Christmas Coverfolk, 2012:
New Tracks from Old Friends

It’s been a hectic season, broken up by shock and awe and rumors of an apocalypse that never came. But the last day of school has finally passed, and now, suddenly, it’s Christmas in earnest: time for the tree, and the warmth of family and friends; for church carols and pageantry; for hot cocoa by the fire, the kitten in our lap and the old dog at our feet, and the laughter of children. And we are grateful, and glad, in our bittersweet joy.

Previously this year, we came to you with a cross-comparison of new Christmas Kidfolk, Reid Jamieson’s wonderfully lighthearted, mostly-acoustic, mostly-covers Winter-themed album, a set of seasonals about drinking at the holidays, and the best of a mixed bag of new seasonal compilations. Now, as a final installment of our holiday joy, here’s this year’s greatest Christmas singles, to complete the soundtrack for your season – in long form below, or in zip form, for easy listening while you read.

First out of the gate comes Hey, It’s Christmas! Vol. 3, a compilation we overlooked in our previous feature. The free-if-you-want-it-to-be album is quite eclectic, featuring a set of everything from dear folk and jazz tracks to punky grungerock and poppy electronic numbers – but it’s hard not to admire the underdog premise of showcasing relatively unknown artists, the set makes for solid background music all the way through, and I’ve grown quite fond of Danny Leggett’s ironically folk take on Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, which comes complete with rocking chair creaks to set the mood. Download all three volumes at the website to expand your holiday cheer, too.

This one popped up just today, but it’s been on repeat all afternoon, thanks to sparse and gently ringing guitar picking under a warm familiar melody sung in delicious octaves from favorite singer-songwriter Rose Cousins and fellow Canadian Don Brownrigg. It’s clearly Shawn Colvin’s arrangement, but the subtle, tiny harmonies and piano moments, and the simple ooohs added between verses of this old carol sing of firesides and the stillness of winter so exquisitely, it’s hard to imagine a more centering folksong for the season. Rose’s award-winning We Have Made A Spark, which we featured way back at the beginning of the year, remains one of our favorite releases of 2012, hands down: listen, and you can hear why.

Chameleonesque indie god Bonnie “Prince” Billy continues to blow us away with his collaborative efforts: most recently, we featured his take on Fleetwood Mac’s Storms alongside Matt Sweeney; here, he partners with “songteller” Dawn McCarthy, aka Faun Fables, and the effect is grand indeed. I’m by no means the first to post this new single-shot track, which was originally released via YouTube way back in October, but it bears repeating – both for the contrapuntal harmony voices of male gravel and female soar as above, and for the general indiefolk beauty of this sad, resurrected Everly Brothers tune.

We’re huge fans of fiddling Prairie Home Companion tradfolk favorites Jay Ungar and Molly Mason here at Cover Lay Down – and of Mike and Ruthy, his daughter and son-in-law, who will be performing at our house concert series in April. So to find the four of them releasing a holiday album this year was a true delight, and I’m happy to report that A Fiddler’s Holiday is exactly what one would have hoped: lighthearted, airy, warm, and bright, with a solid mix of originals, carols, and traditional appalachian folk tunes for the holidays, and a live setting and a full orchestra bringing forth love so thick on the ground, you can hear it through the speakers. Their Silent Night rivals the best I’ve heard, and that’s saying something, indeed.

Several of our most beloved tracks from Christmasses past are joined this year by new releases from artists who make a ritual out of their holiday releases, and we couldn’t be happier to find such familiarity in the mix. North Carolinans Beta Radio return with The Songs The Season Brings, Vol. II, a free 3-track release to rival last year’s, with a favorite carol or two done delicately in the mix. Long-time seasonal favorites Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack are back with their 4th annual YouTube holiday single, a sweet Winter Wonderland that hangs like snowflakes in the air, and we’re pleased to be releasing it in mp3 form. Versatile homegrown artist Sam Billen releases Merry Christmas, a family-and-friend recorded set of 7 chillingly slow old instrumentals this year – an interesting change, though no less moving than his previous holiday works. And Boston-based singer-songwriter Catie Curtis, whose eleventh-hour EP release of songs played and rehearsed for what is now fast becoming an annual visit to the White House was a potent last-minute addition to our seasonal feature set last year, expands her holiday recording to a full-length album this year, making us twice as grateful.

Juliana Richer Daily popped onto our radar just this year, while we were looking for covers for October’s 50-track Radiohead covers megafeature; her cover of Fake Plastic Trees, which we clipped from a YouTube video, bears the mark of an amateur with soul and a need for slightly better recording equipment, but her warm voice and delicacy still stood on their own against other covers of the same from Lori McKenna, KT Tunstall, and Duncan Sheik. Champagne Year, her streamable Christmas EP, is delightfully imperfect, with a fine mix of modern classics and old chestnuts; it’s hard not to like her takes on new winter canon additions from Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes, but it’s her Blue Christmas which truly shows an artist on the cusp of transcendence, soaring even as she finds her wings.

