Category: Compilations & Tribute Albums

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2012:
Part 4: full-album folk coverage of Springsteen & The Replacements

September 28th, 2012 — 09:06 pm

After EP-length sets, multi-genre tributes, and rock/blues/pop artists turned folk for coverage, we close out our four-part series on this year’s mid-year tributes and compilations with a potent pair of decidedly folk albums paying apt tribute to the works of Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements. Enjoy!

Nebraska, the seminal album that proved Springsteen was more than just an anthemic pop rocker, has been done in full before. But it’s the 30th anniversary of the sparse, haunting demo-session-turned-studio-release, making another attempt nearly inevitable. And given the star power that turned out for Badlands, the turn-of-the-century tribute in question, to take it on again seems like an easy avenue to folly for all but the most skilled set of musicians.

Surprisingly, however, new indie tribute Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska is a near-perfect nod, both to the songbook itself, and to the canonical shift it represents. And this success is, in no small part, due to the collective prowess of the indiefolk craftsmen which haunt the album, whose appropriately lo-fi contributions make it a powerful product from a new generation steeped in the sounds of Springsteen as folk artist. Joe Pug, Kingsley Flood, David Wax, Strand of Oaks, The Wooden Sky, Joe Purdy, and a holy host of other post-millennial singer-songwriters come in strong, atmospheric, and truly transformative without trading away the potency of the original songbook or performances. And the album is heavy on the neo-traditional, too, with Spirit Family Reunion, Trampled By Turtles, Kingsley Flood, and a few more from the grassy/brassy sides of the indie world bringing in choice cuts which call to Springsteen’s recent Seeger sessions.

As with Badlands, Long Distance Salvation goes a few tracks beyond the original album setlist, including Pink Cadillac, Shut Out The Light, and other Springsteen b-sides, leaving us with a wholesome 14 cuts total. And, as if we needed another argument to pay our dollar down, the entire project is just just 5 bucks to download, with all proceeds going to benefit Project Bread. Our highest recommendations, with tracks to follow.

Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute To The Replacements, which dropped this past week on Bar/None, is a little bit folk and a little bit MTV unplugged session, honoring the path that the mandolin, like the banjo before it, has taken as it moves into the instrumental mainstream of rock and pop in the post-millennial world. And if the concept rings a bit of those bluegrass tribute albums, rest assured that the performance transcends the easy association: Nashville music veterans, pop/rock singer-songwriters, and session musicians Tom Littlefield (Steve Earle, Todd Snider, Nanci Griffith) and Jonathan Bright, performing here as duo Bright Little Field on ukes and a drum kit made of pots and pans, share a genuine love of the punk-tinged underground rock band they pay tribute to, and it shows: though breezy and occasionally even cute, there’s something quite listenable about the tracks that appear here, with a combination of balladry and rockers that mix clean and folky, with nary a low point.

We’re late twice over in celebrating Treatment Bound – the album was originally released in 2010, making this a rerelease, and arguably, it belonged in our previous feature on non-folk musicians going folk for tribute albums, thanks to the performing duo’s association with the rock and country worlds. But I just discovered it myself this week, and I gotta say, I’m loving it, in no small part because it hits my personal trifecta of respectful coverage, folkgrass, and 80s alt-rock source material. Check out a favorite track below before purchasing direct from the artists.

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Comment » | Bruce Springsteen, Compilations & Tribute Albums, indiefolk, The Replacements, Tribute Albums

Tributes and Cover Compilations, Fall 2012
Part 3: multigenre & multi-artist tributes

September 26th, 2012 — 02:04 pm

For those just joining us: we’re in the midst of a multi-feature series on previously-unblogged cover and tribute albums released this year. Previously, we posted explorations of EP-length cover sets and folky all-covers albums from artists generally associated with other genres; today, we take on four of those ubiquitous mixed genre multi-artist tribute albums, with an eye towards their folkier tracks.

Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe, the newest countryfolk-slash-country rock tribute from Austin-based label Fiesta Red Records, isn’t folk, and it isn’t marketed as such, though the roots and twang crowds have been buzzing about it since notice of the album first appeared at Summer’s beginning. But while a number of the tracks on this fine (and long overdue) tribute to the pivotal English singer-songwriter, musician and producer best known for penning such pub rock and new wave hits as Cruel To Be Kind and (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding fall squarely into the country rock camp, the album also includes cuts from well-known countryfolk singer-songwriter troubadours Lori McKenna, Hayes Carll, Caitlin Rose, and Ron Sexsmith – Mckenna and Sexsmith’s tracks are beautifully intimate, and Carll and Rose’s typically twangy – plus several surprising delights from some sparsely-performed up-and-coming bands and solo acts such as Amanda Shires, whose take on Lowe’s I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass shatters both genre lines and my heart all at once.

It’s worth noting, I suppose, that despite lede graf mention of the fundraising nature of the project (proceeds from album sales go to benefit victims of the 2010 Nashville floods and 2011 Texas wildfires), Paste magazine dismisses the album as a languid also-ran that fails to capture either the political urgency or the playfulness of Lowe’s work. But Paste can go to hell: regardless of how twangy or gritty a given track might sound, to this folk-lover’s ears, every one is treated with delicate respect and heartfelt beauty, revealing more to love than just the song, making the album a strong addition to any broad-minded folk-lover’s collection.

Just Tell Me That You Want Me, this year’s new Fleetwood Mac tribute from Starbucks in-house label Hear Music, is decidedly not folk, either – it’s mostly indie pop in the first half, and hazy dance pop in the second, though heavy on the guitar fuzz and synth beats throughout – and although Antony Hegarty’s quivering falsetto take on Landslide is worth a listen, most of the album fails magnificently, thanks to both a tendency towards phoned-in performances in no small part to the song selection, which skips over almost every one of the band’s best Lindsey Buckingham compositions.

But buried towards the back, where it seems decidedly out of place, you’ll find a rich, utterly soul-crushing take on Storms from Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy that builds and crashes like the waves on the shore. We’re no strangers to folk interpretations of Fleetwood Mac, having featured them in our Covered In Folk series way back in 2009; our love for “Prince” Billy’s neo-folk song deconstructions, which trend towards the ragged and soulful, is well-documented as well, in our May 2011 omnibus double-feature on the new American icon, which features full sets of both his vast canon of coverage and a collection of others taking on his songbook. The combination of the two is as stunning and powerful as one might expect.

The lines of coverage blur a bit when an artist takes on his own canon. But although Chest Fever: A Candian Tribute to the Band, which is due to drop October 2nd from Curve Music, is centered around the voice and selection process of organist, keyboardist and saxophonist Garth Hudson, who is often credited as being the principal architect of the Band’s unique folk-rock sound, this is decidedly not a Band album, or even a greatest hits collection: instead, Hudson merely picked out a selection of his favorite songs to play, and then found a holy host of well-respected countrymen to take on the songs so he could enjoy himself as he played along.

Thanks to this origin, Hudson’s careful selection of fellow Canadian icons and groups as single-take partners for a series of comprehensive recastings is not all folk, but it’s entirely influenced by the acadian rhythms and roots rock of the originals in all cases. And, as the joyous, rolling energy of the performance below demonstrates, his choice of bandmates to bring forth just the right combination of reverence and revitalization to every given take – in this case, Newfoundland-based Celtic folk-rock band Great Big Sea, taking on Band b-side Knockin’ Lost John; in other cases, Bruce Cockburn, Chantal Kreviazuk, Raine Maida, Mary Margaret O’Hara, The Sadies, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, and the ever-ubiquitous Neil Young – is nothing short of inspired.

