier with their barn-burning treatment of The Romantics chart-topper Talkin’ In Your Sleep – notably, the first 45 I ever bought, way back in 1983. Play it loud while you dream of summer.

1,044 comments » | bluegrass, The Hillbenders, YouTube

Covered In Folk: Phil Ochs
(On songs of social justice in a post-millennial world)

January 16th, 2011 — 03:40 pm

It’s Martin Luther King Day, and I’ve been thinking about social justice, even going so far as to try to explain the term to my eight year old in the car on the way to the dentist. But explaining why I teach in the inner city in the language of a third grader is easier said than done. Two generations after King, Kennedy, and so many unnamed others fell as martyrs to the civil rights movement, we live in a world of twice-removed injustices, deeper, more abstract, more slippery and subtle, harder to name, and harder still to put into words.

That the obvious differences which once separated us are now encoded into law and practice as taboo subjects for discrimination shows just how far we have come since the sixties. That in our pursuit of change and justice and equality we have reached the murky core, where it is harder to name the abstract injustices which still linger deep at the root of society, is perhaps King’s greatest legacy, and it’s a fine legacy, indeed.

But it still leaves us with the problem that that which we have to overcome is much harder to define than it once was. So much of our rhetoric is defined by dissatisfaction and dis-ease, and though it’s easy to rally around such ill- and negatively-defined straw men, it’s almost impossible to leverage that muddy, vitrolic speech as a clarion call to well-defined action. The distance between We Shall Overcome and I Don’t Wanna Be An American Idiot is vast, indeed. And the fatalism which has replaced This Little Light of Mine with the deliberate aloofness of We Didn’t Start The Fire is a constant threat to our ability to live the dream, to stand up and lead the charge for the subtle change we all know, in our deepest hearts, remains urgently at hand.

As a tool of political discourse, folk songs – which spread by word of mouth, and speak of and for the community – play a vital role in cultural change. And though it is his speeches which ring so indelibly in the ears of history, MLK, Jr. was a firm believer in the power of song as a vehicle for freedom, seeing it as a critical tool in the hands of the movement.

Most of the songs King’s followers chose to utilize, of course, were remodded from older sources, in keeping with the folkways approach to song which best characterizes the movement itself. But many of the songs which the civil rights movement has chosen to adopt since then come more directly from the generation of singer-songwriters who grew up in the midst of the struggle.

And though his name is not as familiar as a host of others who survived the era to continue performing, and who spread the gospel through a more diverse collection of songs, perhaps no artist has had more of an impact on the modern protest songbook than folksinger Phil Ochs.

Which is to say: like so many great songwriters of depth and poignancy, Phil Ochs – who came to the Greenwich Village scene from the world of journalism, and never shed the constant search for the truth which this entailed – was haunted and ultimately done in by depression, truncating his canon and corrupting his legacy. And in keeping with the discourse drift described above, his catalog is rife with the kind of songs hardly anyone sings any more.

Indeed, Guthrie’s famous guitar slogan nothwithstanding, there is perhaps no other artists who so deliberately and successfully focused his career on protest through music as Ochs himself. The Ochs songbook is relentlessly political, almost exclusively so, unlike those of the numerous artists who include social justice songs in their work – Michael Franti, the Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco, Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, and others among them – but also diversify their message to include more generalized narrative tales of love and life.

And as a result, though Ochs hated the term “protest song”, preferring to say that he wrote “topical songs”, most of which he claimed he wrote based on articles in Newsweek, the vast collection of songs he left behind are a legacy of political protest much like that of the words of King himself, and arguably of a scale and scope which rivals that of the fallen Reverend.

There’s an inherent risk in staking your claim on topical song. But the best protest songs merely gain power through metaphor as they lose their direct relevance in the world of the concrete as history moves ever-onward – Biko has been dead for decades, for example, but Peter Gabriel still sings his life story into fervent life on stage. And though several of Ochs’ songs have been updated in recent years, the best live on intact, their potency all the more for their inward gaze.

Today, Ochs’ critical gaze and determined lyrics still ring true in the hands and mouths of artists across the globe, many of them – From DiFranco to Seeger, from Billy Bragg to John Wesley Harding – known for their own association with the continued struggle for rights and justice in modern society. And his prescient anthem When I’m Gone – surely his most covered song – speaks achingly to the need for every one of us to live and fight for today, while we still have breath.