Regular readers of the Cover Lay Down Facebook page will have noted this unusual mash-up already. But sweet harmony duo The Sea The Sea, who honored us as guests for our house concert series this Autumn, are always worth reposting – and their combination of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and What A Wonderful World, originally released via YouTube, is shivery, with surprisingly complex interplay between two songs that don’t quite fit making for a song of great depth and beauty. Keep an eye open for a full album debut from Mira Stanley and Chuck E Costa sometime this Spring.

I’m sneaking this one in on a technicality: Folk Angel have released three previous bandcamp Christmas albums, and though I’d heard of their work, I’ve never posted them here, mostly because – despite their name – increasingly, the band trends towards a quite raucous yet indie-friendly Christian Gospel poprock. But while their earlier Christmas releases sport tracks that both better fit our oeuvre and bear repeating, their Joy To The World, from this year’s fully EP-sized Glad Tidings: Christmas Songs Vol. 4, is a total delight: happy, bouncy guilty pleasure with more than a hint of radiopop, handclaps, and a totally indierock beat that totally transforms the song, making us all want to sing along. And their equally transformative take on What Child Is This is its equal: a gleeful epitome of what modern indie folk rock can truly be. Call it a guilty pleasure, but listen regardless – and then compare it to the 2009 bonus track to see just how folk these guys used to be.

Finally, if I had to recommend further listening, it would be Heather’s mostly-indiefolk and stunning-as-always Fuel/Friends 2012 Holiday Mixtape. Heather’s mixes are always a joy, but this year’s is especially precious: though a few of the tracks are originals, and several are from previous years, the majority are new, amazing covers, soaring and dark and gentle in turns, and with universally heartbreaking takes from Denison Witmer, The Gundersen Family, Oh Starling, Ben Kyle, Eef Barzelay, The Wood Brothers, and more, the whole collection comes together as the best damn CD-like-thing I’ve heard for the season – so much so that it was quite tempting to just skip my own playlist and repost the whole thing here.

As always, Heather provides plenty of threads to pull, too: I found Branches’ O Holy Night, for example, and followed it to Songs For Christmas, an equally stunning new EP, which is worth every moment you can devote to it. Recorded two-by-two over the last three years, the collection of traditional tracks is a tiny tour de force, a microcosm of the state of indiefolk itself, full of ragged glory and hollow bells. Thanks to Heather, Branches, and all the bloggers and artists who bring us light and love throughout the year for setting the bar high, and continuing to raise it. And God bless us, every one.

Coming soon: Cover Lay Down presents our selections for the best coverfolk of 2012!

Posted by boyhowdy at 10:28 pm | 3 comments
Labels: Holiday Coverfolk

Griefsongs: A Prayer For Newtown

…because sometimes there are no words.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Posted by boyhowdy at 6:37 pm | 1 comment
Labels: Theme Posts

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

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…

Posted by boyhowdy at 9:52 am | 0 comments
Labels: Hanukkah, Holiday Coverfolk

Christmas Cheer Coverfolk: Seasonal Songs of Drinking

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!

Posted by boyhowdy at 10:49 pm | 1 comment
Labels: Holiday Coverfolk, Theme Posts

Christmas Coverfolk, 2012: New Holiday Compilations

All across town and up and down the mountain, the houses begin to take on their holiday cheer. From sprawling displays that smother the lawn to simple candlelit windows, each one adds their own special spice to the bouquet that is the impending season as each yard becomes a diorama of Santas, trees, angels, strings of lights, and more. And we are glad, and merry, as we pass by in the cold.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and it’s beginning to sound a bit like it, too, what with bloggers and radio stations already jingling bells and decking halls. And the mailbox, bulging with sweets for the season, a month’s worth of folk, roots, and acoustic delights ripe for the tree, cries out for attention. And like children on Christmas morning, we can wait no more.

And so today, we check in with the first of several Christmassy features, the better to share our joy and gay apparel with the world. Because the world of lights and holly deserves its own special soundtrack. Because it’s the night before December, and it’s time.

Now in their third year, the holiday collections put forward by UK-based folkblog For Folk’s Sake just keep getting better – and this year’s is so good, I just had to put it atop our list of multi-artist collections. For Folk’s Sake It’s Christmas 2012 includes 15 new and generally sparse indie-and-nufolk holiday recordings from plenty of rising stars, with a surprisingly large number of originals among them, but classic carols by Gibson Bull and Carmen, whose beat-steady countryfolk Holly and the Ivy is an instant favorite, a twangy neo-traditional arrangement of We Three Kings from The Willows, a dark electrofolk In The Deep Midwinter from Feldspar, a delicate track from Friends of All The World that starts with a pensive neoclassical touch and swings into the familiar Greensleeves melody of The Old Year Now Is Fled, and a sweet tinkly fireside O Little Town Of Bethlehem from Stylusboy offer familiar well-scattered delights among the mix.

