Category: Classical

Susan Werner, Classics:
Covers of Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel and more!

February 21st, 2009 — 09:13 pm

Pianist, guitarist, and singer-songwriter Susan Werner has built a career on performing a particularly potent form of contemporary folk — one which balances a fluid and nuanced sense of delivery with an unusually loose, almost jazzy sense of time in which every moment counts, and can be stretched out to maximum effect. I’ve seen Werner several times throughout her career, in large venues and small, and I’ve always been impressed by her ability to connect with the audience through song, and connect the song to our hearts.

But though the power of her classical training is evident in her masterful range of emotion and expert technique as a vocalist and keyboardist, and though the few covers she has performed over the years have certainly benefitted from her ability to perform, Werner is no mere interpreter of song. Her songwriting is wry and intelligent, infusing the everyday with poignancy; her everywoman’s eye gets to the heart of the matter, regardless of whether the subject is personal or political.

Her intimate, deliberate delivery, coupled with an eye for ennobling the ordinary, has long made her a darling of the coffeehouse set, where she stands out against so many syncopated strummers as someone who gets a genuine thrill out of giving every moment the meaning it deserves, and who has the precisely honed talent to deliver on that promise. And though her brand new album Classics, released just this month, represents a departure from her usual folk style, it was the promise of this talent, as applied to cover song, which was my entry point for the album.

The songs on Classics come from the pop canon of the sixties and seventies; cover fans will find familiar source material here, from Simon and Garfunkel to Marvin Gaye to Bob Marley, and as expected, each song is treated with the vocal power and nuance to make it sparkle and shine. But what makes Classics both unique and noteworthy is the way it doubles up on the usual source material, framing each cover in the instruments and genre settings of chamber and classical music, as performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. The chamber music arrangements add a second layer of coverage, setting popular lyrics and melody in familiar classical styles and motifs just as familiar to the average listener as the pop songs themselves.

It’s a daring approach, both as folk and as a sort of mash-up. Pairing Cat Stevens with a Bach string quartet seems like a stretch on paper. Putting Stevie Wonder up against a Chopin piano-and-strings setting sounds less like a productive collaboration than a parlor trick, an intelligent sort of froth doomed to be no more than nifty, and to be fair, until the familiar Chopin refrain kicks in at the end, it’s more parlour jazz than folk. But whether you call this folk or just a product of the folk process from a musician with the credibility of a master’s degree in theory and a decade or more of praxis, in the end, there’s no denying that with the release of Classics, Werner reveals a talent for arrangement which rivals her abilities as a chronicler and performer, pairing the two familiar genres so adeptly, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the way these songs had always existed, if only in potential.

Indeed, Werner is in rare form here, bringing all her various strengths to bear on the project, and revealing new ones in the process. And if, in the process, she reclaims classical chamber music as a real material for the folkprocess, it only demonstrates just how much wonder and power there is left to construct and discover from that process, when tackled by someone with the talent, training, and sheer ability, and a single, startlingly new concept.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a few streams from Classics, shared with permission…followed by a collection of older covers, and the usual bonus coverfolk. Head over to Susan Werner’s website for a few more streams from the album, and then pick up your own copy of Classics.

  • STREAM: Susan Werner: A Hazy Shade of Winter (orig. Simon and Garfunkel)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Maybe I’m Amazed (orig. Paul McCartney)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (orig. Marvin Gaye)

…some older covers, from diverse sources:

  • Susan Werner: Vincent (orig. Don McLean)
    (from Time Between Trains, 1998; includes original hidden track)

…and today’s bonus coverfolk, which features two lovely covers of Susan Werner originals by folk trio and festival darlings Red Molly, who formed around an afterhours campfire after a late-night mainstage session that included Werner herself.

Special thanks to fellow fan and Star Maker Machine contributor Susan for helping me out with so many of the covers posted today. Serendipitously, Susan even posted one of my favorite Susan Werner originals over at SMM to close out our week of train songs — those interested in following the thread should definitely head on over.

