Category: Jesse Malin

New Artists, Old Songbooks: Jesse Malin covers Folk, Rock, and Punk; Brett Ratliff covers Appalachia

October 8th, 2008 — 08:26 pm

I’ve been posting heavily over at Star Maker Machine all week, and expect to continue the trend; coverlovers just joining us should absolutely head over for a growing compendium of Dylan Covers from the powerhouse collaborative. A beneficial side-effect: immersing myself in the Bob Dylan songbook has been a good way to weed out the inbox chaff. It’s a high standard, but I figure anything forgotten in the excitement was probably not worth keeping in the first place. Here’s news of a pair of wonderful cover-heavy new releases from opposite ends of the folk spectrum which are strong enough to remain earworms even in the midst of Dylan mania.

It’s hard to justify puting singer-songwriter Jesse Malin in the folk camp; his tendency towards rock beats and his long association with the hardcore and glampunk worlds kind of precludes it. In his last several years as a solo performer, though, he’s increasingly pulling back from the loud stuff, leaning into the realm of such influences as Neil Young and Steve Earle, and it’s a good sound for his particular instrument. His distinctively pinched raspy voice, and his tendency towards a particular use of guitar and keys and brushes, makes him more comparable to bands with folk sensibilities but a preference for earnest and sometimes ragged rock and roll instrumentation production, like Springsteen, The Band, or even the Eels.

Malin also has high respect for musicians generally identified as folk rockers, as evidenced by his impending release On Your Sleeve, a covers album which includes Malin’s unique takes on Jim Croce, Neil Young, Springsteen, Paul Simon’s Me And Julio Down by the Schoolyard, and a building, anthemic version of the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York with guest co-vocalist Bree Sharp, in addition to covers of more typically punk fare such as Bad Brains and Lou Reed. And though a few cuts, most notably Lords of the New Church cover Russian Roulette and a synthbeat take on the Rolling Stones’ Sway, sound like a perfect tribute to 1980s U2 or The Cure, don’t let the hard-edged stuff scare you off. Though the tracks on On Your Sleeve cover a broad spectrum of sound that ranges from true hard rockin’ coverage to an almost acoustic grungefolk fare, even the harder edged songs don’t go much farther than indiepop and a wonderfully jangly alt-rock. And, after several solo albums, his softer, more acoustic side is starting to rub against the folkline.

Malin released a version of On Your Sleeve a few months ago in the UK, but get past the deja vu: the North American release, which drops this week, switches out the UK album’s weaker tracks for almost a half-album of new material, making for a truly different experience — and, in my opinion, a much stronger album overall — well worth acquiring when it drops on Oct. 28, though I should also mention that if you preorder now, before the official release, you’ll even get a digital bonus track – a cover of Tom Waits ballad I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You. To help you make the call, here’s a couple of older, slower covers from Jesse Malin’s solo career, preceded by a label-approved web exclusive Tim Hardin cover from On Your Sleeve, one of the folkiest of a great and highly-recommended set.

From way on the other side of the folk spectrum comes the old-timey mountain folk sounds of Kentucky native Brett Ratliff, a coal miner’s son who has spent his young adulthood exploring the authentic sounds of the Kentucky ballad and banjo tradition. In July, his journey came to a fruitful peak with the release of Cold Icy Mountain, an album of “cover” songs so old that the vast majority of them are marked by the source from which Brett learned ‘em rather than any particular author, its authenticity only reinforced by its release on non-profit label June Appal Recordings, one of several media arms of an Appalachian arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

I’ve been carting this disk around for a few weeks, and let me tell you, it’s truly haunting. Cold Icy Mountain is a comprehensive experience of the region; as an artifact and a songset, the album fits perfectly into the new trad-folk revival movement without sounding in any way artificial or new. Ratcliff’s scholarship and his authentic banjocraft create a sound both vibrantly alive and eerily ghostlike, full of frenetic picking and just the right reedy tones of front porch wail; the addition of fiddle, bass, guitar and high-tenor harmonies fleshes the sound out exquisitely.

This is true blue campsite folk, the kind you can hear late at night in the folk festival tent village, clear among the low voices in the darkness around you. Clawed banjo player Ratliff ( who should not be confused with Jets quarterback Brett Ratliff) and his part-time fiddlin’ cohorts The Clack Mountain String Band know how to play a tune like it’s never going out of style; nothing goes straight to the timeless core of appalachian folk music like this. Beautiful, and beautifully broken.

Check out this wonderful review of Cold Icy Mountain from fellow folkblogger and local Kentuckian Nelson, who offers a wonderful regional perspective I cannot match, and then get Cold Icy Mountain today.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk content Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday; impending posts include a return to our popular Covered in Kidfolk series and yet another newly-released recording from the Denison Witmer Covers Project. I also blog at Star Maker Machine.

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