The fact that the vast number of artists represented here are duos and small groups is a strong indicator of the shifting sands of modern folk, and makes for a rich sound in the mix. All proceeds go to the Evelina Children’s Hospital, making purchasing a generous act, as well as an aurally pleasing one. And the accompanying interview with Gibson Bull, who we’ve been touting to the rooftops since we discovered him a few months ago, is both a reminder that For Folk’s Sake belongs at the top of any folkwatcher’s must-read list throughout the year, and a bonus well worth your time. Need I say more?

Already aching for the perfect antithesis to shiny radiopop after flipping through the radio dial? Then look no further that A Baton Rouge Acoustic Christmas. I’ve been pushing this one on other bloggers since it first came to my attention as artists I trust in the Boston folk community started dropping it on their own twitter feeds and Facebook pages a few weeks ago, and for good reason: home-recorded live last Christmas in loose, live-sounding sessions as a gift to friends and family, this quiet, consistent record is a true delight, with simple instrumentation and a small rotating group of artists who manage to combine joyful Cajun rhythms and instrumentation, gentle country-and-tradfolk voices and harmonies, and the joyous, rich sounds of traditional French and English caroling so smoothly, it practically begs us to consider the whole thing a new and fully cohesive subgenre.

From the other side of the tree comes this year’s inevitable indie samplers, with their mixed genre bag of goodies, and this year’s pile is precious, indeed. Of these, Holidays Rule – an indie sampler from Starbucks in-house label Hear Music – was one of the first out of the gate, and although it’s been on the playlist since an October 30 release, the fact that folks are still talking about it is neither accident nor mere indicator of how often Starbucks hits the mark with their increasingly solid albeit eclectic catalog.

The album offers the usual mix of indie rock, indie pop, country, and indiefolk, with solid tracks from The Shins, fun., Irma Thomas with the Preservation Jazz Hall Band, Y La Bamba, the ubiquitous Rufus Wainwright, and Holly Golightly, plus Paul McCartney, of all people, holding down the fort for those who love the heavier, weirder, kitchier, and poppier stuff. But their winsome ways, plus some surprisingly strong folk tracks, make this one worthwhile as a whole, including great tracks from The Civil Wars, The Punch Brothers, Calexico, Andrew Bird’s lively, grassy Auld Lang Syne, and a swinging, almost Disney-esque Black Prairie ft. Sallie Ford romp through Kay Starr’s 50′s pop hit (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag.

Most imperfect holiday sampler of the year award may well go to Isn’t This World Enough: A Nettwerk Christmas: predominantly comprised of originals, only half of which are newly recorded for this year, and taken in order from top to bottom, the poorly-titled album overall features an unusually bumpy ride, with a song actually called OMG It’s Christmas, Sixpence None The Richer up against Great Lake Swimmers, and the hardest players clustered oddly. There are a few redeeming qualities here: Admiral Fallow, whose dreamy, dreary original (Torrent Rain) stood out on the For Folk’s Sake collection, makes another appearance, and Jay Brannan’s Dear Santa, while not new, is worth a listen. Still, that Cover Lay Down fave Joshua Hyslop has not one but two tracks on the album – an original, and the beautiful track below – is less a case for the album itself, and more a sad argument for both single-artist blogging, and track-by-track downloading models.

The XO for the Holidays samplers of year’s past have presented a similarly mixed bag, and several of the tracks on this year’s 9-track sampler will only appear to those who love a good bit of earnest, anthemic grungerock by the tree. But the wonderful gypsyfolk original I Don’t Want Anything For Christmas from Caravan Of Thieves is easily worth the free download, as is Piney Gir’s fun pop culture exploration of the season. And on the softer side, Sophie Barker’s Winter Wonderland offers a quiet echo of tinkly childhood delights, while Robert Burnham’s post-folk White Christmas, a softly mellow, scratchy coda that slowly buries itself in an obscuring, howling wind of irony, offers nearly perfect closure for our set.

Finally, although we’re only posting songs from 2012 this weekend, those interested in multi-artist holiday collections should take note: the Rarebird Records holiday samplers A Rarebird In A Pear Tree (2010) and A Rarebird In A Pear Tree Vol. 2 (2011) are still available over at Noisetrade, as is Fireplace Songs, a solid pop-to-folk multi-genre sampler from film licensing company The Music Bed; all of these contain great acoustic and folk gems, and run heavily towards coverage and traditionals; all are free, and come highly recommended. And, after several years of Soul, Country, and mixed-bag Christmas mixes, this year’s Holiday Sampler from blogger Any Major Dude with Half A Heart comes with an acoustic theme, bringing 22 well-selected tracks from Tift Merritt, The Weepies, Rosie Thomas, Pierce Pettis, Denison Witmer, Mindy Smith, and more – head over, and download the mix onto a single CD, with his compliments.

