Category: Covered in Folk

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

Covered In Folk: Steve Earle
(15 tracks, plus bonus coverage from Justin Townes Earle!)

July 6th, 2012 — 10:57 am

Steve Earle made his name early and adeptly on both sides of the singer-songwriter label, dropping out of ninth grade to study the music business, moving to the heart of country in his twentieth year after a hard-scrabble teenage musician’s life in Houston to pen mid-career hits for Carl Perkins, Patty Loveless, Johnny Lee, and others in the Nashville scene, all the while making his own path through the wilderness of rockabilly, country, and folk. Throughout, he emerged as a poet and political activist, even as he struggled as an outlaw and an addict, and Wikipedia is right to suggest that these origins are intertwined, in no small part because, as a struggling young songwriter, he was too young to play in bars and clubs, and was thus forced to find a place for himself in the liberal coffeehouse scene of the late sixties and early seventies “alongside anti-Vietnam War campaigners”.

It’s notable here that although Earle has been in the running for 14 Grammys since his first pair of nominations for Best Country Song and Best Country Male Vocalist in 1987, he has won only three, all in the Contemporary Folk category, and all since the mid-2000s, starting with Best Contemporary Folk Album for his 2004 anti-Iraq War collection The Revolution Starts Now. Though the drift from one genre category to the next speaks simultaneously to Earle’s own changing artistic sensibilities and a parallel drift in at-large genre definition, surely, even the most apolitical of scenewatchers could not deny that the increased stature which has resulted from his increasingly political work as a musician and the generally liberal pro-activist mindset of the Academy at large has also affected the voting in these categories.

But to judge Steve Earle primarily on his recent grizzled appearance as a cynical grey-bearded prophet on The Wire and Treme, or on the overtly politicized music which has won him praise and admiration in the last decade, is to miss out on the 35 year career of a broad-minded, clear-spoken musician deeply involved in the business of crafting songs that speak to the whole and various caverns of our hearts. From his early work alongside Texas troubadours Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt to mid-career collaborations with Emmylou Harris, T-Bone Walker, and other luminaries working the Americana spread, his total artistic output represents a breadth of genius easily equal to such collaborators.

Happily, his peers have not missed out, and though they sometimes find anger where it is warranted, the deeper catalog they mine contains hope and harrow enough. Which is to say: Steve Earle is well-respected for a reason, and though his politics have surely helped its spread, his songbook is not merely repeated because of any political affiliation. There’s love, here, and loss too: of the wistful, Texas country type, and of something deeper, stiller, that springs eternal even as it mourns the closeness of winter. You can hear it in the songs and performances alike, making for an apt tribute in folk.

Looking for more? Though today’s feature subject has covered plenty of songs himself in his four decade career, my lifetime dream of producing an album of second-generation musicians covering the songs of their parents is too tempting a project to ignore in these circumstances – most especially because, despite being left with his mother as a toddler in 1984, the second-gen artist in question has since shared stage, addiction, and fame with his famous father, thus proving the viability of such a project. Hence our bonus tracks today: a few choice selections from the recent work of Justin Townes Earle, whose proud continuance of the family name has sparked the indiefolk ear since his first album dropped in 2007.

3 comments » | Covered in Folk, Steve Earle

Covered In Folk: Tim Hardin
(Luka Bloom, Mark Lanegan, Karen Dalton, Seth Avett & 13 more!)

May 6th, 2012 — 11:48 am

I’m of an age where Tim Hardin‘s Reason To Believe is heard first and foremost in the voice of a late-career Rod Stewart – an inauspicious echo for a song so powerful, and so well-covered. But a good coverwatcher learns to spot trends among the liner notes as he gathers in the sheaves. And so, with today’s culminating feature, we come to honor a gradual and growing awareness of the work of the sixties and seventies singer-songwriter among a generation of artists and fans born after his rise and fall from grace – much of it secondhand, through coverage.

Like so many of his long-gone contemporaries, Hardin’s history is dark and disturbing: a long-time heroin addict who showed early promise, he drifted through the Greenwich Village and other, less definitive folk scenes in his early years, ultimately growing to become a featured act at Woodstock and a celebrated member of the radiofolk revival in my parents’ teenage years. Although he recorded nine and half full-length albums before an untimely overdose in 1980 cut his career to the quick, the gentle Oregon-based performer suffered greatly from a combination of stage fright and addiction. For much of his later years, he lost the ability to tour altogether, turning in notably erratic performances when he did find himself on stage, despite continued celebration by critics and peers alike for his work as a composer and studio musician.

