Category: Radiohead

Covered In Folk: Radiohead
(with 50 covers to celebrate Thom Yorke’s 44th birthday!)

October 6th, 2012 — 11:59 pm

For Radiohead, as with so many bands formed in high school, it is the team that matters first and foremost, in no small part because of the tight and adept skills each band member has developed throughout their co-evolution and ongoing collaboration. Guitarist and composer Ed O’Brien is celebrated for his distinctive use of effects pedals, and for the harmonies he brings to help create and sustain Radiohead’s rich, layered sound; the versatility of drummer Phil Selway has been a key component of their evolution as a modern band, especially as they have moved on to adopt unusual rhythms and time signatures.

Bassist Colin Greenwood may have picked up the bass out of necessity, in order to find a place in the band’s original formation, but his steady hand and multi-instrumental talents have served the band well as foundation as they have built their reputation and their canon. And composer, keyboardist, and guitarist Jonny Greenwood, whose older brother Colin was a classmate of the other four original members, is often cited as one of the best aggressively-styled stage and studio guitarists of the modern era, but he has also been a key player in developing the electronic sound which represents Radiohead’s second stage; his composition skills are evident in the five film soundtracks he has scored since 2003, and in his role as composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra.

But despite the prowess and relevance of these others, there is ample reason to find lead singer and centerpiece Thom Yorke so often placed at the forefront of any exploration of what makes Radiohead tick so efficiently, and so well. Like so many of us, the English singer-songwriter was saved from a tormented childhood by music, finding refuge in the tiny practice rooms of his all-boys school after his congenitally paralyzed eye, and the drooped eyelid above it which resulted from a botched surgery in his elementary years, made him the easy target of bullies. But his talent, and that of his school bandmates, was no fluke: though Yorke has gone on record as being frustrated by his naturally beautiful voice, with its soaring tenor vibratos and tight control, the emotional contrast he creates by adopting other vocal styles, and by putting that beauty up against the often painful and acidic topics the band chooses to take on, has continued to carry them to broader fame, even as their works grow more abstract, more electronic, and more diverse.

To study Radiohead, then, is to take on the evolution of both a sound and a sentiment, one which is constantly pushing the envelope of art in the 21st century. Today, the band is known for a certain post-modern experimental approach to music, and to the industry of making it, but it wasn’t always so: their first few albums were downright melodic, with the radio-ready grunge pop of early hit Creep turning to alienated art-rock for 1997 release OK Computer, and it is perhaps unsurprising to find so many of those songs covered in folk and acoustic style. When, at the turn of the century, the band’s arrangements and sonic settings began to turn away from simple beauty to a collage approach to sound, with broader genre elements such as layered synth chords and beats and string and horn components appropriated from the alternative and underground scenes, and composition focused on environment over verse-chorus-verse, some long-time fans who had grouped the band in with other similar-sounding elements of their catalog threw their hands up in disgust and walked away, but many fans stayed on, captivated by the complexities of production and performance, their own tastes maturing with the band.

A Grammy win for Best Alternative Album in 2001 spread the word farther, to those who loved the “new” sound, even as some mainstream critics labeled 2000 album Kid A and its same-session follow-up Amnesiac a “commercial suicide note”, accusing the band of being “intentionally difficult”. And though it is rarer to find acoustic takes on such experimental anti-folk fare, the coverage continued, as new artists came along to test the continued viability of modern folk even as their versions and revisionings stripped away the electronic atmospheres, proving that Yorke, the Greenwoods, and their compatriots are still quite the singer-songwriters.

This week, as Radiohead’s lead guitarist, vocalist, and composer turns 44, we pay tribute to the band and its influence, and to Yorke’s inimitable voice, through the vast and varied interpretations of others. Unusually for us, we’ve arranged this gigantic set of favorite covers sequentially by original album – the better to explore the way in which Radiohead’s songbook has evolved, from the lyrically introspective and melodic to the avant-garde.

As you listen, note the way earlier covers (and cover artists) trend towards the more melodic, with both coverage and traditional poprock song structure growing less common as the catalog turns towards Radiohead’s later, more challenging works. (Indeed, even a year and a half after the release of their most recent work, 2011′s The King Of Limbs, I have yet to find any favorite covers from that album’s short and often psychedelic songbook, though the avid fan is welcome to head over to YouTube for numerous covers of lead single Lotus Flower.)

But listen, too, as the carefully winnowed set we have selected for our journey yaws wide through the voices and hands of the diversity that is folk, with paired and triplicate covers a study in contrast wherever possible. And remember that even here, our 50 delights are but the tip of an iceberg, with glacial runoffs that range from fast to slow, and thin to deep: from intimate, melodic Americana and coffeehouse folk to neo-traditional and experimental newgrass, hard-edged folk rock, soaring and often challenging indiefolk, and more.

from Pablo Honey (1993)

from The Bends (1995)

from OK Computer (1997)

from Kid A (2000)

from Amnesiac (2001)

from Hail To The Thief (2003)

from In Rainbows (2007)

Tired of downloading by hand? Donate to Cover Lay Down before October’s out, and we’ll send along a zip file of the whole 50 track set!

