Archive for December 2009

Tidbit Thursday: Auld Lang Syne
(Ringing in the new, celebrating the old)

December 31st, 2009 — 12:29 pm

Quick but heartfelt kudos to indie label Grinding Tapes for posting this timely in-house take on this classic year’s end carol from The Points North. The flutes, guitar, and ragged vocal harmonies combine exquisitely, revealing a delicious old-school minimalist pubfolk perfect for a snowed-in New Year’s Eve.

Just as potent, in it’s own way, is Sam Billen‘s achingly fragile banjo-tinged version of the song, the capstone to stunning 2009 Holiday compilation The More The Merrier Christmas, curated by Sam himself for indie label The Record Machine.

Bonus points for these other, equally pensive folkcovers of the Robert Burns poem from years gone by – the first of which, as far as I know, is a live in-studio rarity unavailable anywhere else. Take your pick for a Happy New Year.

924 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Single Song Sunday: Hard Times Come Again No More

December 30th, 2009 — 10:54 am

Last year’s final post – a Single Song Sunday feature on Cash classic I Still Miss Someone – found me musing on death, loss, and change after a rough year in the Howdy house.

This year finds me in a different frame of mind. My work as an inner city teacher of an obscure elective subject is joyous and fulfilling, a challenge worth taking up each day. Our small community grows ever stronger, as does our commitment to it; each new activity we join brings new friends and companions. Our household has been passed over by death, and we are thankful for it. The brand new kittens have grown into half-pint terrors with personality, no longer shadows of the long-time companion they came to us to replace.

It’s strange and unsettling to look back and find oneself so blessed. It seems like the worst kind of hubris to claim such an existence as one’s own.

But I have to admit, it’s been a pretty good year.

Of course, life isn’t perfect, and there is always pain. My ears never fully recovered from tinnitus, and each time I write a post, or consider a new song or a song anew, the buzzing ghost of audio distraction hovers over me like a mosquito in a quiet camp. My older daughter and I are working on anger management, talking through the rage that runs through her veins as my own tendency towards quick heat begins to show itself in her. Two years after losing her job to the early recession, my wife is still struggling with self-employment as an event planner, exercising her talents on church socials and PTA events as a distraction from the lack of clients.

More generally, as adults, death is always in our past, present, and future. Our consideration of our own mortality becomes a context for even the best of times, part and parcel of the pain we feel at others’ loss, projected onto the universe. Over at Star Maker Machine, as we begin to forge through our now-annual review of those artists who have passed us by this year, I am saddened to realize how many have left us so young, and with so much still to give. Closer to home, friends have lost loved ones, and I take their mourning as my own, for having been on the other side, I know that trouble shared is trouble borne.

But two hours away, even as we speak, my wife’s sister and her husband learn to sleep lightly, their ears cocked for the cry of their tiny Christmas baby. In our own home, the elderchild has come to love math and computers, piano lessons and theater; her smaller sister has begun to show herself an empath capable of making grown men cry with her prescient, sensitive observations. My children grow into their selves and their world, losing their kid fears, learning their immortality; they will have to learn of its false veneer in their own way, but not now.

Life goes on, bittersweet in even the most blessed moment. We stand over the eternal stream of tears, building bridges, finding new ways to cross.

Hard Times Come Again No More – often shortened to simply Hard Times – is a perfect companion to the precarious blessing of a good year gone by. Written by popular songsmith Stephen Foster in 1854, the Civil War favorite is a not-so-gentle admonition to the affluent, reminding them to “pause in life’s pleasures” and remember the hard times, that they might be more inclined to support those whose lives are full of sorrow and pain, hunger and need.

The curious narrative frame is often overwhelmed by the dire verse portrayals; once you get past the scene-setting introduction, Foster’s lyrics speak of the plight of poverty, not the perspective of the subject. As such, many versions of this song verge on sparse and dirgelike, or at least mournful. Among these, Emmylou Harris‘ typically soaring version stands out, as does the dustbowl alt-country of Peter Bradley Adams project Eastmountainsouth, while Mavis Staples’ slow gospel blues, off the wonderful, mostly folk Foster tribute Beautiful Dreamer, is glorious and funerial.