1,046 comments » | Classical, Red Molly, Susan Werner

Covered In Folk: Classical Music (Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, David Wilcox, Brooks Williams, etc.)

March 26th, 2008 — 02:05 am

Most people think of modern folk music as inherently coupled with the singer-songwriter movement. And it is true that, once upon a time, those who would grow up to become the folk troubadors of their own tomorrows learned their songs the traditional way, at the knees of their elders, that they, too, might pass old songs on to a new generation, and tell their own stories in familiar forms.

But the primary instruments of folk music turn out to be more versatile than the folk tradition would suggest. And though many modern musicians surely came to folk the old-fashioned way, through listening and picking, plenty others have grown up in modern home environments and schools where formal lessons are a norm. Today’s radio dial speaks in a variety of tongues and timbres. And a parent’s treasured record collection allows for a broad base of source material far richer than that which can be learned from the old folkie or bluesman next door.

The result has been a world in which the potential for early imitation can come from almost anywhere, and does. And as the ways we listen, store, pass along and learn our music change, so does the method by which musicians gain their craft, and stretch it out. It is a world of crossover, in which classical cellist Yo Yo Ma sits in with James Taylor in concert, The Kronos Quartet plays the hell out of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, and bluegrass musicians like Bela Fleck cut entire albums of classical music. And, since all these remain the music of the folk, for the folk, and by the folk, when the sound comes together just right, it’s still folk music if we want it to be.

On one level, then, like indiefolk, folk rock, and Celtic Punk, the inclusion of classical music in the folk musician’s repertoire is just another example of the hyphenate hybridization of genre which is so common in the world of modern music. But on another level, I think there is reason to celebrate this phenomenon as something very special.

For one thing, the ability to interpret classical themes and motifs effectively is not something that all kinds of folk musicians are even capable of. Doing so calls upon a kind of technical adeptness that is anathema to the strum patterns so prevalent in folk musicians who have learned their trade from blues or rock.

On an even grander scale, making classical music “come out” as folk collapses an exceptional historical dichotomy which presents classical music as the exact opposite of folk music. To take a form which its composers and its audiences have long maintained is so complex, so rarified, that it can only be fully appreciated after years of careful listening and quiet appreciation, and put it in the hands of musicians and instruments which are, by definition, “jus’ folk”, is a revolutionary act on a scale far beyond that of any other folk hybrid form.

In other words: it takes both skill and guts to do this. And perhaps this is why, though the passage of melody and theme from the commonfolk to the highbrow has been a common theme in classical music for over a century, from Bartok to Copeland, it remains rare to hear serious application of classical music to the instrumentation of folk, at least in the hands of musicians who themselves identify as coming from the folk tradition.

Today’s coversongs involve neither songwriting nor singing, for the most part. Instead, here’s a surprisingly diverse set of genuine classical music played on acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and other rude country noisemakers by a set of musicians from many folk traditions: contradance, “true” folk, flamenco, Klezmer, the bluegrass and appalachian camps. One hand, this is nothing more than another example of the same phenomenon that makes electronic folk a legitimate (albeit still very fuzzy) term in the hands of promoters and artists. On another level, this is more folk than anything else, a set of adept artists bravely trading on their popular cache to bring cake to the breadline. Relax, and enjoy.

As always here on Cover Lay Down, all song and artist links above go direct to label and artist websites, where you can and should purchase these and other incredible soundscapes. Because while buying your music instead of downloading it might be a classical model, supporting artists without the middlemen is most definitely folk.

210 comments » | Bela Fleck, Brooks Williams, Carlo Aonzo, Chris Thile, Classical, David Wilcox, Flamenco, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Romero, Shawn Colvin, Shirim

Brooks Williams Covers: Toots and the Maytals, Pat Metheny, Jorma Kaukonen, more!

