Category: Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Other Voices, Other Rooms: 5 Folkblogs to Follow in 2012
(w/ folk covers of Queen, Elvis Costello, Strand of Oaks and more!)

January 4th, 2012 — 11:13 am

As I wrote just over a year ago in a 2-part feature on How To Be A Coverblogger [Pt. 1 / Pt. 2], keeping a coverblog requires a touch of obsession, an itch to live the writing life, and a willingness to keep a keen eye on a select handful of trusted sources.

But though we watch the other coverbloggers carefully throughout the year, we are folkies first and foremost here at Cover Lay Down. And – as we noted atop our year’s end mix – some of the best coverage comes under the coverblog radar, available only to labelwatchers with a penchant for exploration of new songs both for their own sake, and in hope of finding a buried take on someone else’s song in the mix, which can be used here to help promote and spread the word about artists and their work.

There’s a tiny handful of name-brand folkblogs out there – Songs: Illinois, most notably, features in the linklists of many of the biggest music blogs, and Craig’s recommendations, though increasingly sparse, remain solid; Direct Current is a bit more glossy (and much more comprehensive), but it tends to hit all the right high points for major releases in the mass market. And indiefolk and Americana, especially, find their way into the mix at many music blogs which focus on alternative and indie rock and pop, but are willing to cross genre lines to feature a new generation of folk-oriented bands and singer-songwriters, from all-girl music blog Wears The Trousers to NPR fave go-to girl Heather of I Am Fuel, You Are Friends.

But huge branches of the folk tree are less well represented, or even ignored, in these venues. Finding this work depends on an ability to track the folkworld as closely as we can. And the decidedly regional nature of most folk music, combined with a high radar threshold for work in this niche (as an example, note how classical, rock, country and pop radio stations pepper the dial, but folk music is generally limited to a single radio program or two in a given market), leaves us looking to smaller labels and folkbloggers to keep us up to date on new developments, acts, and albums.

We featured two new finds in this arena this past August, in fact. Publicity house and blog Hearth Music remains a favorite source of all things folk, roots, and Americana in the Pacific Northwest after major kudos in our original feature. And insightful, well-written Aussie blog Timber & Steel continues to impress with their ongoing exploration of the same range of sounds from the land downunder, where summer reigns even as the snow finally begins to fall here in the northern hemisphere; we’ve recovered their findings several times here on the blog, and are eagerly following their new features on a flood of summer festival finds as we speak.

Today, in a kick-off to the new year, we bring you a quick survey of a few other sources – specifically, five more select blogs which I have come to consider proven outlets for the best new folk music. Bookmark them all, and/or add them to your feedreader; check out their own sidebar linklists for further reading, too. And if you, too, have a favorite folkblog you’d like to recommend, drop a note in the comments, so all can share.

All things Irish blog 2 U I Bestow‘s native ground is rich with the folk tradition, and his celebration of it is notoriously comprehensive. As such, though host Peter Nagle goes rock, too, there’s plenty to love here, and I often find new coverage through the artists and albums he touts – for example, we noted a new covers album from Irish singer-songwriter Mundy, whose song from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack gives 2 U I Bestow its name, back in our April 2011 Tribute and Cover Compilations week series, thanks to early notice from the blog.

Peter’s Top 20 Albums of 2011 included this amazing take on traditional tune Rain & Snow, introducing me to the work of the sister trio The Henry Girls; the back-and-forth between delicate harp-driven tradfolk verses and fiddle-led folkrock chorus speak to a strong grounding in the various traditions of modern folk and roots music, and their newest album, December Moon, proves it, offering a surprisingly diverse set that catches the heart and echoes in the ears. Like 2 U I Bestow, The Henry Girls take on all corners of the modern folk ouvure, from cheery uke-driven indiefolk ditties to etherial tradfolk instrumentals and sea shanties, from warm harmony-driven tracks to contemporary americana balladry, with aplomb and respect; the delightfully playful Watching The Detectives – Elvis Costello, done as gypsy poprock with a theatrical flourish – is an exceptional delight.

I’ve cited Slowcoustic here plenty of times before, even featuring a guest post from it’s host two summers ago, and for excellent reason: Sandy’s tastes run towards fragile acoustic downtempo soundscapes, and his handle on the folkscene, especially the obscure Canadian and Midwestern branches of the new and delicate indiefolk stuff too broken and quiet to pop the hipster indieblog bubble, remains impeccable. And, like many on our list today, Sandy’s work goes beyond mere blogging: his fledgling label Yer Bird is a solid source of new music, a natural extension of the blog, and we’re expecting to have some exciting news about the label’s newest impending release in the next week or so to prove it.

What I like most about Slowcoustic is that it is a constant source of stuff I had no idea existed, and fall in love with instantly. In 2011 alone, Sandy has brought us Hezekiah Jones, Samantha Crain, Conrad Plymouth, new otherwise-unreleased work from 2010 find Caleb Coy, and, most recently, Lotte Kestner, who we then just had to celebrate in a full-fledged post at the end of the year. And his most listened to songs of 2011 list is a work of honest beauty, one that tipped me off to a heretofore unknown Neil Young cover from a live Jeffrey Foucault session in my neck of the woods (and which was also picked up over the summer by Common Folk Music, a two-party source of exuberance and taste which comes almost as highly recommended, and is equally solid for news of new folk music releases, if not as plentiful with the coverage or downloadable tracks).