But even to the end, stylistically, Hardin’s work is worth its early and ongoing recognition. Listening to his songbook, one is struck by his effortless way with melody, typified by waves of sound that rise and fall, pulse and swell through his performance. Lyrically, too, there is a consistency of tone, with confessional songs of deep heartache and disconnection, and the struggle to make sense of the world – topics that so characterize certain songwriters of his era, but run especially deep in such a conflicted personality. The combination of these elements makes for a particularly potent mix: there’s power in his smooth and dreamy approach to songwriting and recording alike, one well-served by that gentle, slightly hoarse tenor and the soft guitar strum, underscored by gentle piano, brushed drums, and orchestral elements, resulting in a catalog that redefines easy listening as a palatable, palpable force laid over a narcotic darkness.

Such a splash in his time cannot help but ripple into the present. Hardin’s songs are familiar on late-night soft rock radio even into the new century; his most popular works have been covered umpteen times, with many making it to their own place on the charts. Most versions retain the dreamy, maudlin setting, even as they span decades, from Donovan, Karen Dalton, and The Pozo-Seco Singers’ mid-sixties recordings to newer takes from Okkervil River, Horse Feathers, Damon & Naomi, Kathryn Williams, Jesse Malin, Mark Lanegan, and others pushing the maudlin fringes of folk, indie music, rock and pop in the 21st century. Indeed, If I Were A Carpenter, Hardin’s second most famous song, is technically a cover in the songwriter’s hands: Bobby Darin reached number 8 on the US charts with his version, which was released a full year before Tim Hardin 2, and returned the favor three years later by penning Simple Song Of Freedom for Hardin’s use. But we’ll allow both here, since our Covered In Folk sets are designed to celebrate songbooks and originals alike, and Hardin’s versions are no less seminal.

[download the entire 17-song set as a zip file!]

2 comments » | Covered in Folk, Tim Hardin

Covered In Folk: The Bee Gees
(Feist, Shawn Colvin, Ray LaMontagne, Chumbawumba, & 12 more!)

April 15th, 2012 — 12:50 pm

Our thoughts and prayers go out this weekend to 62 year old Australian-born pop superstar Robin Gibb, founding member and long-time lead singer of disco trailblazers the Bee Gees, who is reportedly fighting for his life in a London hospital after a long struggle with cancer. In his honor, we’re recovering a June 2008 feature which mines my origin as an audiophile and pays tribute to the seminal work of the Bee Gees through an expanded set of folk-tuned coverage.

Gibb and his brothers may have spent their careers on the far end of the musical spectrum from the folk explosion that preceded and paralleled their rise to fame, but their cultural cachet and influence is undeniable. Robin’s vibrato will forever echo in our ears. May his pain be short, and his legacy last forever.

Bee Gees Gold was the first record I ever bought.

It was a used copy, already ragged; I remember the frayed cardboard at the edges when I opened up the album. I picked it up from some older kid at our elementary school swap meet. It cost a quarter, I think.

And to be honest, I have no memory of listening to it.

What I remember is the thrill of ownership. I grew up in a house full of grown-up records, but they weren’t mine, and I wasn’t really ready for folk and blues, country and soul. Like any suburban child of post-hippie parents, I had been given a small collection of great, authentic kidsong albums, but those were my parent’s choices, and already behind me. The Bee Gees greatest hits were the first music I could hear on the radio, and then play again as many times as I wanted. Whether I played it or not wasn’t the point. Buying it, taking it home, pulling against the slight vacuum that held it inside its sleeve, making a place for it on the shelf: it was a revelation, like discovering the key that unlocked the universe.

The experience of buying Bee Gees Gold, plus the rapid-fire acquisition of a used copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black, and a few records released that year — Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, Toto IV, Michael Jackson’s Thriller — would spark a lifetime of collecting and audiophilia. A quarter century later, my closets are full of long-dormant vinyl; the attic is stuffed with milk crate collections, and archived jewel cases. I download far more than I should, and digitize everything I can. My digital collection passed the 25000 song mark just this morning.