Which is good. Because even as talk radio and Facebook become tools of discourse, rallying spaces are not rallies: as long as there is still injustice, we still need to be able to stand up and be counted in physical space. Facebook may be a great way to organize, but its silent screen is no match for the full emotional power of the spirit uplifted by song.

Singing to make change cannot be done without songs that demand it. We still need songs that give us courage and hope; we still need the deep feeling of standing together, singing loud and strong, to show ourselves what can be done, to keep us strong and whole and connected in the darkness.

And sing we must, in the end. For there is still so much to overcome.

For more coverage and covers of Phil Ochs, check out Life of a Rebel, a blog devoted to news and memories our featured artist.

[UPDATE, 3:50 pm: thanks to reader Dave, who reminds me that the brand new documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, had its US theatrical premiere just last week. The film, according to fellow folkfan Jeff of Notlob Concerts, "reveals the biography of a conflicted truth-seeking troubadour who, with a guitar in hand, stood up for what he believed in and challenged us all to do the same." Phil's sister Sonny will be a guest on Jeff's Tuesdays 5-8pm, WCUW-fm show In The Tradition on March 8th, just before the Boston premiere of the film. Look for it in theaters near you!]

918 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Phil Ochs

Winter Coverfolk, 2011: Snow Songs, Redux

January 12th, 2011 — 06:22 pm

Two Decembers ago, I posted a set of snow songs, accompanied by a short vignette of my children in the first snowfall of the season. Looking back through the archives, I see that darkness was falling by the time the snow was thick enough for much of anything, and the white stuff must have been heavier, too: my account features snowmen, snow angels, and snowball fights, and not much else.

Today, the girls are older, but the snow is higher: three feet and rising since midnight Tuesday, and still falling fast and thick enough to make us wonder if tomorrow, too, will be a day home from school. The patio table looks like a white-frosted birthday cake; the porch comes in level with the yard: it’s an entirely different world, a blizzard world, the kind kids get once in a childhood, if they’re lucky.

And so this time, instead of lingering on the porch, taking pictures and reveling in their play from afar, I chose to suit up and join them.

There’s plenty to do, out here in the whitewash, but we take it on gingerly, afraid at first to sully the majesty of nature unleashed. At first, we merely wade, buried up to my waist and the elderchild’s chest, carving a hedgemaze into the yard as we wander, wondering at a world obscured, watching the ebb and flow of frozen flakes by the billions as they shift the landscape. The pines and oaks which line our little homestead clearing blend into the landscape, their snowcovered branches rippling like waterfalls; every few minutes, the wind puffs the world into whiteout nothingness, shaking an avalanche down from the sky.

The world is too deep for snow angels: I throw the wee one into the air, and when she lands, she disappears, lying perfectly still “to pretend I’m invisible”. But snow invites play, and soon we cannot contain our energy. So we build a slide where the plow came through a foot ago, and then the girls take turns sitting astride my back while we skid down the half-mile driveway on our inner tube, bouncing and laughing as we creep ever-closer to the road. By the time we come in, our noses are frozen, our toes gone numb, but who cares: it’s the best damn day in the world, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

I originally had something else planned for today’s entry. But as before, my heart is singing, loud and clear in the otherwise-quiet of a snow-hushed world. Here in the warm glow of the pellet stove, hot chocolate in my hands and children’s laughter in my ears, life is present and full of awe. It’s so good to be reminded that, even in a world of high-tech stormtracking and emergency preparedness plans, the universe still has a few surprises in store for us.

To shift the mood away from this peace would be spellbreaking of the worst kind. So here’s an updated list of snowsongs, to celebrate the deep, pure joy of winter.

Looking for more? Our pre-Christmas feature on Secular Seasonals & Nondenominational Carols includes several more snowsongs, including Sam Bush’s instrumentalgrass interpretation of Let It Snow, more solid folk versions of Winter Wonderland from A Weather, Joel Rakes, and Laura Cortese, and Fiona Apple’s warm, cheerful take on classic Frosty The Snowman.

906 comments » | Uncategorized

New Artists, Old Songs, Vol. XIX: Kiersten Holine, Hayward Williams, Jubal’s Kin, James O’Malley, and Starlings, TN
cover Springfield, Dylan, Gillian Welch, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and more!

January 9th, 2011 — 04:13 pm

We’re back on the bandwidth wagon after a full week of experimental streamposts, with thanks to all who have already donated to help us keep the music flowing, and a reminder that, until the end of January, 20% of all donations to Cover Lay Down will be paid forward to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the better to keep our local community fed and healthy. If you, too, enjoy what we do here, we hope you’ll consider helping out.