Ragged works, too: Dylan finds a hoarse sympathy in his delivery; the amateur Breskin siblings go broken and deliciously instrumental. And a more balanced effect comes of the addition of slow strings, as in the almost classical-slash-appalachian cello-and-fiddle take from Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor project Appalachian Journey with James Taylor on vocals, or the way Willie Nelson’s broken voice plays majestically off Darol Anger’s sweet yet mournful fiddle and David Grisman’s mandolin on Anger’s American folk opus Heritage.

But Foster’s litany is surprisingly complex. There’s celebration of the giver, here, and a pride in the repeated refrain of the song’s title. The gospel tradition of bluegrass, especially, allows for a lighter, more upbeat tone, heard here in the warm stringband tones of the Dry Branch Fire Squad, and an almost cheerful take from a young Claire Lynch with her early project the Front Porch String Band. A different sort of lightness can be found in the fluid Celtic take from Irish tradfolk group Cherish the Ladies, which – with a rich mix of harp and flute, pipe and squeezebox, piano and voices – comes off as majestic and sweet.

Too, the unspoken spiritual connotations of the song contain their own strange hope. And later versions add explicitly religious lines, such as the “how we tremble before thee, have mercy we implore” contained in the below version from this year’s indiefolk anthology of spiritual songs and hymns Come O Spirit!. With or without the additional lyrics, sung as a simple hymn, Hard Times is bittersweet, balancing the portrait of poverty with the potential for salvation inherent in the subject’s situation; Laura Love and David Massengill, among others, find this balance, bringing beauty to simple, plaintive versions, though Love’s rearrangement of the refrain is eminently that of the singer-songwriter ballad, too.

It’s in our hearts to give when we can; after all, we were homeless, once, with two tiny children, no job, and a fading safety net, and would not have survived if not for the support and charity of those around us. But this reminder of humility and grace towards those who have not prospered is a necessary one, nonetheless.

If you, too, have been one of the lucky ones, and are already minded towards those on the other side of the door, then consider this offering both a ward against the chill and a prayer of thanksgiving, that – this year, at least – we find ourselves on the good side of poverty and hunger, able to help those needier than ourselves.

If not, then may this song, in all its versions, be a reminder that we are here, with open hand, to help ease the pain.

Amen. And may your heart be glad and prosperous, with music and friendship, in the year to come.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and sets each Wednesday and Sunday throughout the year. See you in 2010!

1,875 comments » | Single Song Sunday

Covered in Folk: Tom Waits
(Dave Alvin, Kathryn Williams, Shawn Colvin, Sarah Jarosz, Redbird +more!)

December 26th, 2009 — 10:08 pm

I somehow managed to reach full-bore adulthood without hearing a lick of Tom Waits. Which is probably all for the better: as I’ve noted many times, my long-standing preference for melodic voices is only now giving way to a mature appreciation of the unique beauty that springs from powerful truths filtered through broken instruments.

And anyway, the Tom Waits songbook is eminently adult, both in the way it looks at the world through bleary, jaded, ancient eyes and the way it rattles about with themes of alcoholics, lonesome trainwatchers, tired prostitutes, and others past their prime, struggling to capture the last licks of a life that has almost finished passing them by. Indeed, the world that Waits inhabits often seems to burn with unfinished life-energy, the heat haze of a drunkard’s sweaty existence in every growl – sometimes festering, sometimes flickering, sometimes roaring out of control.

But there’s also something about a Tom Waits song that suits the stillness of winter. There’s ice in these bittersweet, boozy ballads: the chill of an outsider’s threadbare coat, the thin layer of frost that forms on a dying relationship, the icicle weight of the guillotine metaphor, an observer’s frozen distance from the ideal. In Waits’ capable hands, as in winter’s quietude, the world aches with wistfullness; time captured in crystal, the pessimistic inevitabilities of future and the hard roads of the past ever present in the hopeful moment.

Tom Waits is well-covered, and he should be. His melodies are simple, his imagery clear. The gaze of his narrators and the desires of his subjects resonate with us. The icewall that he places between the world as it is and the world longed for is a familiar one, for it represents our innermost fears and projections. And as long as they are treated tenderly, there are a multitude of ways to interpret these songs.

