Archive for December 2012

Griefsongs: A Prayer For Newtown

December 16th, 2012 — 06:37 pm

…because sometimes there are no words.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

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Chanukah Coverfolk, 2012:
with songs by Woody Guthrie, South Park, Peter Paul & Mary, & more!

December 9th, 2012 — 09:52 am

from Winterlights: A Season in Poems and Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines

It’s the first day of Hanukkah, aka Chanukah, and though the candles have long since burned down, as in past years, my holiday playlist didn’t even last as long as the light it was designed to accompany. Thanks to a small selection of new covers, however, this year was closer than ever, giving me hope that one day soon we’ll have more than a single set to offer over these eight nights.

In the meantime, here’s our annual rehashed set: our 2008 post rewritten yet again, some older tunes from years past, and a few relatively recent additions to the canon. May these songs bring light to your darkened days, regardless of your practice.

While I generally attribute my love of folk music to my father’s good taste and influence, it was my mother who introduced me to both kidfolk and, later in life, filled the house on holidays with what can only be called the Jewish equivalent of Christian Music — that branch of music which, in trying to balance between the spiritual source and the popular ear, has a high tendency toward over-earnestness.

So when Mom was the first to respond to our 2008 call for quality folk/acoustic Chanukkah covers, I was, to be honest, a bit wary of the result.

Now let’s be fair: Chanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, and Jewish music doesn’t rank too highly on the pop culture horizon. As such, much of the Chanukkah music out there is religious first, and folk second; it is, in other words, music that truly belongs in the Synagogue rec hall, rather than a popular stage. As evidence, in our modern Jewnitarian household, we have a full shelf of Chanukkah music collected over the years which is, on the whole, a bit too precious to be considered just plain good music.

But it’s not just Chanukkah, and it’s not just me. Notably, in fact, both of the genres I inherited from my mother have a reputation for being more miss than hit.

I’ll probably get clobbered in the comments for saying so, but I think that as general categories, this is because Kidfolk and Religious folk suffer from the same root ailment: both are too often produced with a conservatively projected audience in mind, which limits the ability of most performers to find the music that truly exists inside themselves. The result is transparently constructed, subject to the worst of overannunciation and false cheer, and this might be enough to explain the lack of authentic emotion which many folk fans ascribe to the vast majority of the output from such categories.

But just as there is good kidfolk to be found in the hands of those who are able to transcend the limitations and temptations of talking down to their audience, there is nothing inherently cheesy in the curious mix of religion and popular music. Though wariness is a reasonable watchword when dealing with religious music, as in any genre, gems can be found, even if the average is less than worthy to the popular ear.

And as it is in general, so it is with Chanukkah songs.

As an example of music which is worth a second listen, here’s two recommendations from Mom: a bluegrass cover of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah, and a live rooftop video performance of the Texas Swing version of The Dreydl Song from the aptly named and recently disbanded Mark Rubin and his Ridgetop Syncopaters. Neither is perfect, and the overall success of A Chanukkah Feast, Vol. 2, the non-profit-generated album from whence they come, is a bit hit-or-miss. But each song is worth a chance — which is more than I can say for most of the music which trickles into so many Jewish households this time of year.

Mom’s not the only source for Chanukkah music, of course. A chance encounter with Peter Yarrow’s Light One Candle in the Unitarian Universalist Hymnal at our rescheduled 2010 Vespers service reminded me that there is, at least, one honestly folk Chanukkah song which seems overdue for coverage. A quick survey of the usual secret sources revealed a live recording from diminutive Brooklinite singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin, who has made a name for herself over the last few years for a series of surprisingly popular folk rock Jewish Holiday originals released via YouTube.

Citrin’s folkpop EP, foursongsforyou, is chock full of catchy hooks, and comes highly recommended. The recording in question appears on the soundtrack for a recent PBS special called Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert; I haven’t heard the whole thing, but the presence of both The Klezmatics (see below) and acoustic jazzfolk guitarist Laurence Juber in the cast suggest that some of it, at least, is deserving of further consideration.

And speaking of Klezmer, and other lesser-known forms of folk: reader Kevin reminds us that Texas-based group Brave Combo does a great version of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah; it’s polka rock, but polka counts as folk at the Grammys, so who are we to say otherwise? For comparison’s sake, here’s an acoustic-with-accordion take on the same song from Barenaked Ladies.

Oh, and Klezmer counts as folk, too – even the Indigo Girls got into the act, with their dobro-fueled Klezmergrass cover of Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah hiding among the Xmas seasonals on 2010 release Holly Happy Days. One day, I expect, we’ll host an entire Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Klezmer music; in the meanwhile, here’s The Indigo Girls, and The Klezmatics, a band pushing the boundaries of the genre who has garnered national attention for two albums of interpretations of Guthrie’s Jewish-themed songs and poems, with a surprisingly mellow folk cover of Guthrie’s Hanukah Dance, and a happy, joyous take on Hanukah Tree, both from Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah. Good on you, Guthrie, for helping bring the folk to the days of lights.

We featured singer-songwriter Robby Hecht back in February in our New Artists, Old Songs series, and included this tender take on South Park standard Lonely Jew (On Christmas) among the mix, but it easily bears repeating here: Hecht, who has recently been touring with Angel Snow and others, remains an artist on the rise, and though it is primarily his YouTube canon which we celebrated earlier, this tiny track – supposedly from an out-of-print 2010 collection called AllDay Radio Christmas, and performed by collaborative AllDay Radio, which was co-founded in San Francisco by Hecht and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jason Jurzak but now claims to be from Nashville – reminds us quite aptly that honest beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, even the dark nights of Comedy Central.

Of course, there’s no getting away from the best-known Hanukkah song, the one that’s become such a central part of the candle-lighting ritual itself. Here, indieguitarist Ben Kweller and folkbluesman Marc Cohn interpret Rock of Ages, also known in its Hebrew form as Maoz Tsur. The song is over seven hundred years old, but it’s still powerful in the right hands.

And finally, here’s an indiefolk tune and a half, courtesy of avid blog suppliers and indie champions XO Publicity, who have for five years running turned out a wonderful holiday sampler series aptly titled XO For The Holidays. The 2010 sampler includes a raw and atmospheric acoustic indie-rock-americana-folk transformation of the Dreidel Song courtesy of Campfire OK, which tips the scales enough to include LA-based duo Bumtech‘s surprisingly successful electroacoustic Hanukah/Christmas mashup medley from the previous year’s sampler as a bonus. Good work, XO folks. Happy Holidays to you, too.

Looking for something a little more Christmassy? Check out our first Christmas post of the year, plus our short Xmas Drinking Songs mix, and stay tuned for more of the same later this week. And don’t forget our previous Holiday Coverfolk features here on Cover Lay Down…

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Christmas Cheer Coverfolk: Seasonal Songs of Drinking

December 5th, 2012 — 10:49 pm

A spot of computer troubles have temporarily postponed what was intended to be a comprehensive survey of this year’s newly released single-artist Holiday albums. But on this day in 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition, and paving the way for a return to the Christmas tradition of drinking with good company. And so a hastily-constructed thematic feature is born.

Join us, as we lift a glass to the season and the day with a decidedly mixed-bar set of songs celebrating holiday drinking. We’ll be back later this week with more coverfolk cheer as we continue our ongoing celebration of Christmas 2012.

Download the Cover Lay Down Drinking at Xmas mix in one convenient zip file!

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