PS: Looking for more seasonal delights to tickle your frozen ears? Stay tuned for our upcoming feature on this year’s best single-artist holiday albums and EPs, plus the usual multitude of new holiday singles from our favorite folk and acoustic sources!

Posted by boyhowdy at 11:24 pm | 0 comments
Labels: Holiday Coverfolk

A Very Kidfolk Christmas CONTEST:
Win Renee & Jeremy’s new holiday EP and covers album!

For the childless outsider, the distinction we make between family-friendly kidfolk and music-for-kids may seem a false dichotomy. And, to be fair, comparison of one to the other is tricky – while children’s music is arguably a stylistic subgenre or genre set unto itself, the kindie label is applied across many genre categories to describe a family-oriented sense and sensibility, one framed by both a particular intersection of topical content-appropriateness and a particularly multi-layered approach to performance and arrangement.

But just as the difference between Barney and old Sesame Street episodes is self-evident to those who know what to look for, putting selections from each side of the kid/family playlist against each other exposes the distinction between them. Today, a comparison of brand new holiday collections from well-known kid performer Laurie Berkner and kindie favorites Renee & Jeremy makes for a case study in stylistic contrast.

A Laurie Berkner Christmas, which dropped at the end of October, is a true-blue kid’s album – and quite a decent one, on that level, with a strong mix of mostly-acoustic classic songs and carols, a smattering of cute and catchy originals, and a full reading of The Night Before Christmas at album’s end. And notably, every single one of the eleven reviews it received on Amazon since its release have given it five glowing stars.

But it isn’t designed for us. It’s designed for our children. And therein, I think, lies the challenge.

You see, while Berkner’s new holiday album might be fun for little kids, it’s not accessible to discerning adult ears. The originals focus on the commercial and toy-oriented aspects of Christmas: of the thrill of Santa’s arrival, of the way Christmas lights flash and blink, and of a character called Candy Cane Jane, who lives, inevitably, on Candy Cane Lane. The singing has that too-jolly ring of enunciated clarity which typifies albums played out for the pre-school set; the music seems typified by the same type of overly amplified pep, and the inclusion of the ubiquitous kid’s chorus, and of other slightly out-of-sync accompanying voices, is clearly designed to engender a child’s sing-along affection while sacrificing multi-generational listenability.

In this, Berkner’s holiday collection represents the limited range of her chosen subgenre – appropriate for wee ones, but narrow in scope, dubious beyond that age level, and potentially cloying to the grown-ups in the room.

Here at Cover Lay Down, we don’t underestimate our children’s capacity to see deeper meaning in the trappings of the world. Instead, we believe that good parenting means sharing content with our kids, and choosing that content carefully, with an eye towards how it represents the values we hope to pass down to them. As such, we define good family music as that which grows with our children, and that which we can enjoy sharing with them.

And unlike A Laurie Berkner Christmas, Sunny Christmas – the new holiday EP from LA-based singer-songwriters Renee & Jeremy – fits our criteria to a T.

As we’ve seen over the past few months here on the blog, Renee & Jeremy are true kindiefolk performers, whose records are designed to be enjoyed as music for all ages. Their 2012 all-covers album A Little Love is accessible to kids, but designed with families in mind; the videos which they’ve released as part of the project have been equally darling, with little stories and animated worlds that delight and tug at the heartstrings. And the songs they cover – by The Monkees, Coldplay, Simon & Garfunkel, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, and more – are clearly chosen for kindie parent ears, with layers of meaning that expose deep and often bittersweet themes of each song; as such, each has fit comfortably among the folk coverage in our thematic posts.

Which makes us especially happy to find that Sunny Christmas is no exception to their family-friendly approach to music. Hushed and gently upbeat without losing the essential sweetness of both the songs and the singers, totally authentic in temper and tone, the five classic seasonals and newly-penned title track which comprise the EP make for an infectious little popfolk gem of a record, a perfect gift for the kids or folk family in your life. And you’ll find nothing of the commercial side of the holidays here: the lone original, a joyously poppy exultation, plucks the community spirit of love and social gathering from the air, plants it firmly in our hearts, and urges us to take it everywhere we go.

But don’t take my word for it. By offering streaming samples of all their albums, Renee & Jeremy have made it easier to taste before you buy. And they’ve even given us a wonderful holiday gift to share: brand new copies of both of their 2012 releases, which we’re giving away as a stocking-stuffer set to a lucky reader.

To enter to win our contest, leave a comment below naming your favorite childhood holiday song, and make sure to include your email or contact information. I’ll have the kids pick a random number at the end of the week, and we’ll send the winner both A Little Love and Sunny Christmas in time for holiday gift-giving; keep it, or pass it along as a gift to kids of any age, with our highest recommendation.