But where the songs of Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson are, by definition, folk songs, which lend themselves to a universal opportunity for coverage, Waits writes songs for his own distinctive voice. The coarse, gravelly vocals and slow piano-driven delivery that mark Waits’ beautifully broken performance wring every drop of poignancy from their underclass hearts and streets so exquisitely, it poses a particular challenge for would-be interpreters. And sure enough, as a bevy of mediocre, mixed-bag tribute albums proves, it’s surprisingly hard to cover a Tom Waits song with efficacy – to transform that rawness without shaming it with antiseptic beauty, or overwhelming it with rage and despair.

Too many miss the tenderness Waits feels for his subjects. Too many fall too quiet, focusing on melody to the detriment of the necessary nuance. Balance is key, here, lest the longing turn maudlin and cheap, or the chill turn to heat and anger.

Still, there are many ways to capture winter well. Ice can be fragile or fleeting, jagged or muddied, brittle or echoingly still; it can trap us, or shatter beneath us, or even sustain our careful footsteps across it, if we mind our surroundings. Here’s a few folksingers and singer-songwriters who manage to get it right.

Tom Waits coverfolk previously on Cover Lay Down:

1,110 comments » | Covered in Folk, Tom Waits

RIP Vic Chesnutt, 1964 – 2009

December 25th, 2009 — 09:08 am

“Other people write about the bling and the booty. I write about the pus and the gnats.
To me, that’s beautiful.” ~ Vic Chesnutt, in the NY Daily News, April 10, 2005

UPDATE: both the New York Times and Constellation Records have now confirmed that Vic Chesnutt passed from this world at 2:59 p.m. today. The below text, originally written when the circumstances of his passing were still in question, has been adapted accordingly. Rest In Peace, Vic.

Sad and conflicted news for a Christmas morning: Athens, GA folk-rocker Vic Chesnutt came close enough to death last night – allegedly as a result of complications after an overdose of muscle relaxants – for supposedly well-informed major media news outlets to report his passing. Many blogs and news sources then rescinded those reports, while sources close to Vic continued to maintain that Chesnutt was still alive, though the circumstances of his hospitalization suggested that, even if he did pull through, he might no longer have been able to perform.

Chesnutt died later this afternoon, surrounded by family and friends.

The well-respected and prolific 45 year old singer-songwriter, left a paraplegic after a car accident in his late teens, was known for his gritty, poignant songwriting, his dark and self-depreciating humor, his quiet, deliberate approach to stagecraft, and his collaborative work with a broad spectrum of fellow artists and admirers, including Widespread Panic, Lambchop, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, Bill Frisell, R.E.M., Thee Silver Mt. Zion, and Elf Power.

The 1996 Chesnutt tribute album Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, while not folk, remains an essential component of any cover collector’s archive, with star turns from Kristen Hersh, the Indigo Girls, Cracker, Live, Madonna, R.E.M., and other well-known fans. But it’s Vic’s own cathartic and perfectly stunning interpretations of the songs of others which seem most fitting today, in honor of a life well lived, and a muse well served. Our prayers are with him.

Kristin Hersh offers a beautiful tribute to her best friend Vic.

1,390 comments » | Uncategorized

A Christmas Rose:
Rose Polenzani and the Boston folk crowd cover Xmas

December 22nd, 2009 — 04:51 pm

We’ve featured singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani several times here on Cover Lay Down, but to my regret, our ongoing celebration does not seem to be causing the artistic renaissance I had been hoping.

Today, then, as a last-minute holiday present to both artist and readers, I’d like to ask each of you to take a moment to consider the primary purpose of Cover Lay Down – to wit, the support of great and oft-undersung artists – and, in the spirit of the season, consider purchasing Polenzani’s most recent work, the utterly lovely 2008 release When The River Meets The Sea.

But first, here’s Rose, in a nutshell.