4 comments » | Covered in Folk, Radiohead

Mothers of the Folkworld: Suzanne Vega, Ani DiFranco, Lori McKenna, Kris Delmhorst

May 10th, 2008 — 09:16 pm

Katrina, Narissa, and Amelia Nields, Clearwater Folk Festival, 2005

As a volunteer for performer check-in at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival for several years, I had the rare privilege of meeting the children of several notable folk musicians, from Lucy Kaplansky’s adopted daughter to Katrina Nields’ newborn. Seeing my favorite musicians up close and personal was always a treat. But seeing folk musicians in parenting mode always felt like peering behind the curtain of the public persona to something real. And once you see that part of a musician, it flavors the way you hear their songs from that day forward.

The confessional, personal nature of folk music lends itself well to songs of family and parenthood; as I’ve written about previously, I have a special fondness for music which speaks to that side of life. But it’s got to be especially difficult to be a mother who makes her living out of music. Working mothers have it hard no matter what, but musicianship isn’t like other careers: the late-night shows, the marathon recording sessions, the constant need for one more focused, childless hour crafting song, all stand in tension with the closeness and availability good parenting demands of us.

Yet the folkworld is full of female musicians who — with or without the help of sensitive, often stay-at-home dads — work their touring schedules around the various and sundry blessings of childrearing, from nursing and naps to school plays and graduations. Previously featured folkmothers include Caroline Herring, Lucy Kaplansky, Rani Arbo, Shawn Colvin, and Cindy Kallet: some of my favorites, and a significant percentage of the women who we’ve featured here on Cover Lay Down.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to sing a song to your child in front of ten thousand people, or, like Dar Williams did at Falcon Ridge last year, to bring them up on stage, so they can see what you see. And I can’t imagine what it must be like to give birth, or to head out on tour for a week without your child.

But I trust that the blogworld is surely swimming with songs about mothers this weekend. And in the midst of all that, I thought it was important to remind us all that the reason we’re here, on Mother’s Day and every day, is because a few daring, real people — people with families, with hopes and fears, with love enough to share — have chosen to make their living making the music that fills our world. And, notably, this is a career path where neither family health insurance nor maternity leave policies are the norm.

Today, as a tribute to working moms everywhere, we bring you some coversongs of and from a few more singer-songwriters with children of their own. As always, if you like what you hear, please support these artists and their families by purchasing their albums, heading out to their shows, and treating them as real people whenever possible.

Lori McKenna was already a mother of three when she stepped in front of her first open mic audience at the age of 27; since then, she has spent most of her career playing part-time in the local New England folk circuit, staying close to home while slowly making a name for herself with a growing set of well-crafted songs that celebrate the simple pleasures of life as a struggling middle class homemaker.

Though McKenna recently turned country, resetting her down-to-earth lyrics to a newly countrified sound and touring as an opening act for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, her long tenure in the folkworld and her constant celebration of a vividly real motherhood earns her the lead-off spot on today’s list. We featured McKenna sideman Mark Erelli’s cover of McKenna’s Lonestar earlier this week; here’s a gritty lo-fi take on Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees from The Kitchen Tapes, and a much more polished but no less authentic look back at Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes from out of print American Laundromat compilation High School Reunion.

For a while there, Suzanne Vega was on the fast track to become the most prolific and popular folk musician to come out of the second-wave Greenwich Village folk scene in the early eighties; she is probably best known for Luka, her late 80s hit about a neighbor’s abused child. But if you haven’t heard much from her in a decade or so, it’s because she decided to curtail her touring and recording significantly in 1994 in order to focus on her family after her daughter Ruby was born. Since then, she has produced only three albums of new material; the songs have gotten even more introspective, but her quality hasn’t suffered one bit.

Here’s Vega’s take on two delicate songs about children from Grateful Dead tribute album Deadicated, plus some great duet work with John Cale on an old Leonard Cohen standard.

Urban folk feminist Ani DiFranco is a relatively new mother and ferocious touring machine who has taken a non-traditional path to motherhood even for the musicworld; instead of taking a hiatus to focus on recording and parenting, as so many other musicians have done, Ani brings her daughter with her as she tours. The model seems to be working — Ani and family just made the cover of the most recent issue of Mothering magazine — but other than this concert video of new song Present/Infant from her new DVD Live at Babeville, Ani has not yet recorded any of the new songs about motherhood which she has performed at her recent shows. So here’s a few random covers of Ani DiFranco songs, including a great version of Joyful Girl, a song DiFranco wrote to honor her own mother, performed by jam band Soulive with Dave Matthews.

A swollen belly and a June due date make Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter and folk producer Kris Delmhorst an impending member of the folk musician mother club, but motherhood is already starting to affect her career; she was showing when I saw her at the Iron Horse a few months ago, and these days, she’s rushing through a few dates in support of her new and absolutely stunning album Shotgun Singer before she goes on family leave. We’ve played cuts from Delmhorst here before, in recognition of her work with Peter Mulvey and father-to-be Jeffrey Foucault as part of folk trio Redbird; today, it’s Kris’ turn to glow with this fine, twangy interpretation of an old spiritual tune, and a sweet collaborative turn on Tom Waits’ Hold On.