My students have always been amazed at the sheer amount of music on my iPod. But true audiophiles know that there’s an awful lot of great music out there, and what if you have a hankering for something and you don’t have it, ready to call up in the database? I live in a world of shuffle and playlists, theme and artist retrospectives, and new albums and discoveries. I cannot drive without a soundtrack; I look forward to mowing the lawn, in part, because it means an hour of meditative activity with headphones on. I build my summer around folk festivals. I spend almost every evening writing about music in one way or another, here and at collaborative blog Star Maker Machine. Listening, collecting, owning, sharing and enjoying music have become fully intertwined.

But though my tastes have turned towards the acoustic and the authentic over the years, you never forget your first.

In tribute to the record that started it all, today we present some of my favorite folk and folk-tinged Bee Gees covers. Most are recent indie-folk — as we’ve mentioned previously in our Covered in Folk series, the tendency for artists to bring the songs of their childhood cultures into their own repertoires means that a whole new set of indiefolks in my age group have recently begun adding Bee Gees songs to their performance canon. And a few are tongue-in-cheek; it’s hard to be earnest about something which will forever be associated with sequined bell-bottoms and high-pitched discopop harmony.

But under the glitz and glitter, there’s a surprising power here. Turns out the Brothers Gibb actually knew how to write songs with meaning, after all. Not a bad choice, for a nine year old kid suddenly opened to a world of possibility.

5 comments » | Bee Gees, Covered in Folk, reposts

Covered In Folk: Bill Monroe
(covers from folk rock to revival, acoustic jazz, and indiefolk)

February 19th, 2012 — 09:44 pm

Musical visionary Bill Monroe, who got his start alongside brothers Charlie and Birch in the depths of the great depression, and subsequently performed as a solo act and bandleader for over sixty years until his death in 1996, was not just the father of the music we call bluegrass; he was its most prolific writer and disseminator. As composer and arranger, he created or recreated hundreds of songs; as progenitor, he found, groomed, and composed and performed alongside 161 Blue Grass Boys in a half century before sending them back out into the world to spread the gospel.

According to interviews with the living members of that vast group, like an Old Master, his was the inspiration and vision, and – more often than not – the copyright went to him like a signature’s flourish. Between 200 and 250 songs, most written in those heady formative years before the folk revival truly took off, are attributable to him in whole or in part. And much as Dylan would later combine original craftsmanship with songs scavenged from the traditional folk songbook, Monroe’s work as an adapter of song reintroduced dozens of titles into the popular canon, giving these newly transformed tunes life through recordings and a ceaseless life of touring and performance.

But whether they were Bill’s songs to begin with or merely bore his mark is not the point. Monroe served as a sort of lynchpin or nexus of protomusicology, pulling traditional fiddle tunes, back porch country, fieldhand and jump blues, the gospel hymnal, and old A.P. Carter folksongs into one broad, consistent genre, and then pouring hundreds of originals into the mix to stabilize it. In the process, through careful development of both a style and a form, with well-defined instrumentation and performance standards, and the consistent perspective of the God-fearing working man, he created bluegrass, the genre he came to define.

And as a vocalist and harmonizer, an innovative mandolin player, and a powerful, influential bandleader, he also laid the groundwork for rock-and-roll with his introduction of staccato rhythms and bass under fast melodic chorus-and-verse – an influence acknowledged in his posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

So if we were to find a few songs of his beyond the bluegrass genre pool, it would not be such a surprise. After all, Elvis made his mark on Blue Moon of Kentucky as the b-side to his very first Sun records single. And even as it was the folk revivalists who sustained Monroe’s career during the sixties, arguably, it was that beat which Monroe brought to the music which ultimately found its way into Elvis’ hips – and to the roots and folk revivalists from there.

That said: though both are essentially different, folk and bluegrass have their overlap. Taking on the songs of Bill Monroe without hitting the core of bluegrass itself is somewhat of a fake-out – bluegrass itself is a hybridized genre at heart; contemporary folk artists of all stripes like a good turn to the grassy side, and often have the banjos in their arsenal to prove it.

