Category: Rebecca Jordan

New Artists, Old Songs, Vol. XXV: from Katy Perry to tradfolk
with Jan Bell, Rebecca Jordan, Brianna Lea Pruett, Ben Howard, Gibson Bull, and Cahalen & Eli

September 30th, 2012 — 10:23 pm

It’s been a while since we dug into the newest crop of up-and-comers here on these virtual pages. But we’ve been digging them, all right, and it’s high time to tip the cream into your ready ears. So read on for some incredible new covers of Springsteen, Norman Blake, Carly Rae Jepson, Katy Perry, Darrell Scott, Elizabeth Cotten, Townes Van Zandt, John Martyn, Fleetwood Mac, and a great set of re-imagined songs from the deep, dark recesses of the American folk tradition.

The guest stars on Jan Bell‘s newest album Dream of the Miner’s Child belie the Brooklyn-based musician’s broad stylistic approach to altfolk and Americana: the list includes two founding members of The Be Good Tanyas (Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton), Phillipa Thompson of the M Shanghai Stringband, and members of her own alt-country band The Maybelles. But the inclusion of both legendary Smithsonian Folkways recording artist Alice Gerrard, and fellow Englishwoman Juliet Russell, who joins in on an old Celtic ballad, are telling, too: Bell is a native Yorkshire lass, a coal-miner’s granddaughter from a region grounded in the same mining trials and tribulations that she covers here, and though she is still young, opening act gigs for Emmylou Harris, Wanda Jackson, Odetta, Steve Earle and The Be Good Tanyas themselves speak eminently to her acceptance as a harbinger and interpreter of the old ways in the new.

Bell’s voice and arrangements here are notable for their ragged tenderness, with weary voices, soft guitar, and fiddle strains that clamber out of the darkness to scratch and paw at the soul. The songs span generations, following the movement of songbook fragments and tunes from the UK to Appalachia, making the title track – a Welch song which found its way into the hands of Ralph Stanely and Doc Watson via the blind Alabama Evangelist Rev. Andrew Jenkins, who re-arranged it in 1925 – the perfect centerpiece; from there, the strains of Jean Ritchie, Watson, and others mix well with the originals and traditional tunes, creating a seamless album of true beauty. To argue over whether this sort of music is country or folk is to miss the point: these haunting acoustic arrangements may be new, but they call to a time before the distinction made sense, when all the world was folkways, and they evoke the best of that history.

Technically, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West aren’t new to these pages: I posted a traditional tune from the neo-tradgrass duo’s debut album in our recent pre-fest feature on FreshGrass. But as was eminently evident from their strong, confident live performance on that North Adams stage, this pair is going places fast, thanks to pickin’ & strummin’ prowess on the usual set of bluegrass duo instruments from mando and guitar to banjo and bouzouki, and sweet duo harmonies that ring sweet as the Louvin Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, and other country pairs of yesteryear, with Eli’s warm baritone a perfect counterpoint to Cahalen’s knife-edged tenor.

All of which made me pleased as punch to have recieved a preview copy of their new album Our Lady Of The Tall Trees in the mail just this week, because it allows me to share their excellent cover of Norman Blake’s Church Street Blues, penned and originally performed by Norman Blake but made famous by Tony Rice on his intimate folk-oriented 1983 album of the same name, and played live in tribute last weekend to the latter, who was under doctor’s orders to stay home. But this is an album to purchase, truly: the title track alone is worth every penny, and their take on traditional tune The Poor Cowboy is twangy and sorrowful, as mellow and mournful as any cowboy troubadour’s folk ballad.

Bonus track:

  • Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Hop High (trad.)

The powerful voice of singer-songwriter and multi-media artist Brianna Lea Pruett rings of Regina Spektor, Bessie Smith, Kate Wolf, and Carole King all at once, with nuanced strains of folk, jazz, and blues in the mix, and the unsettling arrangements on her newest full-length The Stars, The Moon, The Owl, The Cougar, and You echo this approach, combining electric and acoustic atmospheres of piano and guitars, bells and beats to create a hybrid album that runs from anti-folk to grunge to delicate blues and jazzpop, making it impossible to categorize.