Thanks to for their feature on Folk Music Moms, which served as today’s writing prompt. For more about volunteering at Falcon Ridge this July, check out the festival website. Oh, and if you’re reading this, Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

1,009 comments » | Alana Davis, Allison Crowe, ani difranco, Dave Matthews, Grateful Dead, Kris Delmhorst, Leonard Cohen, Lori McKenna, Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, Soulive, Suzanne Vega, Tom Waits

KT Tunstall Covers: Radiohead, Beck, Missy Elliot, Bloc Party, Jackson 5 *now updated w/ US acoustic tour info*

March 5th, 2008 — 02:45 pm

You might be surprised to find radio popstar darling KT Tunstall on a blog devoted to exploring the boundaries and possibilities of folk. Thanks to our shufflesong culture, many people never truly explore the work of artists like Tunstall beyond chart-toppers like Hold On and Suddenly I See, to name but two beat-heavy guilty pleasures of mine which have infiltrated every inch of our sonic culture.

But I’ve long had this Grammy nominee’s sweet, simple Under The Weather, with its thick, mellow guitarstrum and longing, trapped in the part of my skull I use for folkmusic. In fact, if you go back to her albums, I think you’ll find that a vast majority of KT Tunstall’s work is comparable to the singer-songwriter fare of a post-production Kathleen Edwards, Paula Cole, or Aimee Mann.

Trying to reconcile the sweeter, folkier sounds of her less-heard album cuts with the funky modern edge of her more memorable singles led me to KT Tunstall’s Wikipedia entry, which — sure enough — reinforced my suspicions by claiming her legitimacy as a folk musician. Which brings us here, today, to explore the folkier side of KT Tunstall.

I am constantly confused by the relationship between pop and folk music; apparently, so is my local library, which files such staple folk musicians as Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams in the Pop section. But such placement is not arbitrary — near as I can tell, it’s the production of these albums which matters to them. And sure enough, the recorded output of Williams, Colvin, and a whole generation of modern singer-songwriters is produced as if for pop radioplay.

There’s a whole range of artists who genuinely do fall into this folkpop camp, and many of them, like Joan Osborne and Ani DiFranco, identified as folk artists first. But while I think self-definition matters, we here at Cover Lay Down think genre identification is in the sound as much as the sensibility. If this is folk — and I think it is — then we’d be remiss in not calling attention to the best of it when it passes by.

Luckily, it is no stretch to give KT Tunstall the folk treatment. Though her Top 40 work is produced with an eye towards a particularly modern, stomp-and-clap britpop sound, her background, her preference for acoustic guitarplay and balladry, and her live performance belie a sense of song as fundamentally happening between herself, her strings, and her audience. KT Tunstall has a singer-songwriter soul inside her popstar performer mentality, and I like that: it means tasty beats in hit-single production, but plenty of intimate folky cuts between the singles, and lots of stripped-down selections in her live performances.

The glee with which she reconstructs Missy Elliot’s Get Your Freak On – as seen in the video clip below – is ample evidence: though her penchant towards coversong choices is more rock and roll than anything else, with or without her everpresent foot pedal, Tunstall plays like a folkin’ busker. Even in her more upbeat moments. And that ain’t bad.

Tunstall’s had a big week in the popworld: a newly-released UK single, and a stunning new video for If Only, can only cement her reputation as one of this generation’s bright shining popstars. But if your folkbrain has already forgotten the softer folkpop of her first album, skipped past the moodier cuts on Drastic Fantastic, or missed entirely her sophomore fan release Acoustic Extravaganza, these deep tracks and live cuts that have been making the blogrounds may help you, too, reconsider KT Tunstall’s cred as the modern queen of Scottish folk. The first two cuts are b-sides on her new UK single for If Only, so I’m streaming them in the hopes that my UK readers will pick it up; the rest are already out there, so enjoy.

Bonus VIDEO CLIP: How KT Tunstall builds Get Your Freak On solo in the studio:

Samples of (and videos for) KT Tunstall’s three major releases are all over her website; links there go to UK Amazon, but our US readers can find her work almost everywhere with little difficulty. Folkfans might start with Acoustic Extravaganza, which is now widely available, but all three albums come with my highest recommendation. (And it’s not a cover, but like the video for Under The Weather, the new ski-themed video for If Only has an organic folk authenticity; if you missed the link above, check it out here.)

UPDATE: more evidence for KT Tunstall’s acoustic heart comes to us today via Glide Magazine, which announces that her first major US tour in May “will be a close up personal affair, with Tunstall on acoustic guitar duties while the rest of the band perform various other unplugged acoustic instruments, such as double bass, harmonium, and mandolin.”

Today’s bonus coversongs sample a few other well-produced female singer-songwriters covering songs at the intersection of folk and pop:

967 comments » | Beck, Bloc Party, KT Tunstall, Missy Elliot, Radiohead, The Bangles, White Stripes