Category: The Folkier Side Of…

The Folkier Side of Eef Barzelay/Clem Snide:
covers of Journey, Daniel Johnston, Christina Aguilera, Lou Reed & more!

July 5th, 2011 — 02:47 pm

Eef Barzelay’s voice is whiny and pinched, more like Daniel Johnston than anyone else on the circuit, though without the atonality and lack of rhythmic sense which so characterizes the man he often covers in concert. His on-again off-again band, Clem Snide, which he reformed in 2009 after a pair of Barzelay-only solo records, lists themselves as a kind of alt-countrified indie rock, and tends to perform in a slightly nerdy, postmodern grunge vein, resulting in a sparse deadpan sensibility reminiscent of their namesake, a character who appears in several novels by William S. Burroughs.

And though they appeared alongside other darlings of the indie set on the retro-covers Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack, and their song Moment in the Sun was chosen as the theme song for the second season of the quirky anti-sitcom Ed – a fitting match, given the series’ deep exploration of social popularity and self-esteem – they’re hardly mainstream, and generally not considered folk.

And yet. There’s something of the post-revival folk singer in Barzelay’s songwriting, and in the tenderness the Israeli-born, New Jersey-bred singer-songwriter brings to his deeply confessional, often surprisingly hopeful lyrics. Barzelay’s folk credibility is there on paper, too, after spending a few years in the NY-based Sidewalk café anti-folk scene in the mid-nineties. Poignant and hilarious in equal measure, much of his work, both with and without his Clem Snide compatriots, features an indiefolk gentleness, and the delicacy that we associate with the popfolk crowd – indeed, like the Journey cover below, a number of the covers released under the Clem Snide moniker seem to actually be just Eef himself, in the studio or on stage.

His taste in coverage, and his tendency to reinvent the songs he takes on, are legendary: the Asia and Eddie Money covers below are totally transformed; his recent six-song EP, which takes on the songs of underground alt-country couple The Transmissionary Six, is a masterpiece. And even in their louder moments, such as their thrashing, smashing, anthemic Christina Aguilera cover, there’s something of the modern festival-bound folkrock band in the way Clem Snide takes on their craft, with equal nods to Oysterband and Fairport Convention, Neil Young and R.E.M. in the beat, the bass, and the beauty.

Recently, Clem Snide announced a new EP of Journey covers after a successful visit to the AV Club – as evidence of their fan base, their kickstarter campaign brought in four times the necessary cash; as a total bonus, a couple of dozen people paid 150 each to have the band record a cover of their choice, promising more coverage by far in the coming months and years. Even more fun: on their website, the band sells both three song “personal recordings” and the opportunity to write a song for you for 100 bucks. Now that’s new media leverage at its finest, well within the folkways of the 21st century.

As always, we’ll keep our ears to the ground on your behalf for that upcoming coverage. In the meanwhile, here’s some favorites from the archives.

43 comments » | Clem Snide, Eef Barzelay, The Folkier Side Of...

The Folkier Side of Jason Mraz:
covers of Dylan, Kermit, Spirit In The Sky, and more!

July 31st, 2010 — 11:37 pm

It’s been over a year since we took on the folkier side of a decidedly non-folk artist here at Cover Lay Down. But as previous features on Beck, KT Tunstall, Evan Dando and Sarah McLachlan have demonstrated, there’s ample room in the folkworld for singer-songwriters who strip down occasionally, and/or use elements of folk music in constructing their career narratives. Too, recent changes in the ways in which folk festival lineups are managed speak amply to the palatability of such marginalia as “folk enough” for the term. And listening for folk in the larger popular ebb-and-flow of genre definition is a healthy exercise for folkwatchers, as we continue our lifelong journey to explore the boundaries and influences of that music we consider home.

Today, then, after a long hiatus, we return to the folkier-side fold with a feature on 33 year old chart sensation Jason Mraz. He’s got a beat, and a pair of Pop Grammys to boot, but there’s nothing to be afraid of here, folkfans – just some plain good music that will make you smile.

If you’re a Top 40 fan, the name Jason Mraz is decidedly familiar: the man’s most recent studio album, 2008 release We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things., debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, ultimately selling over 2 million records worldwide, and two of its greatest hits won pop-category Grammys last year for vocal performance. But I’ve always acted under the assumption that our primary audience here at Cover Lay Down skews away from pop, eschewing the charts – and in the case of this particular clear- and slippery-voiced tenor, this is one singer-songwriter who deserves respect from the folk side of the canopy even though he hardly needs it to stay in the shade.

Part of the new school of hard to categorize indie alternative artists, Mraz’ mix incorporates rock, pop, folk, blues, reggae and other forms; though much of his radio-ready releases are grounded in acoustic instrumentation, he’s not averse to a particularly bouncy radiopop or rockband sound, either. But as noted in the write-up for his recent Levi’s Pioneer Session, the man is a pop folkie at heart, with the soul of a busker. And – in part because of his gentle vocal delivery and a preference for basic song-supportive synth-bass-and-brush production – it’s easy to imagine much of his studio work finding a home on the Contemporary Folk shelf.