In the meanwhile, we encourage folks with small children to sample tracks from A Laurie Berkner Christmas to make up their own mind, and have included Berkner’s version of Little Drummer Boy below, which is one of the more family-friendly and listenable tracks on the album. But since we’re not so objective as all that, we’ve also included a single track from Sunny Christmas, a widget to sample the entire EP, Renee & Jeremy’s 2010 single version of Little Drummer Boy, both videos from A Little Love, and a cover of Renee & Jeremy song It’s A Big World from equally-celebrated family band Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem. Because good music makes a great gift for the little ones in our life. And our love of this fine kidfolk duo is big, indeed.

Renee & Jeremy: Give It Away (orig. Red Hot Chili Peppers)

Renee & Jeremy: Yellow (orig. Coldplay)

Remember: leave a comment below naming your favorite childhood holiday song to win a 2-CD Renee & Jeremy stocking-stuffer prize package. And stay tuned later this week for more new Holiday Coverfolk from folk artists, labels, and multi-genre compilations!

Posted by boyhowdy at 6:50 pm | 23 comments
Labels: Holiday Coverfolk, Kidfolk, Renee & Jeremy

Give A Little Bit: On Buying Local in a Global World
(A Cover Lay Down Holiday Gift Guide)

Black Friday is duly noted for causing havoc and stress in the mass marketplace. But if we greet its well-intentioned antithesis Buy Nothing Day with suspicion here at Cover Lay Down, it is because there is nothing inherently anti-commercial about merely deferring product-purchase if we still plan to make it to the mall eventually.

Concerns about the way big business undermines and eats away at the profitability of direct creator-to-consumer relationships are real and valid, of course. But to see consumption as all or nothing is problematic: those who quite literally refuse to buy things unwittingly undermine their own communities, for example, by cutting into taxes for schools and roads, and by destroying the ability of neighborhood artists and local community retailers to survive doing what they love.

Happily, however, there’s a whole spectrum of opportunity outside of the false dichotomy of Black Friday and Buy Nothing Day. And the answer isn’t buying nothing – it’s buying local.

We’ve long championed buying local here at Cover Lay Down. We frequent local farmer’s markets and crafts fairs; we buy apples from orchards, and beer from the brewery; we keep maple syrup and honey that was harvested by friends. In our musical purchases, we try to buy at shows, as this tends to provide the most money for artists, and helps support local venues; we’ve posted about library finds several times, too, and celebrate regional labels and artists wherever possible.

But in the digital age, buying local means not only supporting your local shops, producers, and buskers – it also means supporting the small, the immediate, the independent, and the community-minded. As such, wherever possible, the links which we offer alongside our downloadables and streams go directly to artist websites and other artist-recommended sources, the better to respect the rights and ongoing careers of creators and craftspersons everywhere.

Which is to say: we’re about authenticity and sustainability here, a set of concepts deeply entwined with the organic and acoustic music we celebrate. With that in mind, here’s some suggestions for how to honor the community sentiment which stands at the foundation of folk music, even as you look for ways to show your appreciation and love this holiday season.

1. Give the gift of recorded music. Cover Lay Down stands behind every artist we blog, and many of our regular features, such as our New Artists, Old Songs series, focus on new and newly-reconsidered music and musicians worth sharing with friends. So browse our archives and your own, and then buy CDs and downloads for friends and family direct from artist websites, independent artist-friendly labels like Signature Sounds, Compass, Bloodshot, Red House, and Sugar Hill Records, and smaller artist collaboratives and blogger owned microlabels like Yer Bird, Rarebird, Waterbug, and Asthmatic Kitty. Or, if you prefer to centralize your shopping, skip the chain stores and internet behemoths that undermine local mom-and-pops and pay mere pennies on the dollar, and shop instead at your local struggling music shop, Bandcamp, CD Baby, or even Etsy.

2. Give the gift of subscription. The proliferation of digital streaming services is bad, potentially career-smothering news for artists – as Damon Krukowski of Damon & Naomi recently noted, a musician needs to “sell” tens of thousands of songs on Spotify or Pandora just to recoup the cost of a single CD. But some artists offer “backstage passes” or “VIP” access to their websites, and the benefits – which can include exclusive demo tracks, concert streams, early access to new studio work, and deep discounts on product – are generally worth the cost. Our favorite model: Jake Armerding’s Music Is Food CSA project, which provides a monthly virtual “box” of art, including a new song, a watercolor rendering of the current month, and artistically-rendered liner notes, for just a dollar a month.

3. Give the gift of access. Spring for a gift subscription to Daytrotter ($24/year) for the music lover in your life, and let them download years worth of studio sessions and stream exclusive live sessions from a broad set of musicians. Or give them a subscription to Concert Window ($8.99/month), which offers live concerts almost every night from some of our favorite folk venues, and where two-thirds of profits go to musicians and venues. The live performances and sessions which these subscriptions net can be viewed alone, or shared with a friend over a beer on the couch – and the virtual concert is especially apt for friends housebound by physical limitation, geographical isolation, or preference.