And, as we’ve noted above, the tendency towards song reclamation which Monroe undertook has a tendency to muddy the waters of authorship. We’ll see some songs previously marked as traditional here, as seen in a number of Monroe tributes which mix traditional country and appalachian songs with those which bear his name, from Ricky Skaggs and Friends’ Big Mon (2000), which features Bruce Hornsby taking lead on Darlin’ Corey on a piano-jazz opening track, to Del McCoury’s fine 2011 tribute Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe, which pretends only to play off of Del’s own memory of the man and the songs he came to own.

Musically, too, we could go broad here, and none would fault us. But Monroe’s legacy is vast indeed, and any folkstream movement which would have his songbook turn out past the boundaries of Bluegrass itself honors both the man himself and his formative influence on music beyond genre definition. So although it was tempting to sneak in a Sam Bush cover below, we’ll stick to a reasonable attempt at a narrow focus that is consistent with our core mission here at Cover Lay Down: a set of bands and solo musicians who self-identify primarily as folk or roots artists, rather than bluegrass artists, playing some of the songs which bear Monroe’s name as composer in the annals of BMI copyright.

From Ry Cooder‘s raucous roots and The Clumsy Lovers‘ high-energy cajunized folk rock to David Schnaufer‘s delicate dulcimer instrumentals; from June Bugg‘s early folk revivalism to The Wayfaring Strangers‘ acoustic lounge jazz take on Hank Williams co-write I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome; from the lo-fi indiefolk of The Diamond Family Archive to genre-crossing banjo, string, and guitar-driven takes from Cover Lay Down favorites Red Molly, Crooked Still, and the Jones Street Boys, the appalachian string music of Darol Anger, and the old-timey fiddlework of Mark O’Connor and Sadie Compton, this is Bill Monroe like you’ve never heard him before. But the evidence is clear, regardless: Bill Monroe’s influence on the modern map of popular music is rivaled by none, and matched by few, indeed.

Remember, folks: Cover Lay Down is ad-free and reader-supported in order to encourage all who visit to pursue the path of art patronage first and foremost, that the folkways may continue to flourish in our generation and beyond. Looking to follow the threads back to the source? Click on artist names above!

1 comment » | Bill Monroe, Covered in Folk

Covered In Folk: Warren Zevon
(Jill Sobule, Shawn Colvin, Adam Duritz, David Lindley & more!)

January 24th, 2012 — 07:00 pm

Happy Birthday to Warren Zevon, whose graveled voice I never truly appreciated until his final album was released just before his death in 2003. Known for his pithy, sardonic wit in song and social commentary – enjoy every sandwich, his oft-quoted insight on dying which would later become the title for the first of two posthumous tribute albums, is a terse encapsulation of that observational mastery which shines through his back catalog – the man who released just twelve studio albums in 35 years was nonetheless a respected mainstay of the rock circuit, celebrated by his peers and critics alike, even though all but two of those albums never rose above the top 20 in Billboard sales charts.

Like many artists who poured their body and soul into the industry, Zevon had his demons. The measured success of 1978 album Excitable Boy was followed by a descent into drug abuse and alcoholism, several failed relationships, and, eventually, the loss of his major label support after his ability to produce more hits turned out to be unreliable. The resultant stripped-back sound he brought on tour through much of the nineties was as much a function of his inability to pay for a full band as it was an attempt to strip bare the songs he had written. His posthumous Grammys were merited, for sure: The Wind is a potent album, and a contemporary folk gem. But it’s hard to argue that his path was clear, or his talent always evident, in every note, or indeed every album.

Still, Zevon was a storyteller of the first order, and stories told well make for powerful folk narrative: Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, for example, is a murder ballad plain and simple, modern in language but timeless in melody and sentiment, and Naomi Bedford’s recent version of the song evokes its traditional structure and trope quite well; Mohammed’s Radio is political but childlike in its observations, as cryptic and direct as a Dylan opus, and The Matthew Show’s slow folk rock is apt. His work in collaboration with Jackson Browne, who co-wrote Shawn Colvin hit cover Tenderness On The Block, is legendary and worthy of its acclaim. And his existential pop hit Werewolves of London, though more often covered as a sort of gleefully crashing bar band encore – and here given the live polka treatment by The Garbonzos – is actually quite a potent commentary on the trappings of fame and fortune.