Like many bloggers and blogwatchers, I discovered For Folk’s Sake through their incredible Christmas compilations; regular readers will find the name familiar, though they may not have realized it was a project solicited by a website, rather than a label or collaborative. But their sporadically-produced podcasts are a stellar outlet for capturing the mood of the new indiefolk scene that has come to typify the mainstage at Newport Folk Festival. And the UK-based blog itself is a solid source for the hipster side of folk and Americana music, with prominent placement of Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, AA Bondy, Emmy The Great, and other names from that branch of the movement, and a willingness to include singer-songwriters more typically connected to the coffeehouse crowd, such as Devon Sproule and Anais Mitchell.

In short, without For Folk’s Sake, I’d never have found the haunting folk balladry of The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, a mixed-bag late-December split-bill tribute album from UK folksters The Unthanks (who DiVinyl guestblogged about, in their early incarnation as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, way back in July of 2008), recorded live in a chapel in December of 2010, in a concert session that was named a Gig of the Year by tastemaking UK print publication The Independent. And I’d have to sift through much more elseblog chaff to get to the best of today’s indiefolk singer-songwriters and bands.

The Wheel’s Still In Spin takes it’s name from Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, but it isn’t truly a folkblog; it yaws broad and trends pithy, but its voracious weekly focus on recommended new releases is about as comprehensive as it gets, putting it in a “skim regularly” category. And though author Darin’s cross-genre tastes range all the way from Josh Ritter, Vandaveer, and Vetiver to Thievery Corporation, Kurt Vile, and the occasional punk act, he’s bluntly honest and unapologetic about what he likes and why, and I tend to agree with the majority of his vast and varied assessments.

Case in point: though many blogs mentioned the The Wooden Birds this year, and though Cover Me did take note of the Jackson Browne bonus track added to the mix in mid-December, The Wheel was the only one I follow regularly that remembered the band’s sparsely hypnotic, pop-ish yet acoustically-driven March 2010 release Two Matchsticks in their voluminous year’s end recaps and “best of” listings. Here; the songs speak for themselves.

Finally, a man who is a blogger by extension only: like many older folkwatchers and media mavens, Ron Olesko’s primary output remains print and radio; much of his online work on Twitter and at Ron Olesko’s Folk Music Notebook merely points to his columns in Sing Out Magazine, to guest spots for his own work, and to the weekly playlists of his long-standing folk radio show Traditions; these outlets, and his placement as chair of the selection committee for the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance yearly showcases, speak loudly to his prominence in the world of folk. But though sometimes sparse, Ron’s news from the folkworld is an invaluable addition to a folkwatcher’s habits.

The old-school rules here: both the elder statemen of the singer-songwriter world and newer acts which carry the folk revival forward yet hew closely to its traditions, such as Cover Lay Down favorites Red Molly and Joe Crookston, find their way to Olesko’s attention. But subscribing to his twitter feed is worth it: it brought me to his 12 Favorite Folk CDs of 2011, and though it, John McCutcheon’s Woody Guthrie tribute (which we originally dismissed as a bit too measured, but which has grown on us), Crookston’s newest album Darkling & The Bluebird Jubilee, and The Once, a post-millennial Newfoundland trio that trends towards the varied sounds of their native folk influences, whose gentle, earnest Queen cover is utterly perfect to ring in the new year, and whose previous work includes sweet originals, equally delightful takes on Leonard Cohen, Amelia Curran, and more obscure Canadian contemporaries, and upbeat tunes from Canadian and UK traditions.

5 comments » | Elseblog, Joe Crookston, John McCutcheon, John Statz, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, The Henry Girls, The Once, The Wooden Birds

The Tradfolk Revival: Young Brit Femfolk with today’s guest host: Divinyl

July 18th, 2008 — 11:41 am
This post has absolutely squat to do with the picture above, but it is a feast of British folk, therefore I thought that the picture was fitting; just ignore the artist listing. I shall start with a confession – I am entirely rubbish. I am a terrible procrastinator and someone who often does things at the very last opportunity. And that is the case here. I feel slightly shame-faced tarnishing such a wonderful blog with my efforts, but honoured to have been offered the privilege, therefore I could not resist posting just a little something.

Due to time constraints and slight inebriation, I have limited this post to talking about only three of the darling dames of the very much thriving young British folk scene (hey, maybe Boyhowdy will invite me back some time to introduce a few more?!). It is my understanding that, despite these times of t’internet and music easily accessible to all, often folk music does not seem to cross borders and oceans very quickly. I am continually surprised when I converse with fellow bloggers from the other side of the pond, people I consider to be far more musically-knowledgeable than me, to hear that they are not familiar with even the ‘bigger’ names. I am here, therefore, to begin the process of rectifying that!