4. Give the gift of time. It’s good to get out with friends, and shared experiences make the best kinds of gifts; by linking directly to artist web pages, we make it as easy as possible to check out tour dates. Support your local coffeehouse or small venue by booking a table or row for you and your loved ones. Take a child to their first concert, and open up their world to the immediacy and intimacy of live performance. Take a friend, or a group, and open them up to a new artist’s work. Or host a successful house concert, and invite friends, the better to share the artists and music you love.

5. Give the gift of artistic sustainability. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Pledge Music and Indiegogo help artists make art, and donations in someone else’s name are always a nice gift – it shows you’re thinking of them, and it honors the connection you share through music. And just as donating to your local radio station can net you a free mug, crowdfunding comes with the promise of product – a reward you can redirect, if you give in someone else’s name. So browse the folk categories on each site, or ask around for recommendations on what to support. For example: Brother Sun’s second CD is getting close to deadline over at Indiegogo; preorder, or pay up for some bonuses, and both you and your gift recipient get to help ensure that the album gets the promotion and production it deserves. Josh Rouse is working on The Happiness Waltz over at Pledge Music, and giving back to Action Against Hunger in the process. And the clock is ticking on In The Lowlands, folkfiddler Laura Cortese’s second Kickstarter project in just two years; give a few bucks now, and you can have rare swag for the holidays sent to a friend, with the promise of more to come.

6. Give the gift of promotion. This one is mostly about giving the artists themselves some of your hard-earned time and energy, but artists need gifts, too. So like artists’ facebook pages, and show others in your feed what you are listening to, the better to spread the word. Join a street team, and volunteer (by yourself or with a friend, as a fun gift date) to help sell CDs, hang posters, or man the door at local coffeehouses and clubs, thus freeing artists to spend their time playing and meeting the crowd, and help sustain their own fan base. Start a blog, for you or a friend, or donate to support one in their name.

7. Stay tuned… Looking for something a little more concrete in the way of coverfolk recommendations? Willing to wait for a few more weeks to decide which albums to purchase for your loved ones and friends? Just as we did last year, Cover Lay Down will be sharing our “best of 2012″ by mid-December; the items on those lists constitute our highest recommendations, and function as a concise gift guide for the coverfolk lover in your life. And if it’s holiday music you’re looking for, just wait until next week, when we kick off our coverage of this year’s seasonal releases…

Until then, here’s a short set of relevant covers to get you in the gift-giving spirit.

Cover Lay Down returns next week with a look at this year’s first crop of Holiday Coverfolk!

Posted by boyhowdy at 10:06 am | 3 comments
Labels: Theme Posts

Giving Thanks: 14 Songs of Gratitude and Grace

Giving thanks is a reflective process, not a reflexive one – which is to say, considering all that could have been is a necessary precursor to accepting that what we have, and what we are, is worthy of our gratitude.

All good things we acknowledge, then, come at the emotional cost of recognition: both that we could have ended up with less or more, and that others may not be as fortunate. Hard times come, in space and time alike; that we are here, to celebrate and stand in awe of what is, is enough to make some of us believe in miracles.

It should also be enough to drive us to stand up, that others might have the chances we did in getting here and now.

So pay it forward, this holiday season. Give the gift of gratitude, that others might feel good about what they have given; give the gift of grace, that others less fortunate might find themselves celebrated by us, and be more able to see in themselves what good they bring to the table, and to our world. Give the gift of hubris, that we might fail, and remember to look inside ourselves the next time. Give the gift of faith, that others might see that they are loved, and step up to share in turn.

Give the gift of honesty, for others cannot see themselves in you if you will not open yourself to them. Give the gift of honor, and recognize that it doesn’t matter how you give, as long as you are sensitive to the giving, and to the recipients of your gift. Give the gifts of time, and of attention, to yourself and others, for it is these gifts, above all, which make it possible for us to give at all.

Give the gift, every day. Be generous with your lot. Sanctify your every moment, your every action. Be the miracle, and the miracles will come to you.

For oh, what gifts we have been given. And oh, what gifts we can give, when we have gratefully received.

As always, if you like what you hear, click on the links above to purchase direct from the artists. And if you’ve got a few dollars to spare afterwards, we hope you’ll consider donating to Cover Lay Down – both to help sustain our ongoing work in connecting you to the music and musicians you love, and to participate in our pay-it-forward campaign to support inner-city students.

Also, coming soon: we give away our first of several stocking-stuffer packages for the holiday season! Plus: a holiday gift guide for music-lovers and friends determined to sustain the local over the anonymous, the handmade over the mass-produced, and the craftsperson over the corporation!