December 12th, 2007 — 03:07 am

I listen to Brooks Williams as if he were two accomplished artists: the instrumentalist and the more traditional singer-songwriter. This makes me an unusual listener –- because while his instrumental wizardry is rightly celebrated, for a surprisingly significant portion of his career, Williams has been hailed by most as a folk guitarist who happens to sing once in a while. Even his own website reinforces this perception of Williams as a guitarist first, defining him as a singer-songwriter but front-loading his bio with quotes about his virtuosity as a guitarist, mentions of awards for the same, and a description of the origins of his playing style.

And that’s a shame. Williams has always been both an incredible guitarist and a sweet, tuneful singer-songwriter who tends to alternate pure instrumentals with sweet-voiced tunes in recording and performance alike. It just took a change-up to prove it.

To be fair, for most of his career, it was hard to blame those who would dismiss or forget his vocal skills and lyric-craft. His awards and recognition have been almost entirely for his slide blues, and his flat- and finger-picking style. Until the release of 2003 folkpop album Nectar, New England transplant, festival fave and “acoustic guitar god” Williams brought his voice out as just one more instrument – and if it came across as a slightly lesser one, it was only because so little could compete with his fretwork.

Nectar represented a significant shift for Williams. Unlike previous albums, which — with the exception of Little Lion, his surprisingly diverse instrumental release of 2000 –- tended to contain an even mix of instrumentals and more typical folkfare, Nectar contains no instrumentals at all. Instead, it comes across as a sweet, enjoyable listen grounded in the voice-forward production values of the urban folk and — dare I say it — Adult Alternative models.

Nectar brought about a strong reaction from Brooks Williams’ fan base, much of it negative. But none of William’s work is easy to dismiss. There’s never been anything urban or even easy about his fingerpicking, even as it moves from the foreground to become one component of many in the more fleshed out songs of his produced work. His hands remain light on the strings, bright and loose, regardless of whether he’s going for a more traditional strum pattern or a wizardry that rivals true folk instrumentalist Leo Kottke.

Among his other talents, Williams has a collector’s ear for covers, and he finds them all over the musical map, from the deep roots of reggae and jazz to the most sensitive of some pretty obscure blues and folk artists. In every genre, he’s rediscovered great but buried songs you haven’t heard in years, if you’ve heard them at all, and made them his own.

His instrumental versions are playful and rarely deep; his vocal work always sounds, to me, like he’s grinning as he sings. This brings a consistent approach to his songs, but because the source material is so diverse, his covers never sound the same — even before the relatively wide set of production modes of Nectar brought us a fulfilled potential for a greater diversity of song and performance.

Today, some covers from Brooks Williams before-and-after. First, some lovely instrumental work on familiar covers of Toots and the Maytals, popjazzman Pat Metheny, ex-Hot Tuna bluesman Jorma Kaukonen, and a crisp and playful Beethoven classic, along with an older, lighthearted something from Sam Phillips/T-Bone Burnett in which you can hear the guitarplay overwhelm the vocal stylings and lyrics. Then, for comparison, a gorgeously atmospheric Dougie MacLean cover, and a pair of lush, melodic folkpop takes on John Martyn and Memphis Slim songs from Nectar. Plus a holiday bonus song that needs no introduction.

Brooks Williams, the solo acoustic guitar virtuoso:

Brooks Williams, the singer-songwriter:

Brooks Williams’ newest CD is slated to be released just after the new year. No matter what it sounds like, it will surely be another daring, crisp set of songs both familiar and innovative, full of his standard string-subtleties, worth listening to a dozen times or more. Get Nectar and Little Lion while you wait for its release, and start a love affair with a maestro as undersung and overlooked as the artists he covers here.

Today’s bonus Holiday coversong:

Looking for more acoustic coversongs? Head over to Covering the Mouse, where later today I’ll be guestposting a sweet scatsong bossa nova version of Cinderella classic Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.

And don’t forget to come back Friday, when we’ll be featuring folkcovers of popular Christmas songs written by Jews.

842 comments » | Brooks Williams, Classical, Holiday Coverfolk, Jorma Kaukonen, Sam Phillips, Toots and the Maytals