All of the songs included below have one common theme – they are traditional songs; songs that have been sung and loved by many over the years, that have done the rounds with folk festival crowds and back-room-of-the-pub singalongs. The particularly interesting thing, then, is these ladies’ interpretation of these well-known tunes, their very understanding of what is at the core of each song, and how they may make it their own.

First up is Kate Rusby – a charming Barnsley lass (that’s South Yorkshire FYI) with a strong northern accent, a down-to-earth attitude and a love of sea shanties and other traditional songs. Accordingly, you will often find her sweet-as-apple-pie voice singing tales of lost love, violence and death! Courtesy of parents that were in a ceilidh band, she grew up around folk music and folk music festivals.

She is perhaps my very favourite of the set, her voice almost tear-inducingly beautiful. She is also immensely likable and is absolutely brilliant live if you should ever have the chance – I have seen her twice to date, and her performance was astounding on both occasions. Rusby has truly mastered the art of inter-song banter and the whole stage presence conundrum, which I believe to be almost as important as the music itself in a live environment.

Rusby is getting on a bit now, in terms of this theme, at age 34 (ha!), but started out waaay back in 1995 and has since released eight solo albums, in addition to releases with Kathryn Roberts and her former band The Poozies. She has garnered much praise from the British press at large, and even more in folk circles, resulting in her receipt of four BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (including Folk Singer of the Year in 2000). She was also nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1999 – a contest that spans many genres and that often makes highly influential, independent choices. Here she is with a sea shanty and one about fighting a dragon!
The Wild Goose – Kate Rusby (trad.)
(from Sleepless)
Sir Eglamore – Kate Rusby (trad. arr. Kate Rusby)
(from Hourglass)

Ruth Notman was only 18 years old when she released her debut album, Threads, last year, which only made it all the more impressive. Less well known, to date, than the others in this post, she is definitely a name to watch. Notman hails from Nottingham, in the Midlands of England and started performing in folk clubs in her home county and neighbouring Derbyshire at the age of 13.

The most consummate thing about the traditional songs (and cover songs in general) on her album is her interpretation; her arrangements evidence a wonderful musical maturity and a solid understanding of composition and tune. Yet just as tenable is that 18 year old spirit – despite the tradsong, you can hear that this is a young woman equally familiar with modern music and pop sensibilities; someone who knows Independent Woman and other such fluff, just like her peers. Oh, and she is also a cracking pianist (and multi-instrumentalist).
She, too, has been noticed by the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards people, reaching the final of the Young Folk Award in 2006.
Present here is the usual happy folk subject matter of neglect, beating, and suicidal ideation! Fause Fause is one that you can also hear by the likes of Kris Drever and Kathryn Tickell.
Still I Love Him – Ruth Notman (trad. arr. Ruth Notman)
(from Threads)

Fause Fause – Ruth Notman (trad. arr. Ruth Notman)
(from Threads)

Another lass with a love, and sound understanding, of the traditional is Northumberland’s Rachel Unthank, who has released two albums with The Winterset – her sister Becky (who actually appears as a co-lead vocalist), Jackie Oates (the viola player who was replaced last year by Niopha Keegan) and Belinda O’Hooley (who is also impressive as a solo artist and is a stunning pianist).

A lot of the music that Unthank delivers is very closely tied to the region – a region which has a very strong folk identity, with Northumbrian dialect and tales of border battles with Scotland. It is also startlingly untrendy, in the very best possible way…this is honest, unfussy, bare bones tradfolk. In fact, Rachel and Becky Unthank started out performing as an a capella duo. But tradfolk does not tell the whole story. For example, there is a Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) cover on their second album The Bairns (which is even better than their debut Cruel Sister…just the kind of trend we like to see!). Just to clue you in, “bairn” is Northumbrian and Scottish dialect for ‘child’.
Again the folkies at the BBC are impressed, and she/they were nominated for three awards just this year, winning the Horizon Award. Rachel, pre-Winterset, also reached the finals of the Young Folk Award. Do you see a theme starting to develop here?

Like many, the Unthank sisters come from musical stock – their parents are both singers, and father George is part of North East folk group The Keelers. I love that the music they choose is so intrinsically about the region in which I live. The first track below is an amalgamation of several traditional songs (The Wedding O’Blythe, When the Tide Comes In, Blue’s Gaen Oot O’the Fashion, The Lad With the Trousers On, The Sailors Are All at the Bar). Rachel, in the liner notes of the album on which it appears says,

“The songs provide a snap shot from a period of history when the shores of the River Tyne saw the hectic comings and goings of press gangs, soldiers, sailors and tall ships.”
Blue Bleezing Bling Drunk is, on the other hand, a good old domestic violence ditty! It is also, apparently, one of the very first songs to depict a drunken Scottish woman…I’m sure that there must have been many more since!
Blue’s Gaen Oot O’the Fashion – Rachel Unthank and The Winterset (trad.)
(from The Bairns)

Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk – Rachel Unthank and The Winterset (trad./Belle Stewart)
(from The Bairns)

Divinyl holds forth on a broad assortment of music from folk to Feist at Ceci N’est Pas un Blog. She is also the sole female member of the collaborative at Star Maker Machine.

615 comments » | Guest Posts, Kate Rusby, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, Ruth Notman