Posted by boyhowdy at 5:32 pm | 3 comments
Labels: Holiday Coverfolk, Theme Posts

Single Song Sunday: You Are My Sunshine
(On revisiting – and rethinking – a childhood favorite)

There’s a special place in my heart for You Are My Sunshine. As I noted in our very first Covered in Kidfolk feature way back in 2007, my wife and I have often sung it to our children, as my parents sung this song to me; as such, the song represents a family tradition, and its generational incidences the very heart of family life, two parents harmonizing at the bedside of their precious progeny, voices and bodies huddled close and protective in the dark, leaning into each other as their child leans into sleep.

And there is probably a place for it in your heart, as well. After Happy Birthday and White Christmas, the song is popularly considered the most widely-known song in the world. Country music giant George Jones once called it the most perfect song ever written. The odds are excellent that you know the words, and that – whether you have your own children or not – you have sung it, too.

The lingering affection so many of us feel for our subject is easy to trace. You Are My Sunshine has strong mnemonic markers – its repetitive tropes make it easy to remember; its simple melody makes it easy to sing. The bulk of the chorus is sweet and innocent, lending itself to bedtime comfort. Its incidence in popular culture crosses multiple genres, making it familiar to fans of folk, country, pop, rock, blues, and jazz. On the surface, at least, it seems prototypical of the sentimental childhood favorite.

The two covers which I have repeatedly posted in our Kidfolk features over the years reflect both my subjective history with the song, and our common collective notion of the song as a vehicle for such sentiment: though Elizabeth Mitchell‘s kidfolk version sounds more like my parents, the simple, sweet plaintive harmony from “organic country slowgrass” folkies Gray Sky Girls best parallels that which I hear in my head and heart.

But despite the ongoing inclusion of the song on for-children collections from kindie to kidpap, to consider You Are My Sunshine as a song innately suited to such childhood sentiment is to mistake popular performance for the true heart of a song. As Michael Connolly of Coyote Grace noted at a recent concert in introducing his slow, rich new arrangement of the classic song, the song is quite dark and depressing, from its surface on down. And the deeper one delves into its lyrics, the less appropriate the song becomes as a representative of parent-child love.

In its most popular verse, our narrative persona dreams of holding his subject in his arms, but holds his head and cries upon awakening to find himself mistaken. Other verses speak of broken promises; desertion and even domestic violence lurk in other verses still. In this context, the chorus is no sweet claim of familial love so deep its subject will never know how much he or she is loved. It is, instead, a mournful refrain: of loss, of loneliness, of impermanence, and of the desperation of eternal hope.

(As an aside: the song’s history is no brighter. At least two formal recordings exist from before Louisiana Governor-to-be Jimmie Davis bought the “rights” to the song from Paul Rice for $35 in late 1939 – an action which likely netted him millions of royalty dollars in his lifetime. And although Rice claimed throughout his life to have written the song, some ethnographers believe that it was actually stolen from Oliver Hood of LaGrange, Georgia, a softspoken musician with whom Rice played in the early 1930′s, and whose legacy includes over 20 verses for the song written on the back of a brown paper sack, which his children still posses.)

Darkness is no stranger to our sleepsongs: to take just one example, we need note only that Rock A Bye Baby is actually a cautionary tale of life’s inherent fragility and danger, in which an abandoned child’s cradle plummets from a treetop when the wind – which had heretofore offered solace and comfort through its gentle rocking – grows strong enough to break the bough upon which that cradle rests.

And although for much of my lifetime and yours, You Are My Sunshine has been seen and recorded popularly as an affectionate lovesong, as deeper ownership of song and ethnographic sentiment become normative in a world where transmission, ownership, and attribution become the aegis of the common man, the sinister underbelly of this childhood favorite has becomes more and more evident through versioning.

Coyote Grace has yet to record their own powerful-yet-weary Americana take, though they have promised me in person that it is forthcoming. But a sparse, haunting album-closing cover from recently-featured duo Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith rings of similar sentiment. Minor key transformations from indiefolkers The Civil Wars and Chicago-based acoustic quartet Birdy come off as equally mournful, with the former raw and distraught, and the latter oddly reminiscent of a plaintive Jewish spiritual. Samantha Martin & the Haggard go for field blues and ragged holler, evoking the stark, angry bluesfolk underbelly of the song.

Vintage acoustic band Leftover Cuties explore the gritty side of the song with wah-wah trumpet and some dirty uke-and-drum-driven swing. Freakfolkers Wooden Indian Burial Ground come on all deep and psychedelic with banjo and bass and a manic high-vibrato vocalist. Sparse experimental NYC duo The Great Republic of Rough and Ready break the tune down past its melodic core, scattering its elements to smother, like fire and ice. Julie Dawn uses tambourine, piano and fiddle to create a neo-traditional dirge, its triplets strained and subdued. And Peter Broderick‘s and Chelsea Wolfe‘s 2010 gothic dronefolk takes on the song drown us in despair and confusion even as they obscure the narrative voice under low bowed strings, bells, found noise, and eerie reverb echoes.