Finally, the newest compilation from indie label Paper Bag Records, which offers full tribute to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, is flavored throughout with electronic and grungy rock instrumentation, as befits the anthemic rock opera. But we’re used to hearing Ontario trio The Rural Alberta Advantage in indiefolk guise, having featured their more acoustic works in these virtual pages several times previously, and if they appear here wailing over crashing cymbals and heavy metal guitars, there is nonetheless just enough folk rock in the mix to celebrate – a perfect mix of Green Day and Steve Earle. Hard-core folk fans may prefer to skip this one altogether, but Paper Bag Records is unfailingly successful in putting together albums which stand strong from start to finish; those who come for coverage will love the treatment, and the price – an email address – is hard to beat.

PS: Want to help support Cover Lay Down in its continued fight for world domination struggle to bring you the best folk and coverage around? Awesome! Here’s some ways you can help:

  • Support the artists we tout by purchasing their work whenever possible!
  • Spread the word to friends and family by clicking “like” on a favorite post!
  • Share the wealth by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings!
  • Donate to Cover Lay Down to help cover our rising server and bandwidth costs!
  • Join our facebook page to keep the folk and coverage coming throughout the week!

1 comment » | Antony and the Johnsons, Bonnie Prince Billy, Compilations & Tribute Albums, Great Big Sea, Lori McKenna, Ron Sexsmith, Tribute Albums

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2012
Part 2: EPs from Zoe Muth, Emily Elbert, Lake Street Dive & more!

September 23rd, 2012 — 08:02 pm

As our title notes, we’re in the middle of a multi-feature series exploring recent Tributes and Cover Compilations – an overdue exercise, since our last full-length feature on the subject dates back to March 2012. Last week, we took on three new full-length folk albums from artists generally thought of as originating outside the genre; today, we look at a trio of new EPs, and an in-progress EP-length video session, by and from true-blue folk artists and bands.

It’s becoming increasingly common for artists to release otherwise-covers albums and EPs with a single original song on them (see, for example, Friday’s treatment of Rickie Lee Jones’ The Devil You Know, which is being marketed as an interpretive album, even with one new track lurking among the covers). While this trend confounds delineation a bit, I’m certainly willing to allow it – after all, our own mandate at Cover Lay Down assumes the cover is predominantly a vehicle for comfort and approachability; to find that one original in the mix, and hold it up to the light of coverage, allows us to ease into the fullness of an artist’s craft, regardless of their stature. And in the case of the EP, it’s not hard to consider the work an expanded case of the maxi-single, which has often included b-side coverage – thus offering a short and inexpensive risk to the buyer, letting them sample the sound of a band, while testing the waters of their songwriting.

Conveniently, two all-covers-but-one EPs from young artists on the Signature Sounds label have been tickling my fancy this year, and though they come from opposite ends of the folk spectrum, both are worth celebrating. The first, from Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers, features stellar countryfolk coverage from the twangy Seattle-based singer-songwriter, who has been compared to Loretta, Emmylou, Iris Dement, and Patty Griffin – high praise indeed, and incredibly apt, though the clarity of Kate Wolf is there in spades, too, in this tribute set to her influences. The second, from local heroes Lake Street Dive, was a core component of my summer soundtrack, perfect for summery drives with the windows rolled down; their work is less obviously folk, but the quirky, sparse instrumentation of the band, which features stand-up bass, vocals, drumkit, and trumpet, and the one-mic one-take recording on Fun Machine, fit squarely into the indiefolk mindset, even as the covers take on The Jackson 5, George Michael, Hall & Oates, and Paul and Linda McCartney, and the performances yaw towards an iconoclastic folk club lounge band’s modality.

  • BONUS TRACK: Lake Street Dive: I Want You Back (orig. Jackson 5)

Possibly defunct Scandinavian Americana-folk collective Hyacinth House was around for a while, it seems – a quick internet search reveals old MySpace and pages that describe the band’s progress for a period of three years, from their inception at the hands of singer and producer Mack Johansson in 2003 up through the studio recording of their second album in 2006; a deeper dig nets blog mention of Swedish awards nominations for a 2008 album of originals which may or may not be that same second album, a rarities and b-sides album from 2009, and word of Johansson’s solo debut in late 2010. But if nary a homepage can be found anymore, perhaps it is a lesson in nomenclature: naming your band after both an entire artistic movement and a song by The Doors is always going to bury search results a bit, especially after you let your band fall by the wayside.

Still, if their fragmented history is to be believed, even after their possible passage, Hyacinth House remains a local favorite in the Netherlands, and their Dylan tribute A Tribute To Bob is worth hearing beyond those tiny borders. Recorded live on the road in the second half of the decade, and released this summer, the five tracks show a range of tonality – as might be expected from a group that in its earliest days ranged up to 17 members, though generally based on a core quartet of singer, guitar, cello, and alternating banjo, harmonicas and dobro, and unfailingly centered around Johansson himself. But whether it’s the sparse guitar-centered Springsteen feel of In My Time Of Dyin’ or their jangly contemporary dustbowl Buddy Miller take on Masters of War, the overall feel is wholly consistent with the quiet, contemporary acoustic roots music that we love to hear here on Cover Lay Down. Which is to say: it’s all folk, and it’s all quite good.

Finally, we’re going to go wide, and declare a professionally-recorded, single-session series of YouTube covers equivalent to an EP, even though we generally insist that medium matters, and even though only two of the cuts have been released as of yet, making declaration of session length and content comprehensively premature. But give us some credit for not wanting to wait to bring you the best coverage we’ve heard this month: though we snuck one of her collaborative works with fellow Berklee grads The Boston Boys in a few months ago, we’ve been looking for an excuse to feature 23 year old jazz-slash-folk singer-songwriter Emily Elbert for a while, not hardly because of her fondness for video coverage, and the two amazing covers she’s already published from last month’s home studio sessions with her piano-playing father Roland are simply stunning, with Emily’s powerful, soulful voice and subtle guitar framed adeptly by the rolling jazzfolk piano her father sets behind her. Check ‘em out below, and then bookmark Emily’s YouTube and Facebook pages to make sure you catch the rest as they emerge.

3 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Emily Elbert, Lake Street Dive, Tribute Albums, Zoe Muth

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2012
Part 1: Rickie Lee Jones, Rory Block, and a trio of metal voices

September 21st, 2012 — 05:37 pm

It was a relatively sparse Summer for tribute albums and cover collections, but we did miss a few during our long hiatus – and Fall has been bringing in a rich harvest, too. In honor of what we’ve fondly called the coverlover’s bread and butter, over our next few posts, we explore a host of new and impending albums for the covers connoisseur, with our usual mix of all-folk albums, hybrid genre sets, and singleton acoustic tracks from multi-genre collections sure to please all listeners – starting today, with a trio of totally folk cover-and-tribute albums from artists generally associated with other genres.