Sure, most of the coverage one can find comes from the same two or three albums which represented the peak of his career, even if it comes in diverse measures, from the avant electro-folk echoes of Ivory Library to Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz’ country ballad Carmelita, from Freddie White coming on like the Irish Greg Brown in a low, mellow take on Accidentally Like A Martyr to the oddly gentle slide guitar occasional Zevon co-conspirator David Lindley brings to violent oddity Play It All Night Long. But it’s his late-career singles, the tender, wistful Don’t Let Us Get Sick and the sparse couplets and plaintive repeated refrain of Keep Me In Your Heart For A While, written when he was already dying of cancer, that catch in my heart. It takes a true adept to look death in the face and head into the studio. That such tenderness resulted is a stunning testament to Warren Zevon’s life and craft.

9 comments » | Covered in Folk, Warren Zevon

Covered In Folk: Dougie MacLean
(Caledonia, Cara Dillon, Mary Black, Brooks Williams and more!)

November 20th, 2011 — 09:12 am

As with many of our more folk-oriented Covered In Folk subjects, I discovered the work of Dougie MacLean through two primary sources: through my father, who handed me one of his albums over a decade ago, and through label-watching, after discovering the same poignant song twice over, in separate female voices, and realizing that neither of them had written it.

The song in question is Caledonia, the Latin name for Scotland, and as its matronymic title implies, though it treats its subject as an anthropomorphised object of desire, its lyrics truly speak of a love of country. As a musical poem which speaks eloquently of the calling, and the homecoming, which so many ex-patriots and lovers experience, it is unsurprising to find that Caledonia resonates with and is well-covered by those who understand what it means to long for the Scottish Isles; indeed, though the song easily made Folk Alley’s list of the 100 Most Essential Folk Songs in 2009, the vast majority of covers which one can find are from Irish and Scottish singer-songwriters, who know MacLean as a countryman whose songbook is lush with tributes and mournful hymns to his native land, and seem to prefer this particular track as a favorite.

The multi-instrumentalist, who started his career in the mid-seventies with popular tradfolk group The Tannahill Weavers, and has since produced over a score of solo works, seems much less known outside of his native region, however. Despite the strong influence of Irish and Scottish folk on the broader canon, and on American culture itself, MacLean seems to be one of those artists whose influence in name is predominantly limited to those who trace their own roots directly to the same source.

Pity, that: though the artist sometimes referred to as “the Scottish James Taylor” is yet in his mid fifties, he’s hardly a one-song wonder. His instrumental The Geal was used in the film The Last Of The Mohicans, though you probably didn’t rush home to figure out who wrote it; Turning Away, which you’ll hear covered below, was used for the soundtrack of the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Angel Eyes. He’s received the OBE, had his songs chosen as the theme for national homecoming campaigns in his native land, and toured the folk mainstage circuit extensively in the US and abroad. An exploration of his larger body of work reveals several decades worth of beauty and poetry – a collection which is as praise-worthy and praise-ful as the printed and sung works of Burns, Yeats, Tannahill, and others – and a knack for melody and arrangement which both builds on and transcends the simple, elegant folk tradition from which he springs.

Rather than fill the shelves with a Single Song Sunday, then, I’ve chosen to split the bill down the middle this week. So here’s a half-dozen covers of Caledonia which ring true and traditional even as they swing through the vast ground that encompasses folk, from Euan Morton’s softly lilting piano ballad to several heartfelt contemporary Irish/Scottish singer-songwriter takes right up to Frankie Miller’s smashing Celtic folkrock anthem, and a paired eight-track set of coverage from the rest of MacLean’s body of work. Taken together, they provide ample evidence for his unsung worthiness on this side of the pond.

2 comments » | Covered in Folk, Dougie MacLean, Single Song Sunday

Covered In Folk: Danny O’Keefe
(w/ Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Chris Smither, Chris Hillman & more)

August 28th, 2011 — 02:32 pm

A short post by Darius over at Star Maker Machine late last week rang a bell; I hadn’t realized that Danny O’Keefe had both penned and first performed The Road, which most of us know well through its coverage on Jackson Browne’s definitive album Running on Empty, but I did recognize his name from the songwriting credits for Well, Well, Well – a song often attributed to co-writer Bob Dylan alone, but first recorded by Maria Muldaur. Following the thread through the stacks, I found more than I bargained for: turns out there was a surprisingly large amount of coverage from the hugely undersung songwriting genius already sitting around on my harddrive. And so a feature blog post is born.