Now how about a look at some great acoustic and folk coverage from new and still-rising artists worth your time? Here’s some of my newest discoveries, with thanks as always to the musicians, readers, and labels who submit songs and samples for us to share.

First and foremost, though not so new as all that anymore: young Floridian folkband Jubal’s Kin sent me a link to download their self-titled debut back in November, and I’m afraid I got so swept up in the holiday spirit, I never made it to their work – which is a shame, since it’s truly something special, so I’m glad to finally have a chance to tout ‘em.

The nut: Jubal’s Kin is a sibling trio playing every-note-counts appalachian stringband balladry with slight undertones of both bluegrass and indiefolk, sweet harmonies and stellar musicianship, vibrant arrangements with well-placed high and low elements, and an entire album of mostly covers that tackles both tradfolk and the more modern stuff that sounds like it, from Patty Griffin to The Decemberists. The overall effect is highly listenable, full of grace and gravity, innocence and eternity all at once, a sound to steep in that rings the same bell as Sam Amidon, Nickel Creek, Sarah Jarosz, and Joy Kills Sorrow – high praise indeed, from this particular fan. Get it on Bandcamp, but check this out first.

I found Kiersten Holine through a combination of serendipity, shrewd self-marketing, and code: because the text she wrote to accompany her video cover of These Days also recommends The Tallest Man On Earth’s take on the same song, her vid showed up atop the “suggested” sidebar alongside his live cover of Graceland, posted recently by Paste online.

I’m glad it did. Holine’s slightly raspy bedroom delivery and soft, tender guitarwork combine to create an environment that’s quite beautiful, revealing influences from modern acoustic sadcore and indiepop (Stars, Bon Iver) to old folkies (Dylan, especially). Turns out she’s made a few songs and videos with Jeff Pianki, who we’ve covered here before, too. And in addition to the vast set of coverage on her YouTube page, she’s got a ten-song set of downloadables at bandcamp: five free covers from the likes of Morning Benders, Stars, and Local Natives, and five solid originals in EP format well worth the $4.95. Here’s two, plus the aforementioned video, with hopes they’ll push you towards the next eight and more.

If How Dark It Is Before The Dawn, the newest album from Steve Stubblefield project Starlings, TN, represents a total reinvention of the songwriter and arranger’s core sound, it’s because Stubblefield himself has changed since his last album of original works in 2005: after losing his master tapes, several instruments, and much of his home in the wake of Katrina, the one-time southern bluesrock artist spent three years helping others recover from the storm, moving from Biloxi back to his hometown of Hattiesburg, MS in the process – where he turned back to his early love of gospel music, rediscovered the folk songs of Alan Lomax, and learned to play the appalachian dulcimer.

The newest crop of songs are more intimate as a result, and deliciously rich with the sounds of his native south, though looking back through his catalog, I find they still retain the highly produced Velvet-Underground-meets-the-delta feel which lent so many layers to his earlier albums. But it’s the combination of that same tendency towards fuzzed-out production with a wholly new tone – a slow, syrupy, majestic emocore-meets-americana sound, driven by the drone of the bowed dulcimer – which stands out most strongly as new, exciting, and eminently folk. Indeed, his new version of Reason To Believe sounds wonderful and full, like Springsteen filtered through a psychedelic Robitussin dream. And while they clearly represent an experiment with his new-found tonality, the tracks on last year’s all-covers album Under The Influence are well-chosen, and hold up exceptionally well under the treatment.

I first stumbled upon gifted feel-good singer-songwriter James O’Malley while searching for Christmas covers back in mid-December; if the name sounds familiar, it’s because his take on Darryl Purpose’s You Must Go Home For Christmas featured prominently in our Holiday Coverfolk feature set of holiday songs with a homecoming theme. Since then, he’s contacted us with two more covers, a hushed, almost mystical bluesfolk turn on a familiar Dylan tune, and a wonderfully weary take on Celluloid Heroes, recorded in 2009 for Ray Davies tribute Kinks UnKovered, which lends a pensive tone to The Kinks’ classic, and I’m very glad he’s decided to pursue our attention: the two cuts show a diversity of style and substance which remind us never to take those single-shot discoveries as the end of the road, lest we miss the good stuff.