After five decades on the road and in the studio, multi-genre living legend Rickie Lee Jones has taken a number of turns in and out of the folk canon in her long and storied career, producing plenty of folkpop alongside full albums of radiopop, R&B and Jazz standards and crooners along the way. But where too many artists of her age and influence have turned to the maudlin and trite in their old age – see, for example, James Taylor’s dreadfully shallow post-millennial cover albums – Jones’ newest work sets her alongside Johnny Cash and his final quartet of albums, painting her aptly as a vibrant, deliberate artist to keep watching even as she continues to reinvent herself.

Even if you’re a fan already, you’ve never heard anything like The Devil You Know, Jones’ brand new full-album tribute to her contemporaries and influences, a hugely powerful collection quite sparingly produced by fellow Grammy winner Ben Harper. The all-but-one-original covers album is a stunner from start to finish: quiet, broken, dark, and truly folk in every way, consistent and rich with slippery, sultry notes of blues and jazz. Try the broken wail of Comfort You, the slow, low buzz of Sympathy for the Devil, the dustbowl blues slide of Reason To Believe, the dreamy beauty of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. And then consider that the entire album goes on like this, and buy two copies – one for yourself, and one for a friend – because this is Rickie Lee like a blazing comet, with a promise of more genius and genre-stretching to come even as she reaches an age and stature that could have easily excused a well-deserved turn at easy listening.

Equally torn, yet from way on the other side of the origin spectrum, is Scott “Wino” Weinrich, Scott Kelly, & Steve Von Till’s Songs of Townes Van Zandt, released this summer to little fanfare or recognition. The ragged, growling set from three seminal underground metal voices gone sparsely acoustic, a three-way split CD which features the trio trading off solo takes, rings of Robitussin lethargy dreams – neither the sound nor the sentiment that typical fans of Kelly and Von Till, Oakland-based artists who have long made their names as members of doom-and-gloom post-metal band Neurosis, and Weinrich, who is better known for his iconic work in the same doom scene, might expect, and a likely cause of its lack of attention from those both outside and in the world of alt-metal upon its release in July.

But this is truly a singer-songwriter’s anti-folk album, even if it wasn’t marketed as one. And if not all the tracks on this album are equally to my taste, as is often the case with nominally collaborative albums which actually turn out to have been created using the pastiche method, those used to hearing the tormented troubadour covered by the melodic and the past-their-prime folk set will quite appreciate their consistent sentiment, which truly illuminates, showing just how suited the slow speeds, low tones and surly, ragged style of metal-gone-folk are to Townes’ songbook. In my book, that makes the work quite a success overall – and worth our consideration here.

In her long and celebrated career, Mississippi Delta Country Blues singer/songwriter and guitarist Rory Block has drifted back and forth across the folk and blues lines, just like the country blues form itself: we’ve featured her work before in our thematic sets, and these days, the multiple W.C. Handy Award winner is just as likely to be found at blues festivals as folk fests, even as the folk festival scene implodes into indie, rock, blues, R&B, and roots. But I remember her mid-career works fondly from my childhood, where I found them a staple of my father’s folk collection, and I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis, which popped up in May, is just as fresh and raw as those early works, making it an apt addition to any folk collection.

I Belong To The Band is the third in a series of recent tribute albums to the elder masters of the form, and as with previous tributes to Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell, it’s tempting to treat the album as a one-take throwaway – stylistically, Block hews closely to what she knows best, and surely, after all these years, she can pump out this sort of loose, wailing work in her sleep (assuming that she sleeps with a slide guitarist and a few gospel singers at her bedside, that is). But with equal parts Christian celebration and bleak despair, the vibrancy and tenderness comes through eminently all the same, showing an artist still in her prime paying adept tribute to those who forged the way. For novices and collectors alike, then, and highly recommended for both.

Enjoying the ride? Then stay tuned this week and next for our continued short series on recent cover compilations and tribute albums, with feature posts on mostly-covers EPs and LPs, multi-artist multi-genre tribute albums, and more to come!

3 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Rickie Lee Jones, Rory Block

Tributes and Cover Collections:
Pesky J. Nixon, Nick Cave, Josie Little, Peter Mulvey revisited, & more!

March 24th, 2012 — 12:17 pm

It’s finally Spring, though the warm winter shuffled our sense of season a bit this year. And just as the turning of the calendar has brought an early bloom of daffodils and crocuses to the garden, so has it revealed a growing set of cover collections and tribute albums, each featuring a beautiful bouquet of songs of and from artists we love. Today, we gather in these new and newly-found releases, providing news of the good stuff, a coverlovers delight. Enjoy!

Boston-based folk foursome Pesky J. Nixon‘s long-awaited covers album Red Ducks has been on our watchlist for ages, and now that it’s finally here, we’re proud to proclaim it a stunning success, an all-acoustic covers collection that delivers all we hoped for and more. Warm and raucous in turns, yet infectiously fun throughout, the album comes across like a gentler take on the Old Crow Medicine Show and others of the neo-organic americana camps, laden with campfire harmonies, fluid accordion, rhythmic guitar, and bright mandolin riffs, with takes on familiar folk, rock, and pop classics from Tom Waits, Cyndi Lauper, Dylan and more recorded in an intimate setting that is nonetheless perfectly evocative of their energetic live shows.

Regular readers may recall note of Pesky J. Nixon in and around our Falcon Ridge Folk Festival coverage last summer, but this album is a true tour de force for the team, who move in one fell swoop from ragged up-and-coming folksmen to serious contenders in the New England mainstage circuit with this delightfully focused, well-produced set – and sure enough, their Spring tour schedule has them traveling up and down the East Coast from now until summer, making it easy to catch these fine gentlemen as they promote both the album and their upcoming appearance at Falcon Ridge as hands-down winners of the 2011 Emerging Artist competition. Red Ducks drops officially on March 30, but you can and should purchase it in digital form over at Bandcamp if you’re too eager to wait for the physical disc; check it out, revel in its delights, and then hit up their CD release show on the 30th at The Lizard Lounge if you can.

I have no idea how I missed Dig Cave Dig, a Melbourne indie artists’ Nick Cave tribute from local label Beautiful Eskimo Records, when it was first released in Spring of 2011 – perhaps the combination of my lifelong distaste for Cave’s low, gravelly, atonal growl, a lack of international press, and my utter unfamiliarity with the musicians involved kept the damn thing hidden. And to be fair, the album is an unusual mix, bringing an almost even mix of gritty indie grunge rock and gentle folk treatments to the dark and sinister songbook of this long-time Australian underground critic’s darling.

But when the album quite literally fell into my lap earlier this week, I was thrilled to find that about half of the tribute consist of incredibly potent acoustic takes on Cave’s work. And even the louder, more violent tracks are a potent reminder of the power a true craftsman’s songs, making for an overall tribute which sheds new light on the hidden aches and tenderness that lurks under Cave’s often over-the-top performance. Stream it all on Soundcloud, skip around to find the folk if that’s your preference, and then support the fledgling label involved by purchasing the whole thing on iTunes here.