If I hadn’t noticed O’Keefe much as an artist, I suppose it can be excused: his biggest hit record came out the year before I was born; he’s produced but a single album in the last decade; most recently, he’s turned to poetry. But the Minnesota-bred, Spokane-based singer-songwriter has been writing, recording and performing for four decades, making millions off of eponymous 1972 sophomore album O’Keefe, which produced both The Road and the extraordinarily well-covered mega-hit Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues.

O’Keefe’s record as a co-writer and originator of song speaks volumes to his reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. Good Time Charlie has been taken on by numerous names in the music world, from Elvis Presley to Cab Calloway, from Willie Nelson to Waylon Jennings. And unsurprisingly, given his primary modality and the audience it brings in, the majority of covers of O’Keefe’s larger catalog touch broadly on the country, folk and bluegrass worlds.

Danny O’Keefe’s lyrics trend towards the sentimental, touching on themes of nature and our relationship to each other through it; his voice is soaring and sweet, and his original performance contains elements of country, folk, jazz, and more; not for nothing has he been so well covered by the softer side of folk, blues, and folkrock, with Judy Collins, Harry Manx, and of course Browne himself taking on the songbook at one time or another.

But thanks in part to his hybrid style and lyrical accessibility, O’Keefe has found his way into the hands and voices of a larger set of folk-oriented artists, too. We’re skipping the hardcore country, save for a mellow country-pop pair from Byrds co-founder Chris Hillman, but bluegrass is well represented here, with Tim O’Brien turning in a sweet take on Into The West, Nickel Creek taking on When You Come Back Down (originally performed by O’Brien, but co-written by O’Keefe) with soaring mando-led harmonies, and Alison Krauss lending her beautiful vocals to Dave Mallett co-write Never Got Off The Ground. And bluesfolk Chris Smither and Pat Wictor – the former doubly; the latter both with and without recent folk supergroup trio Brother Sun – also turn in their own versions of songs either recorded or written by this gentle lyricist with the surprisingly political side.

Here’s the good stuff, a chronology of coverage that starts way back in 1975. Listen to the set in its entirety, and the odds are good you’ll hear a familiar song or two. If you, too, never realized all these songs came from the same pen and voice, well, that’s the point of coverage.

Cover Lay Down shares new finds and retreads through coverfolks sets and feature-length musings twice a week or more without fail.

2 comments » | Covered in Folk, Danny O'Keefe

Covered In Folk: Billy Joel
(An American Icon’s Greatest Hits, Stripped Down)

June 22nd, 2011 — 01:35 pm

I’ve been a passive listener of Billy Joel’s original work since middle school, I guess. But way back in my emergent years, I was a true blue fan, sifting through his early work as a high tenor, singing along with his songs at summer camp campfires, performing Just The Way You Are for talent shows, tagging along with a friend to see the master perform in the midst of the We Didn’t Start The Fire era, struggling to come to terms with his mid-career rock and roll, and the drum-driven pop path which he had adopted by the late eighties.

My future folk fandom outed itself even then, I suppose – though I have a soft spot in my heart for the hidden blue-collar tenderness of The Downeaster ‘Alexa’, I always preferred the Piano Man’s lighter, more introspective work. I fell instantly in love with And So It Goes, and other the soft, tender songs which seemed designed primarily to break up the heavier sound on his later works, even as I learned to skip past both the angry and the political pieces, which I liked for their sentiment but hated for their bombastic radio rock tone, and the syrupy ballads which remain his signature. As such, though I know and love songs from many of his albums, Cold Spring Harbor, his 1971 debut, remains my favorite.

But Billy Joel’s songbook is recognized around the globe for a reason. Throughout his evolution as an artist, the be-knighted and well-awarded artist has retained a prescient knack for lyrics and mood which get to the heart of both middle and working-class perspectives on family, relationships, modernity, and more. His narratives, grounded as they are in the real world of feeling and fact, call to several generations; many, with other instrumentation, would be recognizable as folk. Love him or hate him, its hard to deny his influence, or his ability to shine a light on the world in which we live.