Hurrah for readers, who see what we’re doing here and help fill in the gaps. Like John, who sent along a video of Wisconsinite Hayward Williams, and his amazing rendition of Thunder Road. Williams looks fifteen and sounds timeless, like Marc Cohn with a guitar; turns out he’s popular with the Redbird crowd, making me wish I could catch him on the road with Jeffrey Foucault, who provides the quote on his homepage. And though he seems to be at his best live – which makes his newest release Cotton Bell a strong temptation, given that it is built around a set of live studio takes with talented peers – his studio work is dark and exquisitely produced, with crisp and muddy elements swirling around perfectly, so color me impressed, and wondering why the hell I missed him the first time around.

To be fair, the solo video rendition of this signature Springsteen song is even better in many ways – dustier, more raw, and more weary – and there’s a few other covers up from that same session, including a strong rendition of Tom Waits’ Long Way Home with Peter Mulvey and Brianna Lane on harmonies. But the album version is sparse and strong, too, with a broken rhythm and soulfulness that gains strength even as it loses its way in the song before dissolving into bells and mournful keys, making it more than solid enough to share and celebrate. And you get Mulvey on vocals, as a bonus. Here’s both, for comparison’s sake, along with a slow, raw solo take on Frank Sinatra signature tune One For My Baby (And One For The Road) from a gorgeous 2008 Basement Tapes session.

Finally, following the threads from Hayward’s store, I find Martha Berner‘s cover of Sunday Morning, which offers a light, oddly upbeat poppy folkrock take on the old Velvet Underground with Nico standard that really brings new optimism to the song without overdoing it. Berner’s apparently much more well known – her MySpace page lists plays in the tens of thousands for most tracks – and the song dates back to long before the millennium, but presenting the two together offers a nice balance, here. We’ll call it a bonus track.

Cover Lay Down: posting new coverfolk features and songsets twice a week without fail since 2007. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

1,363 comments » | New Artists Old Songs

(Re)Searching The Cloud:
On Streaming, Bandwidth, Music Apps, and Other Blogger Nuts and Bolts

January 5th, 2011 — 09:14 pm

Confession time, folks: though Sunday’s return to the world of video coverage made for a solid feature, I had an ulterior motive to eschew the usual mp3s. Yes, thanks to a curious combination of both ongoing bandwidth theft and the high demand for cover songs during the holiday season, I’ve been out of bandwidth since Thursday. And my clock doesn’t turn over until the 8th, which means right now, I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to serve the usual demand for coverfolk in ways which best support your needs as fans without costing me a bundle in overage fees.

And though it’s a subject I’ve avoided for a long time, I can’t help but think that maybe – as an experiment of sorts – the best way to balance the books this time around is to tackle the stream head on.

My preferred approach here on Cover Lay Down has always been to provide content in whatever format has the highest potential for you to truly fall in love with the music and artists we feature. And until recently, that has meant a reluctance to utilize streaming technologies, even as most other blogs have long since added those tiny triangular buttons that let you sample before you download. As our Play! page, where you can choose to download a browser-based tool that will let you play our tunes directly from this or any page, notes:

…this preference [for the download-only format] stems from my support for artists first and foremost; these artists work hard to craft songs as entire experiences, and skipping around does their art a grave disservice. As such, rather than encourage folks to make the call based on the first few seconds of a given track, I encourage you to download the music you find here on Cover Lay Down, and let it seep into your consciousness through your preferred listening method.

I recognize that this is an unusual stance. But I know more than most people what I’m talking about when I say that how we listen matters. In my day job, I’m a media and communications teacher, specializing in new literacies, and in the social and personal habits that surround the various modes of communication which different eras of technology have engendered.

My classes spend a full week each semester looking at the rise of the mp3 player and the remix culture, and exploring the broad changes which this has made to everything from how we create music to how we define ourselves through our listening habits. And invariably, year after year, we find that ownership is stronger when we have the most power over where, when, and how we listen.

As a professional, though I still believe that, residually speaking, we are still more likely to think of an mp3 as more “ours” than a mere Soundcloud stream or internet radio station, it’s undeniably true that the margin of experience between streaming and mp3 “ownership” grows smaller every year. Three years ago, when we started this blog, it took downloads to truly make music ours to play with at any moment, but today, streaming on the go is on the rise – and the growing incidence of web-enabled everything-boxes such as the iPhone mean that more and more, we can and do integrate streaming technologies into our daily walkabout experience.