Luke Legs: Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow (orig. Nick Cave)

Little Wolf & Casey Hartnett: Where The Wild Roses Grow (orig. Nick Cave w/ Kylie Minogue)

Van Walker & Liz Stringer: Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For (orig. Nick Cave)

We first found Josie Little in our Couch By Couchwest coverage last weekend; the Kitty Wells song she recorded for the virtual festival was solid and spare, bringing new quiet energy to a classic cut better known for its original country twang. But digging deeper is always worth it, and here we have ample evidence: though I can’t find the video cover of I’m On Fire she supposedly performed in that virtual space in 2011, a quick google search revealed a soundcloud page chock full of tenderness and torn emotion, and coverage galore. Her take on Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe is startlingly quiet and pure – a deep, poisoned well of slowcore folk, perfectly imperfect. Her Whiskeytown and Ryan Adams covers are equally delicate and equally stunning; so is her take on Neil Young’s Powderfinger, stripping away all but the raw emotion, leaving only the 3 a.m. epiphany. I’ve posted a trio, including an utterly gorgeous Kathleen Edwards cover with overdubbed harmonies and quiet strums that leave me aching, but do yourself a favor, and head over to Soundcloud to hear more right away.

Josie Little: Sweet Little Duck (orig. Kathleen Edwards)

Josie Little: It Ain’t Me Babe (orig. Bob Dylan)

Josie Little: Only To Lose (orig. Whiskeytown)

According to its own webpage header, Onder Invloed (Under the Influence) is a video project by Dutch journalist and filmmaker Matthijs van der Ven, who films international musicians performing covers of their favorite bands and songs in live shows and private sessions; I found the set through Sandy, who shared a recent three-fer from Kim Janssen over at Slowcoustic last week, exposing a quiet acoustic session of covers from Iron & Wine, Damien Jurado, and Pedro the Lion that left me wanting more.

Happily, there’s a rich panoply of song coverage to be found here. A quick browse of the dozens of sessions and live sets van der Ven has produced and captured in the last several years revealed gems aplenty, from locals and musicians passing through The Netherlands on tour, the vast majority of them turning in performances which are intimate and tender, though other genres are certainly represented; the page also includes links to a streaming-only 14-track soundtrack that is only otherwise available as a companion to the Onder Invloed book, which was released in January and appears to be entirely in Dutch. I’ve embedded a few favorites below to whet your whistle, but truly, the website is where the action is.

Anne Soldat: I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (orig. Randy Newman)

Kim Janssen: Passing Afternoon (orig. Iron & Wine)

Doghouse Roses: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (trad.)

Finally: we had plenty to say about Peter Mulvey’s newest release The Good Stuff in our full-length feature on the singer-songwriter back in February, so I won’t repeat it here, except to note that we’re huge fans of both Mulvey and this great new album, and for excellent reasons. But the album itself, which now comes with Chaser, a companion EP of even more coverage, has finally hit the market, and since we were asked to hold back on posting songs until the moment arrived, we’re itching to share. Here’s two favorites from the mix; don’t forget to hit up the archives for much more Mulvey coverage, and Signature Sounds to purchase the CD/EP set, for more of the good stuff, including what may well be the best damn cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows ever performed.

2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Compilations & Tribute Albums, Pesky J. Nixon, Peter Mulvey, Tribute Albums

Peter Mulvey Covers “The Good Stuff”
(Radiohead, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jolie Holland, U2 & more!)

February 12th, 2012 — 07:22 pm

Peter Mulvey was one of the very first artists we wrote about here at Cover Lay Down, way back in October of 2007; at the time, we claimed that Mulvey has the versatility of the true cover artist, and the knack of bringing new meaning to a wide breadth of song, citing both his 2002 covers album Ten Thousand Mornings, recorded live in the Davis Square subway station just outside of Boston, and his collaborative work with lo-fi coverfolk supergroup Redbird as ample evidence.

Since then, we’ve come back to Mulvey’s work multiple times, both as a solo artist and a collaborator. His whimsical, ragged takes on songs originally written and performed by Dar Williams, Paul Simon, U2, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and others have helped illuminate the works of these songwriters, and lent a sense of whimsy to features on Oceanfolk, Winterfolk, Show Tunes covers, and more. And, in 2009, in order to acknowledge the impending release of Letters From a Flying Machine, we revisited our original post, adding the lone cover from that album – a delightful take on Ira and George Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay – as justification for our continued celebration.

As we noted in our first look at the artist, Mulvey’s voice falls towards the Tom Waits and Dylan camps, full of feeling but hardly pure; fans tend to cite his songwriting and his guitarplay, which range from spoken word and acoustic swingjazz to contemporary folk and Americana, rather than his strained, whispery, sandpapery voice, when explaining their affection for the Milwaukee-based, Boston-and-Dublin bred singer-songwriter who has produced 16 albums in his career, and toured the country five times by bike. And certainly, Mulvey and Goodrich celebrate their collaborative fretwork, with the powerful all-instrumental album Nine Days Wonder, released last year, standing as an apt culmination of their partnership.

But there’s something to be said for the power of song wrung from a broken instrument, and as a vocalist, Mulvey is a master of making the most of every note. As a member of Redbird, which also includes Mulvey’s constant sideman and collaborator David “Goody” Goodrich and coffeehouse folkstars (and eventual married couple) Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault, he lends a rough edge to harmonies, expanding the sonic experience, grounding the work in emotional grit. And, as a solo cover artist, whether in his earliest live recordings as a more traditional singer-songwriter or his most recent roots and jazz transformations, the spare voice recasts lyrics powerfully.

At the end of March, Mulvey’s third major covers-oriented project will come to fruition with the release of The Good Stuff, recorded last summer at the Signature Sounds studio just a few miles down the road from where our own blog is based. The plan was to make a rustic yet living album of standards, with rootsy instrumentation courtesy of Goodrich and others, and a long list of possible songs to winnow down to a single album, based primarily on the songs’ ability to come across as both timeless and lasting.

And although we’ve promised not to offer or stream any of the new tracks until early March, having just received our preview copy of the album this week, we’re thrilled to announce that the project succeeds in spades, due to a potent combination of acoustic genre play, nuanced craftsmanship, and that healthy double-dollop of whimsy and respect which have become the hallmark of Mulvey’s work.

As in Ten Thousand Mornings, Mulvey’s definition of “standards” ranges wide indeed, taking us from Duke Ellington to Tom Waits to Jolie Holland in the span of a single album. But where in that earlier project it was the environment which made for a vibrant, unified experience, with the echoes in the brick and tile underground and the screech and shuss of trains and passersby lending an air of realism, here, even as they mutate and transform to match the sense and sensibility of the set, it is the voice and guitar alone which create cohesion, with each carefully chosen setting providing new insight into a well-chosen classic song.

The result is practically miraculous: a diverse set, simultaneously ancient and utterly new, which calls us to a myriad of authentic folk and jazz forms, with the music as adept a carrier of the century as the songbook. His Mood Indigo and High Noon combine bouncy fiddlefolk with a minor key swing, coating a deceptively gentle delivery in dramatic tension; his Thelonious Monk instrumental is just ragged enough; his take on Willie Nelson’s Are You Sure? is a gleeful acoustic country duet, gentle and wry; his take on Tom Waits’ Green Grass is low and hollow, a death’s dirge that rises into the night; his cover of Holland’s Old Fashioned Morphine is a bluesy Waits-esque interpretation, a drink and drug-addled hallucination; his Everybody Knows is a deep, funky samba that wails into electric smoke. If, as Mulvey notes, these are the songs “that will be firmly ensconced in the firmament when half a century blows all the rest of the chaff away”, then there’s a good chance that his will be the versions which we hear in our heads.