And once these covers become embedded in the brain, our newly-framed ears cannot help but hear an echo of that same darkness in the song as a whole, even in post-millennial versions once thought of as ultimately gentle and sweet, such as those provided by YouTube up-and-comer Patrick Dansereau, lighthearted folk couple Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule, political anti-folkster Frank Turner, Dutch-American expat singer-songwriter Signe Tollefsen, weary hushfolk picker Justin Ewart, popfolk darling Lissie, and oft-acoustic country singer Caitlin Rose.

Here, then, such takes stand as a benchmark of breadth against a curated selection of modern covers, from folk lullabies and countrified crooners to old-timey rabble-rousers and acoustic swingers, organized with the newest first, and ending with bluegrass legend Norman Blake‘s famous version from turn-of-the-century art-house-gone-mainstream film O Brother, Where Art Thou – and two bonus medley tracks: a fun gypsy swingfolk combination of Singing In The Rain and our feature song from Caravan of Thieves, and a brand new kidfolk cover of Anne Murray’s famous (and verse-less) mid-seventies mashup of the song with 1954 composition Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In) from Americana folk/pop husband-and-wife duo Martha’s Trouble. Taken in sequence, the set stands as an apt demonstration of the myriad of ways in which songs become weighted down with their histories of performance, reminding us that there is always room to reconsider the classics.

Bonus Mashups:

Looking for a way to give back as your thoughts turn towards holidays, family and home? Why not help support our ad-free and not-for-profit coverage of all songs reconsidered! Donate to Cover Lay Down before the end of November, and we’ll pay 20% of your gift forward to support inner-city students through the Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative!

[PS: Like the Cover Lay Down Facebook page for unblogged bonus tracks and more throughout the week! Now featuring two bonus YouTube covers of You Are My Sunshine, and an easy-to-download zip file of our entire 22-song set!]

Posted by boyhowdy at 7:50 pm | 6 comments
Labels: Single Song Sunday

Veteran’s Day Coverfolk:
Even more songs for soldiers past and present

I’ve shared this feature several times for Memorial Day – but somehow, I skipped it this May. So here’s our traditional post in honor of those who serve, plus an ever-growing set of bonus tracks for our regular readers.

For most of my life, the military has been an abstraction. Though war itself lives everpresent in our newsdriven culture, and memorial statues and parades a recurring part of community, my concept of life in the armed forces, and the risks and stresses thereof, is based on popculture parables: fictionalized movie and television portrayals fleshed out by fleeting glimpses of men and women in uniform in airports, reporting to places I cannot imagine, to carry out tasks I could not describe.

My connection with family members who have served has been long after the fact. My father spent some portion of the sixties as a clerk typist in the Coast Guard reserves, but other than a truly dorky picture which he kept in his bedside drawer, and a few well-worn tales of short-haired inspection wigs and furloughs which I have evoked over the years, I could not identify those parts of him, if any, which were forged in service to his country.

Similarly, though my grandfather’s work developing radar in the Army is an important part of the family mythos, it was long over by the time I came to consciousness. Though I carry his dog tag in my wallet, the man I knew as Grandpa was a quiet shirtsleeved man, his service so much a part of who he had become that I never really considered how his military past had made him until it was too late to ask.

Surely, both of these men, and the usual assortment of greatuncles, met men along the way who never came back. But their stories are not mine. Their losses, if any, are their own. And so, for most of my life, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day have been secular holidays – atheistic, with no trace of sentiment.

But teaching in a school with an ROTC program means living with a daily reminder of the armed forces as peopled by real, three-dimensional human beings. Students show up in class crisp and confident in uniform; I pass them in the hallways lined up for inspection, or pacing out their cadences.

Jerome and Lori Anna, my two 2009 graduating ROTC seniors, were still just kids, off to Prom on Thursday, on the cusp of graduation. In 2010, Pam filled the same shoes, wearing her dress uniform under her graduation gown at class day; this year, the number of 9th graders who are joining the ranks continues to climb. Their lives are ahead of them, but their choices were limited. For them, service is a way out of the inner city, perhaps the only one available to them. It will pay for college, and help them focus their abilities. It will give them a future.

And so they choose to lend their bodies and hearts to the protection of our shores and skies. And their very real and present future — fighting wars, combatting terrorism — lends new credence to the need for memory.

May they serve proud, like our fathers before us, and our grandfathers before them. May their service be swift, and their burden light. Rest assured; we will remember them.

Repost Bonus Tracks, Memorial Day 2010:

Repost Bonus Tracks, Memorial Day 2011:

Repost Bonus Tracks, Veteran’s Day 2012:

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets twice weekly.

Posted by boyhowdy at 4:59 pm | 1 comment
Labels: Holiday Coverfolk, War

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