Which is to say: just as the way we use video is changing the audiophilic spectrum, so is the increased ubiquity of the cloud, and our increased access to wireless technology in our hands and ears and pockets, making it possible for us to play music we do not fully own on demand, in the car and in the earbuds. And if we can do that, whether we own the bits and bytes that represent that music or not is increasingly moot when determining how it matters.

To be fair, not posting mp3s did mean a slight drop in readership over the past week – music blog aggregator Hype Machine, which brings us much of our drop-in traffic, doesn’t pick up songs in video format. And it is true that adding play functionality to the blog would raise the demand for bandwidth – studies show that people are much more likely to try everything if they can skim than if they have to download.

But the world of apps seems to be finally catching up with us here. Though I continue to be frustrated about my inability to access Hype Machine on my new iPad, as Duke over at The Late Greats noted earlier this week, the recent appearance of the iTunes app MusicMaven has made it possible for you to take the music posted by your favorite blogs on the go with your portable device – a far better option for those who prefer to surf on the go, too, than having to plan ahead by downloading songs before they leave the house. And MusicMaven lends some pretty nifty functionality to the process of blogsurfing, too: for example, it’s very cool to be able to make playlists directly from your favorite blogs, and play them as you use other apps, without having to use iTunes as a passthrough.

Cover Lay Down is honored to have made the select list which MusicMaven gathers in, though I think you’ll also like the overall set – these guys have great taste in blogs. And as a thank you for all of us, the folks behind the app have given me codes for up to five of you to download the app free of charge – so if you have an iPhone or iTouch, and you’d like to give it a shot, let me know, and I’ll give the first five responders a chance to test it out.

Of course, we’re still left with our little problem of bandwidth limitations – an issue which will only be exacerbated by serving the iPhone community. But I’ve always said that every problem is an opportunity, if approached properly. And today, the challenge provides us an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade twice over.

First and foremost, the daily emails from our wonderful, solar-powered hosting company iMountain remind me that Cover Lay Down depends on the kindness of strangers to cover its costs. And although I dropped the ball a bit on our last pledge drive – yes, folks, I have your names on the right list, and will be sending out this year’s bootleg series as soon as I get the bandwidth back – we’re a bit overdue for our bi-annual reminder that it takes your donations to keep this place going.

So here’s the deal, folks: it’s winter, and there are plenty of families in my area and yours still struggling in the sluggish economy. So from now until the end of the month, I’m opening up the coffers to pay it forward: donate any amount to help keep our faucets running, and I’ll give 20% of all donations to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, a stalwart group of local heroes who are just now watching the cupboards grow bare after the usual holiday rush.

As always, all donors to the cause will also receive a secret link to a homemade live bootleg mix of covers, with songs taken from this past year’s Grey Fox and Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals, and from the numerous house concerts which we have hosted here in rural America. All tracks on these bootlegs were recorded by yours truly, and are available nowhere else. Featured artists on the 2010 bootleg include Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Tracy Grammer, Dala, Chuck E Costa, Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LaFave, Red Molly, We’re About Nine, and more.

But for whatever the reason – be it in support of the artists, the writing, the food bank – please, give if you can. And thanks in advance for your support, of us, and of the music.

Second, and back to where we started today, our little bandwidth outage has caused me to consider experimenting with other methods of service. There’s several, but my favorite so far is Soundcloud, which hosts music on its own servers; we’ve used it here and there a bit, and though it, too, comes off as a blank space on the ol’ iPad and on Google’s Feedreader, it does show on Hype Machine, and I’ve yet to hear any complaints.

Today, then, we present part two of our little experiment in delivery methods: a set of songs which have been sent to me via Soundcloud within the last few months, most of which, oddly and unintentionally, speak to the larger theme of need and change which runs like a wire through today’s feature. As part of our little test, since the ability to stream and listen “live” online makes it much easier to sample, I’ve decided to let the songs speak for themselves, rather than go on about them textually, though I hope you’ll remember that we only post that which we think you should pursue here on Cover Lay Down, and act accordingly.

Links below the tracks go to artist and label pages for purchase, as always, and we hope you’ll enjoy both the songs and the foray into new posting territory, as much as I have. And although Sunday will bring us back to the usual mp3-based setlist format, I hope you’ll also let me know in the comments how the switch from privately-hosted mp3s to streaming technologies over the last two features has served your listening needs.