As noted above, we’ve been asked not to spill the beans on the newest coverage from Mulvey. But here’s a build-up of older coverage from the man himself, both with and without friends – to reinforce your appreciation for a fine artist and interpreter, and to whet your whistle for the March 28th release of The Good Stuff.

  • Peter Mulvey: Hard Time Come Again No More (pub. Stephen Foster)

    (from Glencree, 1999)

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Hayward Williams covers Tom Waits’ Long Way Home w/ Peter Mulvey and Brianna Lane on guitar and harmony vocals

Comment » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Peter Mulvey

Mailbox Mayhem, 2012: January releases
from Charlie Parr & John Statz, plus new Steely Dan and Dylan tributes!

January 9th, 2012 — 04:06 pm

The January release holds a special place in the ebb and flow of artistry; though it runs the real risk of being forgotten by the time it comes to make our year’s end lists, it also finds the market just gearing up again after a spate of holiday absence and Christmas releases. Thanks to tip-offs and promos from the usual sources, our fresh eyes have spotted three albums – each one due to drop this month, all well worth watching for – plus a few bonuses on the event horizon. As always, read and click for the good stuff.

Five albums in, John Statz is still a relative newcomer to the field, and we seemed to have missed his most recent full-band disc, a rockin’ alt-country collection from 2010 aptly titled Ghost Town. But his newest album Old Fashioned represents a shift in sensibility for the itinerant singer-songwriter, from his earlier, grittier solo work to a richly produced dustbowl Americana, one that comes with all the right recommendations, from production house to distributor to studio session musicians. And if we’re eager to spread the word, it’s because this album is the best thing we’ve heard so far this year: thick with the ringing tones of the American heartland, graceful in execution and delivery, and perfectly, exquisitely folk, in the same vein as generations of wandering troubadours before him.

The Frightened Rabbit cover below is a Cover Lay Down exclusive, the title cut and sole non-original from this upcoming Yer Bird release, which starts accepting preorders tomorrow; though we’ve been asked to stick to streaming only, like the album itself, the song is such great and yearningly heartfelt singer-songwriter Americana, we just couldn’t resist sharing it the moment permissions came through the wires. Bonus points to John for the successful Kickstarter campaign which funded the recording and mixing, for the warm, gorgeously layered production provided by session sideman extraordinaire Bo Ramsey, whose previous projects with Lucinda Williams and Greg and Pieta Brown have already captured our hearts, and for Pieta’s harmonies throughout the record. (NB: Pieta’s new release Mercury, which hit in the waning hours of 2011, makes a great companion to Old Fashioned.)

  • John Statz: Old Old Fashioned (orig. Frightened Rabbit)

    (from Old Fashioned, 2012)

I loved Charlie Parr’s piece on last year’s Vic Chesnutt tribute, and found plenty to like about Eastmont Syrup, an EP-sized collaboration with The Black Twig Pickers released with little fanfare and less recognition in the midst of 2011. And so I am thrilled to discover Keep Your Hands On The Plow, his impending album of traditional gospel classics, recorded at home with wife Emily, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, and Four Mile Portage, a Duluth-based string trio.

Despite the relatively large list of sidemen, the songs here are sparse and heartfelt, with the right balance of ragged gospel blues harmonies and well-crafted hill-and-holler fiddle and fingerpicking bound to tempt those who find their heart in the modern neo-trad work of Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Low Anthem while still touching a nerve in lovers of the Louvin Brothers, Dave Van Ronk, Leo Kottke, and more. And though it ranges from haunting to bouncy and upbeat – East Virginia Blues, especially, is awash in eerie layers that compliment Parr’s torn voice; Blessed Be Thy Name opens with perfectly gentle two-part bluegrass harmony, catching my heart full-bore – the album as a whole is consistent and strong, sure to go a long way towards continuing to bring the acoustic singer-songwriter and song interpreter the recognition he deserves after a decade on the circuit.

Aching to hear Miley Cyrus take on You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go? How about aging rockstar Bryan Ferry tackling Bob Dylan’s Dream?

Yeah, me neither.

New Dylan tribute album Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International is as unwieldy as its name: too big to work as a set, too broad to appeal to any single listener. Trust me, there is no reason why anyone should want to hear sleazy popstar Ke$ha cover Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, especially when she refers to her performance as “a suicide note to the love of my life and to my former life”; putting her version right up against the same song from the Kronos Quartet as a two-part finale to disc three of the 80-song compendium is mere sonic trickery, suggesting that this album is more about trying to market to everyone than it is about trying to create a listenable package.

But living in a digital world means never having to lift the needle. And of the 4 CDs involved here, there’s at least an album’s worth of great newly-recorded folk-and-then-some tracks, from Taj Mahal to Thea Gilmore, from Joan Baez to The Gaslight Anthem, from Jackson Browne’s take on Love Minus Zero to the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ amazing cover of relative obscurity Political World. Brett Dennen’s high tenor rasp seems perfect for You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, and the first and last discs, especially, show some promise, with strong coverage from Dierks Bentley, Michael Franti, Mark Knopfler, Billy Bragg, Zee Avi, We Are Augustine, and Lucinda Williams in the mix. Here’s hoping the producers allow single-song download via the usual sources when the whole thing drops in digital and physical form on January 24th; if not, the $25 price is almost worth it even if you’re going to be throwing away half the tracks. In the meanwhile, here’s three favorites that appear in slightly different form in the collection.

Still to come in January: A new five-song Martin Sexton EP, also due on the 24th, will contain a bouncy jamfolk cover of Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth; the cover isn’t available yet, though the amazon snippet is tantalizing, but you can see & hear the title track on YouTube, and it’s decidedly a contemporary folk piece, with just enough twang to suit. Why an EP, you ask? “These songs are relevant today and I didn’t want to wait to release a full-length album,” Sexton explains in his press release. “And in a down economy, we’re getting new music to people for the price of a soy latte.”

And due on the 31st, at least according to Direct Current’s always-comprehensive release calendar: a delicate, jazz-ballad-y, sparsely done pianopop album of Steely Dan covers from two Swedish singers recorded six years ago but finally getting the US rerelease it deserves. Seriously. Called Fire In The Hole: Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Tornqvist Sing Steely Dan, the collection – originally self-released in 2006, now coming out through Zip Records – is a bit syrupy in spots, but sure to please fans of Tori Amos, Sara Barielles, Norah Jones, and other mistresses of the form. This relatively ancient video take on Rose Darling from an ’06 TV appearance is delightful pianofolk, speaking well of the whole shebang; the mp3s are from the album.

7 comments » | Bob Dylan, Charlie Parr, Compilations & Tribute Albums, John Statz

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Part 1:
Tribute Albums and Covers Collections

December 18th, 2011 — 12:08 pm

It’s coming on 2012, and all around us, bloggers tout their 2011 taste, jostling to be the best and first match for your own preferences, inviting debate over position in the ranks. And so, as we do every year as the calendar comes to a close, we struggle with the conceit of The Year In Review, surveying a year’s worth of posts, writing a never-ending series of half-hearted drafts, flinching every time we approach the task, yet feeling guilt every time we put it down.