Regular readers may note that we have a particular favorite here: indeed, we’ve posted and reposted Lucy Kaplansky’s gorgeous piano take on Goodnight My Angel numerous times since we first featured her work way back in our first few months on the scene. But any prolific artist who can speak so effectively to our hearts and our culture is bound to be well-covered, and here we find the full range, from subtle solo singer-songwriter coverage on piano and guitar to fully instrumented acoustic folk versions of songs from throughout his deservedly celebrated career. Enjoy today’s tribute to the man and his vision, the best of which identifies the heart and soul while stripping down the bombast to expose the delicacy, and the raw emotion, which so characterizes Billy Joel’s greatest hits and deep cuts.

21 comments » | Billy Joel, Covered in Folk

Covered In Folk: Bonnie “Prince” Billy
(A New American Icon, from Dylan to Danzig, from Joe Pug to Johnny Cash)

May 20th, 2011 — 09:13 pm

An unusual double feature today, combining our two most popular focusing strategies: covers of, and covers by, a folkworld artist with whom the average folkfan is only partially or anecdotally familiar. As with all those who we tout, our feature subject deserves to rise above the constant chatter, to be celebrated for his songwriting and performance. But in this case, the man is so prolific, it seemed appropriate to go for the omnibus approach.

To be fair, though I had long planned to take on the collected coverage of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I came about this week’s feature backwards, through an incredibly beautiful cover of Hard Life, recently performed by rising star singer-songwriter Joe Pug and fellow indiefolk darling Strand of Oaks, in a set solicited and recorded by uberblogger Heather of I Am Fuel, You Are Friends in a small, private chapel session near her Denver home. It wasn’t the first time I had truly listened to the words and melodies of the songwriter in question – after all, the man has appeared on several indie tributes and cover compilations, and his name is a constant companion in the world of music bloggers. But as with the best covers of any stripe, the sheer beauty of the cover sent me back to the stacks, on the path of rediscovery.

And that way, I found, lies genius.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – born Will Oldham, aka Palace Brothers, Palace Music, et. al. – is a performer as slippery as his pseudonymic existence, easily misunderstood as self-mocking when, for example, he appears with Zach Galifinakis in a Kanye West video, or professes his love for the infamous R&B artist and accused pedophile R. Kelly.

But in less than two decades of performance and recordings, he’s earned the credibility of his peers through an exceptionally prolific career marked by honest, earthy artistry, and a practically unparalleled devotion to authenticity in performance and song. As noted aptly in a 2009 New Yorker feature article, the result has been a true transfiguration of American music, one in which Bonnie “Prince” Billy… has become, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure.

Oldham’s work isn’t as accessible as some of his more melodic peers in the indie world. His voice is gruff and broken, his lyrics oft oblique; to steep in his work, whether in collaboration or solo, in full instrumentation or soft, fragile acoustic singer-songwriter folk mode, is to enter a world where emotion trumps precision, and beauty comes – if it comes at all – blackened and tarnished, as a sort of dirty, coarse reflection of the ages.

But filtering other voices through those strained, strangled pipes and a diverse set of twisted, faux-grandiose melodic tendencies wrings new emotional potency from songs which have often been overlooked, or at least not ever looked at so deeply as Oldham manages to – see, for example, his recent recreation of Sufjan Stevens’ All The Trees Of The Field as some sort of great old Crosby, Stills and Nash vehicle, the odd yet aching sadness he brings to Puff The Magic Dragon, the utterly transformative way he channels Steely Dan to take on Springsteen’s Thunder Road, his torn, sparse, broken duet on John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves, or any of the seven utterly amazing covers on his 2007 EP Ask Forgiveness.

And, conversely, those who have taken on his songbook do so out of respect, and each, in its way, has managed to reveal both the age-old nobility and the sense of modernistic grandeur inherent in the songs, evoking diamonds out of the ether, still tarnished with all the char and soot of the originals.

Today, then, we present a twinned feature of sorts: side A a full-length set of performances and recordings by the man himself, interpreting the songbooks of those he respects; side B a smaller but no less majestic set, with covers of Oldham originals from the likes of Johnny Cash, Calexico, Mark Kozelek, Fanfarlo in rare form, and the inimitable Joe Pug. Hear ‘em and weep – and then head over to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s predictably inaccessible, oblique online home, to hear, purchase, pursue and explore.

Side A: Bonnie “Prince” Billy Covers:

Side B: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Covered in Folk:

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46 comments » | Bonnie Prince Billy, Covered in Folk

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