Clare Maguire: Hope There’s Someone (orig. Antony & The Johnsons)

Benjamin Francis Leftwich: Rebellion (orig. Arcade Fire)

Clare Burson: We Used To Wait (orig. Arcade Fire)

Terry Edwards: Lulu’s Back in Town (orig. Thelonious Monk)

Nicole Atkins: Vitamin C (orig. Can)

The Good Natured: For The Widows in Paradise (orig. Sufjan Stevens)

That’s a Freight Train: I Can Change (orig. LCD Soundsystem)

Ruth Bewsey: Sal Paradise (orig. Futures)

Love Darling: Closer (orig. Kings of Leon)

Liam Bailey: I’d Rather Go Blind (orig. Etta James)
Liam Bailey: Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want (orig. The Smiths)

Pickingsplinters: Cocaine (trad.)

John Velghe: I Wanna Be Your Dog (orig. The Stooges)

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and song sets twice weekly in a neverending quest to connect artists and fans for the betterment of culture. Wanna help?

1,229 comments » | blogtech, metablog

CLD Presents: A Reluctant Video Companion, Part II
(Kina Grannis, Boyce Avenue, Jesca Hoop, The Deep Dark Woods and more!)

January 2nd, 2011 — 08:32 pm

A few years back, I took a stand on YouTube-as-songsource, providing you, the reader, with a purely subjective, typically high-horse audiophile’s argument that music was meant to be heard, not seen:

Some of this is merely about visual distraction. I like concerts – being there is its own form of communion, and seeing an artist’s fingering and facial expression can lend a permanent layer of nuance to songs previously heard. But when unavoidable fascination with the technical nuances of sound production, and the way the light bounces off a varnished guitar to become a splotch of tabletop light, come into play, it takes up a part of me I was using to listen.

Mostly, though, the issue here is distance. Headphone sound is always enveloping; live music is, too, in its own way. But when it comes to screen-based sound, the tiny rectangle of light and motion reduces that all-encompassing feeling of communion to something tinny and contained. Scale and proximity matter: to squint at music is to be apart from it. It’s like smelling flowers while looking at them through the wrong end of the telescope.

Since then, of course, even as MTV has finished the long process of banishing video programming to the wee hours of the morning, a complex of change has shifted our experience with culture: bandwidth has caught up to us, webculture has gotten more visual, and artists continue to look to YouTube and other video companions as both an entryplace into the market and a vital component of word-spreading and fan-base building. As a consequence, YouTube has become more and more viable for me as a listener: not the most important place to find new recordings, by far, and still limited as a frame for experience, but still a valuable primary source for native content produced as audiovisual first and foremost.

And since I have only 17 subscribers to my YouTube channel, and since my hosting company is starting to send me notices about bandwidth overuse on a monthly basis, the time seems ripe for a return to our look at the role of videography in the spreading of the folkways.

As a subjective listener, I still prefer the headphone and darkness approach to music – the better to let the sound envelop me, in its purest form. And just as I eschew the audiobook as something along the spectrum towards the movie adaptation – which is to say, a medium whose tonal addenda makes it an unwelcome thief of at least some of the imaginative potency of the text – as an ideal, I still maintain that recorded music is meant for the ears first and foremost.

But my respect for artists leveraging new media, and my desire to respect their chosen vehicles for that leverage, continues to weigh heavily on my mind, even as I rip the occasional mp3 for us to share, flattening its intended effect in order to isolate the sound of music. And increasingly, I find that the artists I discover come from YouTube performance – via other blogs, artist homepages, emailed links, and those same vibrant video-centric sources which prompted our original look at the world of YouTube artistry and promotion.

We’ve featured many of these artists this past year, in fact. Tom Meny, Matt Ryd, HelenaMaria, Kina Grannis: each uses the videoweb as a primary space for first release, with site-based downloads most often taken directly from performances that came to us via video first. And the strategy works: Pomplamoose, who we’ve mentioned several times on these pages, even managed to leverage their fun cut-up approach to video performance into a series of car commercials over the holidays.

And the strategy is not limited to newcomers. Jill Andrews, pregnant and newly solo after the breakup of the everybodyfields, worked hard to sustain her fanbase via a monthly video series this year. Beck, too, has joined the fray in the last two years, gathering in cadres of friends and fellow performers for one-shot full-album coverage sessions called Record Club, with tasty and often oddly reconstructed takes on everyone from the Velvet Underground to Leonard Cohen to Yanni released song-by-song in full technicolor.