My reluctance to pass judgement isn’t a cop-out. I’m a relatively fickle listener – my bias against live recordings, and their accompanying recording quality, is a constant thread here – but I’m also the sort of collector who takes more delight in discovery than digs. Our focus on the breadth of music often leans harder towards artist evolution than the next big thing because that’s the honest expression of how I think and hear. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes. And how does one compare the sublime to the sentimental? The transformation to the faithful revisioning? The sparse to the layered? Coverage comes in as many flavors and subtypes, and each one can be done well.

And so, as a general policy, I avow the critical lens; our mandate, as we see it, is to tout and expose. While others rank and score, we celebrate and share that which we love as we find it, believing that if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. In that sense, the entirety of our year’s blogging is itself our recommendations list. To winnow it down feels, on the one hand, like a dismissal of that joy we found in any of it when we found it.

And yet there is method in the madness of the recovery of the recent in the name of hierarchical organization. Just considering a Best Of post provides a useful and productive opportunity to revisit the archives. And as I noted in November in a casual roundup of the year’s Tributes and Cover Compilations, a generous and precious handful of coverfolk EPs and covers albums have emerged this year; to come back to them before they fade from the memory has its uses, too.

More significantly, while I abhor the very idea of ranking songs, album-length collections seem easier to rate. Hitting the mark singly, in three minutes or so of song, is itself a hard standard; providing a rich, nuanced journey through multiple tracks without stumbling is nigh impossible. Self-selection becomes the primary criteria, then: in those very rare cases where an entire album of covers comes to us as a success, the end result is well worth repeating at year’s end. And here, the successes are so few and far between, we can count on our fingers the albums which deserve not just our respect, but our awe and appreciation, and our last dollars.

So before we get to the year’s best one-off covers playlist later in the week, here’s a quick rundown of some favorite all-covers albums and EPs from 2011, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking. Those looking for folk music through coverage should stay on the line, as we’ll follow it with a compendium of “best” single-shot tracks from the year; those looking for gift-giving recommendations for coverlovers, however, are heavily encouraged to consider this a shopping list with its own soundtrack.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists): Fast Folk Jack Hardy Tribute

Though we celebrate those cross-genre releases which contain folk and acoustic interpretations in the mix throughout the year, as a folkblog, we celebrate most those tributes which are quintessentially folk, and nothing else. As such, many amazing tributes, from Herohill’s Gordon Lightfoot spectacular to Sufjan Stevens indie tribute Seven Swans Revisited, and from this month’s American Laundromat Smiths tribute and last month’s Minnesota artists’ tribute to Vic Chesnutt to this Spring’s Alt-Country tribute to the Rolling Stones, are unfortunately ineligible for our official recognition, despite strong folk tracks aplenty, and high recommendations for broad-minded coverlovers.

Of these, Seven Swans and the Smiths tribute, surprisingly enough, are perhaps the folkiest, and the most consistent; we’ll have tunes from their majesty in our midweek “Best Coverfolk Songs of 2011″ entry, to be sure. I still have high hopes for two-disc Guy Clark tribute This One’s For Him, which may or may not have actually dropped at this point; it’s was supposedly coming in November, but it’s already out of print at Amazon, and I can’t find a digital version anywhere; please let me know if you’ve found a copy.

But if we had to pick just one – a desert island disc – from this year’s crop, and if we have to stick to folk alone, we’d select an album that technically hasn’t even been released yet: the Jack Hardy two-disc tribute, recorded for ultimate release through the Smithsonian’s Fast Folk catalog but leaked by its producer and engineer Mark Dann on a limited basis as a way to get the music out to those fans who truly appreciated the songwriting genius and often-cranky leadership of Hardy, who led folk sessions in his NYC apartment for decades, and founded Fast Folk itself, sparking the Greenwich Village revival of the eighties which so defines today’s greying folkscene. Where other albums pitch and wane against a measure of interpretive grace, here, any imperfections are part and parcel of the album’s success, in fitting tribute to a folksinger who measured songcraft almost exclusively by its authenticity and storyline, not its sound.

Second place honors go to Rounder Records’ Nod to Bob 2, which has an overwhelming number of especially strong tracks alongside some also-rans, and which I kept on rotation in the car for a record-breaking three months running, thanks in no small part to the stunning live take on What Good Am I from The Pines which kicks off the album.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist): Thea Gilmore, John Wesley Harding

Kris Delmhorst’s Cars tribute, Thea Gilmore’s Dylan tribute, Laura Cantrell’s swinging countryfolk tribute to Kitty Wells – as I’ve said before, it was a great year for artists playing full-length tribute to their favorite artist or album, a sub-category which is often so challenging to take on that most years produce but one or two albums of its ilk, good or bad. But though Delmhorst’s softer, more poignant cuts have remained in my ears, and Cantrell’s own tribute, while excellent, runs too close to country for my tastes, for full-album merit, nothing beats Gilmore’s Dylan: the set runs broad, but consistent and sweet even in its hardest folkrock moments.

The Year’s Best Tribute EP: Eef Barzelay, Black Tin Rocket / Clem Snide’s Journey (tie)

Eef Barzelay’s Black Tin Rocket was barely a blip on the radar when it first came out – there’s almost nothing about it on the blogs, and it’s not like the Transmissionary Six, whose songs the Clem Snide founder takes on in this 6-song EP, are a household name. But the longer I listen to this album, the more I find myself drowning in the lyrics and ragged, heartfelt solo interpretations. And in the end, the power of coverage is laid bare twofold through this small release, with just voice and guitar digging deep into the psyche, providing an entry into the work of the obscure duo. And so Barzelay ties with himself, urging a two-fer purchase alongside his Journey covers album. Most notable runner-up in this category: Ralph McTell’s Dylan tribute EP, which is a perfect meld of the quintessential McTell circa Streets of London and six well-chosen cuts from, you know, the best-known songbook in all of folkdom.

The Year’s Best Covers Album: Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, One

Plenty of contenders in this category this year. But as noted last month, top honors here go to Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, whose otherwise unnoted and unreviewed January 2011 digital-only release One hits the covers album trifecta: perfectly raw and delicate interpretations, stunningly successful selection of pop originals, and a heartwrenchingly poignant backstory.

Close seconds go to Marissa Nadler’s aching dreampop-slash-britfolk Covers II, Sara Lov’s I Already Love You, which we’ve come back to several times recently for its Smiths covers, the folkpop debut from 16 year old indie sensation Birdy (who gets major bonus points for releasing a self-titled covers album as a debut), and Reid Jamieson’s wonderful, gentle tribute to the songs of 1969, recorded and released in March in honor of his wife’s birthday. Other runners up include Duncan Sheik’s Covers album, which ran poppy but contains some real gems, June Tabor and Oysterband’s mostly-traditional second collaboration Ragged Kingdom, which hit late and off the radar but deserves our awe and support, and Eef Barzelay’s Fan Chosen Covers album, generated as a side-effect of his 2011 Journey covers kickstarter project (and now up to 20 tracks).