More generally, to my ears, the Virginia-based hipster has always had strong folk elements at the core of his sound, though it can take the occasional solo acoustic performance to reveal them. And others seem to agree – in March of 2003, for example, even as his high-concept debut single, the hip-hop lite-rock hit The Remedy (I Won’t Worry), was hitting the airwaves, Mraz was opening for Tracy Chapman at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

In other words: Jason Mraz may not be the typical folk artist featured here. But if his songbook is catchy as hell, it’s also lighthearted and often confessional, in ways certainly palatable to the breadth of our folkwatching audience, if the recent resurgence of 2008 reggaefolk smash-hit original I’m Yours on our local AAA radio station is any indication. And in coverage, the man just soars. We’ll kick off today’s hybrid acoustic-electric set with two Dylan covers, just to prove it.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk songlists and features each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday, fueled solely on CDs, coffee, and reader donations. Coming soon: a drive up the American West Coast precipitates a fortnight of folksongs, genre features, and singer-songwriter coversets in tribute to the great state of California.

2,122 comments » | Jason Mraz, The Folkier Side Of...

The Folkier Side of Evan Dando:
Covers of Whitney Houston, Big Star, Metallica and more

December 2nd, 2008 — 09:54 pm

The kids in my tiny uberliberal prep school loved The Lemonheads before they were cool, and as more than just local heroes — the band had been formed in the same hallowed halls, and the oldest of our peers could still remember their presence among us. The music was perfectly adolescent, too: raw and visceral, full of feedback and fuzzy guitars; it wasn’t much more ragged than our own amateur output, and it came complete with frontman Evan Dando, who presented a grungy kind of everyteen charm, his long hair hanging down to the strings just like our own.

Being so close to the band’s origin made it hard to gage their popularity; to us, they were ours. But looking back with less localized eyes, there’s no question that Lemonheads co-founder Dando was a defining character in the distinctively hardcore, fuzzed-out East Coast branch of the burgeoning alt-rock scene which preceded and then paralleled the grunge movement of the early nineties. For a very short period, when grunge was in vogue and the Lemonheads covers of Suzanne Vega’s Luka and Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson were storming up the college charts, Dando was linked to everyone from Courtney Love to Oasis; he was even named one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people.

Dando’s “slacker sex kitten” days would ultimately prove as short-lived as the Boston grunge scene itself. But a decade and a half later he still has wide appeal, at least among the music bloggers. Some of this is surely due to the diversity of his contributions to a seminal period in modern music landscape — Dando reinvented the Lemonheads many times over his relatively short career, using numerous peers from the scene, including members of the Blake Babies and Dinosaur Jr., and his influence is audible in much of the movement. It’s also true that his solo output is relatively consistent, raw and almost alt-country, a sound which has its own kind of appeal among a certain kind of audiophile — it says what it needs to that one of his earliest official post-Lemonheads turns, a duet with Juliana Hatfield, was a Gram Parsons cover.

But it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that Evan Dando’s appeal is as much for his story as it is for his sound. In many ways, the man represents the same kind of greasy, undersung, haunted type as the similarly stripped-down Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, or Townes Van Zandt: the earnest, ragged troubador peering through the wall of depression and pain, looking for authenticity in the usual self-destructive ways. That he fell from such grace, so quickly, is but a part of the mythos.

In the end, Dando, unlike so many of his spiritual singer-songwriter kin, survived his dark crack cocaine days, though he released virtually nothing between 1997 and 2001 save a few guest spots, such as the aforementioned alt-countryrock cover, or his oddly orchestral-pop duet with folk-child Kirsty MacColl. But his comeback would ultimately be an acoustic one, and a good chunk of the solo work he did produced in and after these dark days are true blue singer-songwriter alt-folk, weary acoustic grunge covers of otherwise upbeat pop and rock songs, surprisingly powerful when given voice by a musician haunted by the double demons of hope and doubt. Here’s a representative set, typically ragged and sparse.

Pushing purchase links is a bit of a challenge for today’s entry: many of today’s songs live their life as unlabeled web-sourced outtakes and in-studio bootlegs, and folk fans will probably not find comfort in the output of the Lemonheads themselves. But any discriminating audiophile with diverse taste really should have The Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray, Dando solo album Baby I’m Bored, and Gram Parsons cover album Return of the Grievous Angel in her collection. Coverbloggers should also keep an eye out for Varshons, a promising-sounding all-covers album scheduled for a Spring 2009 release from Dando’s latest incarnation of The Lemonheads.

Oh, and here’s a Holiday Coverfolk bonus. Tis the season, after all.

1,740 comments » | Evan Dando, The Folkier Side Of...