A number of newer sources and sponsors have produced or continue to produce video series worth mention, too. Cases in point include The Black Cab Sessions and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, both of which, in presenting artists in small spaces, prompted both acoustic and stripped-down electric performances whose intimacy translates fairly well to the small screen.

More relevant to our ongoing focus on coverage, The Voice Project, an ongoing series of chain-connected coverage videos which bring us slowly into artist homes and recording spaces in stark black and white, showcase the artist at play, paying tribute to his influences. Both the AV Club’s Undercover and Levi’s Pioneer Sessions presented video cover series this past year, producing several strong entries for our folk archive. Even ASCAP got into the act over the holidays, presenting a page of christmas card covers in tiny video boxes from a strong set of artists – including Dawn Landes, Robbie Fulks, Jill Sobule, and more – in intimate settings. And like the projects we mentioned in our first look at the world of music videos, all of the above are worth the visit, though each also yaws wide enough to caveat the emptor.

So here’s some folks using YouTube and Vimeo well: both as a medium for layered presentation of song as something sensually encompassing, and as a platform for performance, its recaptured relevance distinct from the studio recording I prefer to imagine in my minds eye.

Kina Grannis, who like many of today’s artists we first featured during New Artists, Old Songs Week way back in February, continues to treat YouTube as a primary medium, even after her first album Stairways emerged this year, charting Billboard sans label, sans management, and sans physical product. Here, she pairs with acoustic pop duo Boyce Avenue – equally adept YouTube natives, with some strong covers on their own YouTube page both solo and with fellow YouTuber Savannah Outen – for a gentle U2 cover and a delicious take on Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, released just yesterday.

Kina Grannis & Boyce Avenue: Fast Car (orig. Tracy Chapman)

Kina Grannis & Boyce Avenue: With Or Without You (orig. U2)

Where other coverage-oriented YouTube artists such as Matt Ryd, Danielle Ate The Sandwich, and Jay Brannan have managed to retain their authenticity throughout their online evolution, earning my immense respect and fandom, I have mixed feelings about the most recent work from Alex Cornell, who started covering songs in typical amateur style on YouTube several years ago, but has turned to a slightly overpolished production in his last few videos. Still, the man deserves due recognition for the evolution of style, in keeping with our focus on native YouTube professionalism today. Here’s two covers from Alex – an oldie and a more recent take, for comparison’s sake – plus relatively new coverage from Brannan, Danielle, and Ryd, for comparison’s sake.

Alex Cornell: I’m On Fire (orig. Bruce Springsteen)

Alex Cornell: No One (orig. Alicia Keys)

Danielle Ate The Sandwich: Bad Romance (orig. Lady Gaga)

Jay Brannan: The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (orig. Vicki Lawrence)

Matt Ryd: California Gurls (orig. Katy Perry)

As mentioned above, The Voice Project has become one of my favorite places to linger, most especially for the way their home-and-studio-based visits come into the environment slowly, braiding arrival, small-talk, rehearsal, and contextual intro to the song as part and parcel of the whole experience. Here’s two surprises: Andrew Bird covering Cass McCombs on his porch with some help from a friend, and Jesca Hoop taking on Bon Iver in the alleyway behind her studio.

Andrew Bird » Cass McCombs from The Voice Project on Vimeo.

Jesca Hoop » Bon Iver from The Voice Project on Vimeo.

Did we cover the HearYa Live Sessions last time we did this sort of feature? Can’t remember, but their recent all-covers set with Americana faves The Deep Dark Woods, which hasn’t even been fully released yet, includes this solid cover of the tradfolk-via-The Grateful Dead tune Peggy-O, reminding me to remind you to return to both site and artists often.

The Deep Dark Woods: Peggy O – Live Session 9/21/10 from

Looking for more video coverage? In addition the abovementioned sources and sites, it’s worth remembering that we took on many more video pieces this year than last, most especially as a way to showcase new artists who had little else to offer us by way of coverage. Here’s a few favorites that still linger from 2010: Dan Mills‘ delightful living room playlet, Frank Fairfield‘s back porch banjo-fied countryfolk live on KEXP, and Chuck E Costa playing at our very own house concert series.

Dan Mills: You Can Call Me Al (orig. Paul Simon)

Frank Fairfield: Cumberland Gap (trad.)

Chuck E Costa: No Love Today (orig. Chris Smither)

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

1,203 comments » | YouTube