The Year’s Best Covers EP: Chamberlin, Cabin Covers

I had a handful of favorites here, including Chris Smither’s late-year rock ‘n roll tribute, and the Watson Twins’ Night Covers. But Chamberlin’s Cabin Covers EP, a surprise contender from Cover Me’s well-curated Best of 2011 lists, has caught my heart for a last-minute win. The album, which runs ragged and indie and beautifully reflective of its isolated, flood-torn rural recording session setting, totally passed me by before now, but it’s out of the gate like a racehorse, a hipster’s folk album with warm yet delicate covers of Vampire Weekend, Foster The People’s Pumped Up Kicks, and more, and all proceeds go to support VT communities affected by Hurricane Irene. We almost had a late entry with the brand-new Okkervil River covers EP, too; ultimately, it went too alt-country to be truly eligible, but it’s still well worth mention.

The Year’s Best Covers Rerelease/Reissue: Various Artists, They Will Have Their Way: The Songs of Tim and Neil Finn

A new category, as covers albums don’t generally get reissued (and digital distribution makes moot the conceit of issuance as incidence, anyway). But I just can’t resist the two-CD set They Will Have Their Way, which combines two previously-released single-gender Tim and Neil Finn tribute albums into one double-length set in honor of this year’s mixed-bag downunder tribute tour. The all-female and all-male Australian singer-songwriter tributes, originally from 2005 and 2010, remain available separately, but the combined power of these two albums is more than doubled, cementing the strong songwriting legacy of the Brothers Finn, who made their name in Split Enz and Crowded House.

The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album: Laura Viers, Tumble Bee

In a year where the kindie movement has continued to turn towards both original compositions and a harder edge, Laura Viers’ tradfolk kindie record Tumble Bee is a hands-down winner here, mostly because the other choices yaw past the line between folk and other genres. Of those, the Tom T. Hall tribute remains worth your time if your kids and family like a good sunny acoustic country set.

The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers EP: Maiden Radio, Lullabies

Kids EPs are rare, indeed. But we’d create a new category just for Julia Purcell, Cheyenne Marie Mize, and Joan Shelley, the Louisville ladies of Maiden Radio, a harmonizing folk trio whose 2011 8-track Lullabies is gentle and sweet enough for kids in dreamland and for moms and dads after bedtime, too. Recorded for the young daughter of one of their own, released on Daniel Martin Moore’s new label Ol Kentuck, its traditional folk songs snuggle up against the timelessness of tracks like Gillian Welch’s Dear Someone, each one a tiny two-minute gem. Not bad for a sophomore effort.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album: Chris Thile and Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open

Laura Viers almost won this category, too – after all, as Grammy sweeps tell us, there’s nothing restricting a cross-over album from taking first honors in any and all of the arenas it covers. But Sleep With One Eye Open, the amazing bluegrass standards album from Michael Daves and Chris Thile, which we blogged about after Daves mentioned it early in the game at the Joe Val festival in February, edges it out by a nose. Second place goes to Daniel Martin Moore’s dreamfolk In The Cool Of The Day, which covers the gospel spiritual canon in lullaby mode, and exquisitely so. And if it’s older, unsourced tradfolk you prefer, then there’s the dark horse candidate: the organic, delightfully homespun duo album from Thomas Fox, which we featured back in summer – an album recorded as soundtrack for a local theater production of Our Town, and named after the Thornton Wilder play itself. Gentle, endearingly ragged americana, gritty and mild.

The Year’s Best Mostly-Covers Album: Red Molly / Pharis and Jason Romero / Nell Robinson (3-way tie)

A number of artists released albums this year which feature coverage heavily, yet sprinkle originals liberally in the mix. Red Molly’s newest, for example, runs roughly 50% each way; Molly Vintner original tearjerker Hold It All is easily the most potent song in the set, but overall, their covers of Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, Buddy and Julie Miller, Mark Erelli, and a few traditional appalachian tunes are the album’s centerpiece and strength. A Passing Glimpse, the debut album from married banjomakers and tradfolk duo Pharis and Jason Romero, may include a number of originals, but they sound just as ancient – and come across just as stunningly sparse and tender – as the tradfolk and gospel covers which give the album its potency, and the players their credibility. Similarly, Nell Robinson’s On The Brooklyn Road paints the past and present in perfect sepia tones, though it has less coverage still. We’ll call this one a three way tie, with runner-up honors to Spuyten Duyvil’s rootsy crowd-driven New Amsterdam, and save Nell’s best track for our upcoming “Best Songs” feature.

Want a GREAT set of music from 2011? Download our entire set as a zip file:

And stay tuned later this week for Part 2 of our series, in which we compile a host of the year’s best singletons and b-sides from the worlds of YouTube, Soundcloud, album cuts, and more!

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’ end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift EP-length set of favorite 2011 Holiday Covers otherwise unblogged.

Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.

1 comment » | (Re)Covered, Compilations & Tribute Albums

All Folked Up: The Smiths
(With an exclusive track from new tribute Please, Please, Please)

December 3rd, 2011 — 02:31 pm

Flashback, 1987: I’m a freshman in high school, just finding my way into the dark underbelly of underground music thanks to the burgeoning alternative college radio scene in and around the Boston area and a younger brother whose musical tastes blossomed early. I hadn’t really noticed UK band The Smiths during middle school, but when Girlfriend in a Coma hit the airwaves, it touched me deeply, and I purchased the album from which it came, hardly aware that it would be their last, that the band was already disintegrating from the stress between an exhausted and increasingly alcoholic Marr and a series of agressive acts from the dismissive, inflexible Morrissey. And then, as I noted in a single-song set and analysis posted elseblog way back in 2007, I played the song incessantly for weeks on end, finding it a perfect outlet for my own adolescent relationship angst.

Though they only released 4 full-length studio albums in a startlingly short six year career, British alt-rockers The Smiths are rightly recognized today as seminal, groundbreaking players in the evolution of both the independent music scene and modern music writ large, thanks to the sensitive post-punk sensibility of songwriting team Morrissey and Johnny Marr, and an unprecedented number of non-album singles, b-sides, and compilations. Their ability to channel the tensions of the age, and the trapped feelings of loneliness in a culture on the brink, spoke clearly and deeply to a generation; long after their break-up, their songs continued to do so on radio, and on my turntable.

Over the last decade or so, in recognition of their influence and their brooding way with the emotional core of the darkest side of the soul, the works of The Smiths, and of Morrissey’s solo career, have found their way into the hands of a number of luminaries, from Joshua Radin and Billy Bragg to Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. And now, with the 25th anniversaries of their most influential albums Strangeaways, Here We Come (1986) and The Queen is Dead (1987) looming large, their influence has been recognized with not one, but two separate tribute albums. The first of these, The Queen is 25, a free-to-download mixed Greek artist tribute from fellow coverblog The Cover Lovers, is a mixed bag: mostly electro/indie stuff, and not really my style. But the second, Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths, is a two-CD set from American Laundromat Records, who have a strong reputation for great indiefolk coverage – and having just received my pre-release in the mail this morning, I’m thrilled to announce that it’s stunningly successful, a genuine miracle.

As a handful of previously-released Smiths-as-folk covers has already aptly demonstrated, transforming those mournful, angst-ridden vocals and the urgency of those synthbeats and bass into folkier, sparser, and/or acoustic numbers is less difficult than their placement in the canon would imply. At heart, Morrissey was a crooner and cultural critic, a predecessor of the dark emo camps, whose personal struggles with the world found life in deeply personal narrative performance. As such, though it focuses its attention on alienation, the Smiths songbook is chock full of open imagery, and couched in eminently singable melodies that are eminently open to flexible interpretation.