Rose Polenzani‘s history speaks achingly of the difficulty modern artists have in building and retaining audiences beyond their initial foray into the folkworld, and in moving from local sensation to globally recognized talent. Despite an early career feature spot at the 1998 Lillith Fair, and a subsequent decade of mid-level awards and recognition in the New England area and beyond, the sweet-voiced, impish singer-songwriter with an unerring ear for sly-yet-heartwarming lyrics and delicate, deliberate composition – who first came to my attention for her strong 1999 sophomore album Anybody, and her work with Voices on the Verge along with Beth Amsel, Erin McKeown, and Jess Klein – remains sadly undersung outside of her adopted East Coast base of operations.

And though her label output in the last five years has been sparse at best, the circumstances of When The River Meets The Sea, a live-in-studio collaboration with lo-fi, high-energy acoustic roots band Session Americana originally recorded in the summer of ’06 and not released until May of last year, strongly suggest that it is the business, not the talent, which may be keeping Rose from garnering her due in the marketplace.

Still, as her steady output of delightfully playful YouTube video covers and her leadership of the Boston-based collaborative Sub Rosa over the last few years have shown, Rose remains cheerfully upbeat, working and sharing with friends in the same situation, hosting them at every opportunity on small screen and stage. Her taste in partners, her eminently talented performance and craft of all things musical, and above all her positive, lighthearted approach to the work and play of musicmaking only reinforce my sense that this is an artist who is deserving of ongoing celebration, both for who she is and what she creates, and for the community she gathers around her.

Today, then, some holiday covers from Rose and friends, including a hilariously playful Peanuts tribute posted on Rose’s YouTube channel just yesterday, with the genuine hope of many good things to come in the year ahead for Rose Polenzani, her constant collaborators, and every fan of hers that I can muster.

Rose Polenzani and Rose Cousins: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (orig. Brenda Lee)

Laura Cortese, Rose Polenzani, Jennifer Kimball, Rose Cousins and Matt Malikowski: O Christmas Tree

Interested in seeing Rose and friends live in concert? Rose Polenzani’s “secret society of friends and strangers” Sub Rosa – with currently-confirmed artists Chris O’Brien, Aoife O’Donovan, Anne Heaton, Dave Godowsky, Dave Champagne, Dinty Child, Elana Arian, Melissa Ferrick, Joel Ninesling and more – will appear at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA on Dec. 29 @ 9:00. Knowing the Cambridge folkscene, I’ll be one of several bearded middle-aged guys in the crowd.

Of course, whether you’re in the area or not, in the spirit of looking back over the year, it’s worth noting that, counting the above bouquet, our ongoing celebration of Rose Polenzani now includes over a dozen gorgeous blossoms. Previously posted covers here on Cover Lay Down (with and without frequent collaborators Anne Heaton, Rose Cousins, Jennifer Kimball, Laura Cortese and others) include Neil Young’s For The Turnstiles, Bill Callahan’s Eid Ma Clack Shaw and Sharon Lewis’ She Is A Rainbow, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson duet Say, Say, Say, Feist’s The Park, and old movie soundtrack oddity turned sweetheart sonnet Lonesome Polecat. Also worth noting on YouTube: a recent collaborative cover of 80s classic Broken Wings. And Polenzani’s take on Death Cab For Cutie’s Soul Meets Body is just to die for.

Speaking of both the Boston music scene and seasonal blooms: late news of an inevitably joyous new holiday collaborative comes this week via email, and though I couldn’t be more disappointed to have missed their performance at Club Passim this past weekend, locals looking ahead to New Years would be well-advised to plan ahead for a final First Night performance from the short-lived holiday project Winterbloom, which features Antje Duvekot, Anne Heaton, Meg Hutchinson and Natalia Zukerman with a now-completed holiday tour and an eight song EP Traditions Rearranged, recorded in a three-day session at WERS and featuring classic carols and holiday originals from these four stellar voices of the Boston folk set.

The whole album is achingly beautiful, a perfect mix of sweet familiarities, seasonal folk songs in their original language, and well-crafted original contributions from Anne, Meg, and Antje, but their arrangement of Greg Brown wintersong Rexroth’s Daughter is especially stunning. Check it out below before heading over to the Winterbloom MySpace page to stream more stunning originals and Christmas coversongs, visit Antje’s homepage for a free download and video of her aptly-titled original Thanks For The Roses (Merry Christmas), set your radio clock for 6:00 pm on Dec 25th to catch a Christmas Day replay of their Nov. 18 in-studio performance at WUMB, and – if you’re in the area – don’t miss their 9:30 set at the Hynes Convention Center, part of the First Night Boston celebration.