But there’s a folkwoman’s depth to Pruett even beyond all this, one that goes beyond mere instrumentation: a native Californian of both Appalachian and Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, the spiritual wanderer – who has already translated Amazing Grace into Tsalagi at the request of the Arkansas Cherokee Nation, and is currently working on a biography of Elizabeth Cotten with Cotten’s granddaughter – has dipped herself in the scenes and sentiment of Portland, UK, Northern California, and New York since first hitting the scene in 2005, performing live and generally in solo singer-songwriter guise alongside Mark Kozelek, Nick Jaina, and other kindred spirits along the way, where she has become known for her stunningly sparse versions of traditional folk songs such as this take on In The Pines, and for truly timeless-sounding folk originals that ring of the same stark sentiment.

Bonus tracks:

Rebecca Jordan writes that she “really enjoys” Cover Lay Down, saying that she is “a huge fan of cover songs and glad [we] created a platform for exposure”, and I’m honored. But if I’m glad to have heard from her, it’s because once I had a chance to steep in her songs, the feeling was mutual: Jordan’s voice is powerful and sweet, her arrangements are strong and potent, and her control is mature as all hell, making her an ideal candidate for our celebration.

And we’re not alone in saying so, either – Jordan was a finalist in the 2010 Mountain Stage NewSong contest, and has written songs for Kelly Clarkson and John Legend; her piano-and-cello-driven cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, from 2008 EP The Trouble With Fiction, is quite beautiful, and the buzz for her upcoming and highly anticipated Asphalt Heart EP has already reached a fever pitch, with a feature in the August 2012 issue of Performer magazine, and a “cinematic” video for lead single Eve ready to drop in October, though it’s hard to beat the live in-studio acoustic version of the song currently featured on her YouTube page.

The brand new video for her cover of Katy Perry’s The One That Got Away is an apt vehicle, too: it starts deceptively lo-fi, like an amateur YouTube product, but as the hiss of the room fades, and the voice – that voice! – rises in song, the whole piece coming together into a swirl of color and framing devices that betray her professionalism, and bespeak her meteoric rise towards fame. So hurrah for a woman who knows how to look after herself, and for music that speaks to the soul, because with such paired power and authenticity at her fingertips, we predict that Jordan’s going far, and fast.

Bonus track:

Last-minute additions tend to fall into my lap as I write, and this round has been no exception. But UK singer-songwriter Gibson Bull is no eleventh-hour also-ran: though the version of Corrine, Corrina his producer sends me is totally deconstructed, it bears the weight of the modern indiefolk movement with aplomb, calling to the layered tones of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Ray LaMontagne, and a post-millennial Bruce Springsteen on one hand, and the post-folk branches of the No Depression movement on the other.

Some quick stop-the-presses research reveals that the former tree-surgeon has been making the rounds at the UK festivals, and that he has recently joined the ranks of The Workshop, the Notting Hill songwriting and recording studio which is already becoming well-known for its work with indie folk artists and singer-songwriters. It also reveals an artist’s website that has been overtaken by a single video from Bull’s Workshop sessions, making it difficult to point readers to his 2010 debut, but there’s a couple of great solo takes on the YouTube archives that bode well: a jangly folksinger’s Shady Grove recorded last December for a London pub’s unplugged sessions, and a muddy, mangy Moonshiner from the same year or before that bears the weary weight of its pond crossing, rivaling favorite takes from Jeffrey Foucault and others on our own side of the globe.

Finally: over among the indiefolk at I Am Fuel, You Are Friends, Heather’s been celebrating Ben Howard a bunch this year, and it’s not hard to see why: with shades of Jose Gonzalez, and an indiefolk singer-songwriter’s tenderness, this artist can put power into almost anything. His late-February solo video cover of Dancing In The Dark bears a soft majesty that revitalizes; his collaborative work on John Martyn’s Over The Hill, recorded with Michael Kiwanuka, India and Chris, Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons, The Staves, and Johannes from Bear’s Den during a “Communion Jam” at SXSW 2012, helps bring a rich gospelfolk feel to a slow song once performed gentle and solo. And the urgency of his Radio 1 live cover of Carly Rae Jepson’s ubiquitous Call Me Maybe, released in May, is a solid counterpoint, too, with grungy guitars, soaring fiddles, and a driving beat creating an urgency under Howard’s gentle voice that fits perfectly with the song.

Not sure where to start clicking? Why not download all 15 tracks as a single zip file!

1 comment » | Ben Howard, Brianna Lea Pruett, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Gibson Bull, Jan Bell, New Artists Old Songs, Rebecca Jordan