And here, on the newest collection, we find magic indeed: tiny, sweet, hushed takes on Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want and Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me from William Fitzsimmons and Canadian girl duo Dala, respectively; a soaringly slow alt-country ballad interpretation of There Is Light That Never Goes Out from Trespassers William; beautifully hollow, haunting piano balladry from Greg Laswell, Joy Zipper, and Sixpence None The Richer; gypsy folkpop coverage from the aptly-named Girl in a Coma; light grunge from Tanya Donelly and Dylan at the Movies, and much, much more. As with previous covers collections and tributes to the Neil Young, The Cure, lullabies, and more, American Laundromat has solicited a powerhouse set of artists from the indie and indiefolk worlds and given them license to find their own hearts in the music of their influences – and the resulting record is a tight diamond of consistency that elevates both performers and songwriters, a gem absolutely worth your time and patronage, whether you, too, were an early fan, a latecomer like me, or simply a culturally-aware radio listener who recognizes the majority of the songs from the low end of the dial.

So here’s an exclusive track from Sara Lov off the newest tribute to cross the desk – a wonderfully melodic, contemporary folk production posted with permission from the kind folks at American Laundromat – and a full set of Smiths covers from the last decade or so to match it. Like Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths, our own collection ranges from angered to tender, revealing the broad range of the original songs, and of the universal emotion they express so adeptly. But taken as a set, they speak to the recesses of the soul in ways which remind us that, while bands come and go, we are privileged to live in an age where we can own the recording and reintepretation of song, the better to channel our emotion, and share the human condition – a folk conceit, to be sure, and one which keeps us coming back week after week. The Queen may be dead, but with tributes like these, the legacy of the Smiths is stronger than ever.

6 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Morrissey, The Smiths, Tribute Albums

Lost Voices: Holly Figueroa O’Reilly’s Final Covers Album
+ bonus coverage from Mary Lou Lord, Feist, Linda Thompson, & more

November 18th, 2011 — 12:22 am

One of the reasons I am so busy these days is that as a baritone, I am in high demand for local choirs and stage productions. It’s not just that I’m loud: As a trained vocalist, a stage actor, and a teacher, I pride myself in my control of tone and pitch and projected volume – all the subtle ways I have learned to shape sound to maximum effect in a variety of venues.

It’s part of my identity: a nurtured talent, grown and trusted. When it is tired, I can feel it; when it is under siege, from nasal drip and overuse, I feel depressed and impotent.

And if it ever went away, I’d feel the loss profoundly.

I have nightmares in which I lose my voice forever, and these fears are not unfounded: it happens. Feist, for example, lost her voice on the cusp of fame the first time around, belting it out as a member of a punk band in the early nineties before taking several years off due to vocal damage. Though she’s since turned the remaining fragile, burned-out whisper into an asset – admirably, instead of sinking into despair, she was able to find another sort of beauty in the torn remnants of what was once clear and sweet – the damage could not be undone.

I’m not so sure I could do what she has done. It takes a measure of humility which I do not possess, and cannot truly understand, to remake the voice like that.

And there’s no guarantee that I’d have the chance, either.

Sadly, though some singers, like Feist, have managed to turn vocal disaster into an asset, and others, like Adele, find that the damage they have done through an early career of belt and bellow vocal style is treatable and restorable, for many singers, such a middle ground is not possible. Despite recent reports of vocal restoration, there’s a difference between damage – which can often be fixed with care, and subsequently avoided through retraining – and the more extreme cases. When disease is the diagnosis, for many, it’s permanent.

And losing the voice permanently, or even semi-permanently, is like a little death, or a death sentence, for musicians. It’s not as uncommon as you think, and it can be caused by any one of a set of medical issues, from the lungs to throat to vocal chord: Mary Lou Lord, for example, a contemporary of the Boston grunge and busker scenes who trends towards punk folk in her better moments, lost hers to spasmodic dysphonia, and though she is currently recording a new covers album, putting her back on our radar, she still struggles with the disease, which has kept her off the scene for quite some time; the same disease also kept folk musician Linda Thompson from recording and touring in the early eighties, since which she has produced just two albums.

Joni Mitchell lost as much as two octaves, and her vocal purity, to years of smoking. Julie Andrews lost her singing voice permanently to surgery after developing nodules on her vocal chords through overuse in 1997 – a surprisingly common phenomenon in older singers of both genders. And Bridget Matros, who got a promising start in college with a debut recording alongside fellow students Josh Ritter and Guy Mendilow at Oberlin college in the late nineties, lost hers to acid reflux on the cusp of a promising career; though she did release a four track of abstract, layered vocal garageband experiments this year, they are more art than artifact.

And then there’s contemporary folk singer-songwriter Holly O’Reilly (formerly known as Holly Figueroa), who lost her voice on stage at the Northwest Folklife Festival in 2009, twelve years, two Grammy nominations, and several major label offers into a blossoming and determinedly indie career. A visit to a specialist resulted in a diagnosis of both rheumatiod arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, a pair of inflamatory diseases which ultimately affected both her voice and her hands, keeping her from singing and playing the guitar for a year – a great loss for O’Reilly, and for the folk community.

Sadly, though drugs ultimately soothed and restored that voice for a while, O’Reilly’s clock is ticking; according to her own bio and facebook feed, the massive doses of steroids she’s been ingesting were doing as much damage to her body as the disease itself. And so O’Reilly made the impossible choice: to give up her voice in order to live without pain, for her family’s sake and for her own. As Holly herself put it at the end of last year,

I am prepared to go off of prednisone completely and to lose my singing voice again. But I wanted to make some records before I did that. I made a live record in May 2010, am finishing up a covers record, and will start an originals record in the fall. And then, I’m probably done, unless my voice comes back spontaneously. (I waited for that for a long time. Not counting on it.)

In One, the covers record in question, O’Reilly is singing on borrowed time, and it shows: her voice changes subtly from track to track. But the songs are sweet nonetheless, and stunning, and poignant with her craft and talent as much as with her history. O’Reilly is strong, though she is clearly affected by her struggle and the ticking clock; all of this and more pours through even the most torn of tracks. And the song choices are inspired: every performance, from covers of REM, U2, Slipknot, Oasis, Paul Westerberg, Springsteen, Tom Petty and Joe Henry, speaks to a wellstorm of emotion, spoken clearly and eloquently, in an act of true song ownership.

Her cover of One Headlight, alone, dark and dirty with dobro, perfectly pitched in every tone, makes this quite possibly the best cover album of the year, a dark horse contender from all the way back in January. Her cover of Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World is haunting. Her take on Wonderwall breathes a sort of broken life into the song, its slow build into broken hope a triumph of transformative song. Put them against her 2007 cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows, recorded before she began her long journey through illness and loss, and – like every other song on this perfect collection – they grow all the more stark, all the more poignant, all the more potent, for the difference.

That these songs represent, in other words, the second act in a final play, the last farewell to a life lived in voice, is not where their strength lies. It is, instead, in the power of the musician, working with a tenacious instrument, and other people’s songs, to maximum effect.

Beauty and pain, and some bonus tracks from O’Reilly’s fellow sufferers, follow below. It’s how they wear their scars that make them beautiful.

6 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Holly Figueroa O'Reilly, Mary Lou Lord

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