And finally: she’s not local, but who could resist one more pair of beautiful bonus roses, for the holidays?

1,058 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Rose Polenzani, Rosie Thomas

2009, (Re)Covered: A CLD Year in Review
(On local labels, tribute albums, house concerts, and punk and popularity)

December 20th, 2009 — 04:43 pm

As I’ve noted several times before, I’m not big on year-end omnibus posts, and the concept of countdowns, with their hierarchies and exclusionary undertones, challenges my generous sensibilities. There’s so much greatness out there, the perfect song and songsmith for every one of a thousand nuanced moods and whims; to choose one over the other would be as wrong as asking me to rank my students by favorite, thus neglecting the dormant potential, the unique potency, and the epiphanic moments inherent in each.

But it’s been a rich year here at Cover Lay Down, and a rich year in the world of folk music, too. Despite a shifting-sand industry, and a continued fluidity in the relationship between artists and audiences, the low cost of acoustic production, the constant emergence of new artists grounded in the various traditions of “folk”, and the continued search for new lenses with which to frame culture and confession through song has made it easy for us to find wonder and whimsy, comfort and joy each Wednesday and Sunday.

Which is to say: I regret nothing, and recommend every song we’ve posted, every artist we’ve featured, every Covered In Folk songbook we’ve celebrated in this last year of the waning decade. Though I’ve been a bit lax with post tags in the past few months, newcomers are strongly encouraged to browse through the month-by-month archives to the right and below to catch up on a year’s worth of carefully selected coverage.

Still, music and memory collude in oft-unpredictable ways. Some songs linger; others, such as our Single Song Sunday subjects, claim more universality than others. As new songs and new experiences come down the pike, it inevitably sparks the neurons to connect once-was to now-is, causing us to call up the past in ways both surprising and eminently satisfying.

So today, we use the conceit of the (Re)Covered feature – our regularly reoccurring vehicle for sifting backwards through past posts, as new and newly-found songs come to our ears which rightfully belonged in the context of such already-passed premises – to both linkback to a few favorite features and celebrate the constancy of the new release, the uncovered gem, the passed-along bonus track, the demo and the deja vu darling.

So click on every and all mid-paragraph link above and below to join me in the 2009 archives, where greatness lies. And enjoy the newest tracks and discoveries along the way, of course.

It is unsurprising to find so many Signature Sounds artists on our roster for the year; the local label is a favorite, in no small part because of the exquisite taste and production oversight of owner, proprietor, and long-time WRSI DJ Jim Olsen. Nods to the Western Massachusetts-based studio and house of singer-songwriter solicitation this year included note of new releases from Caroline Herring, Chris Smither, Peter Mulvey, Sometymes Why, Eilen Jewell, and Richard Shindell; as the archives show, each was a wonderful record, well produced and well-constructed, and if you’re still holiday shopping for audiophilic friends and family, Signature Sounds is a perfect first stop.

The horizon promises good things, too: Boston-based neotrad string band Joy Kills Sorrow, now with CLD fave singer/cellist Emma Beaton on lead vocals, will drop their new album Darkness Sure Becomes This City on the label in February; though there’s not many covers on the album, the previews on Fiddlefreak attest to its greatness. And just because I only picked up Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem‘s swingin’ new Kidfolk album Ranky Tanky yesterday as part of the last-minute holiday shopping spree, and because I never made it to posting anything from the raucously fun debut by Brooklyn-based honky-tonk band The Sweetback Sisters, both of which meet Signature Sounds’ high standards for greatness, here’s a pair of tracks from each to finish the year.

Bonus Holiday Coverfolk track, from Signature Sounds holiday compilation Wonderland:

The Howdy HouseThis year was the year we finally took our first tentative steps towards supporting musicians through more than just blog review, folk festival attendance, and ticket purchases. Our little house concert series A Tree Falls Productions brought us into intimate contact with three favorite artists – tender Texas singer-songwriter Danny Schmidt, the now-defunct chamberqrass Folk Arts Quartet, and Greenwich Village-era dulcimerist and hilarious storyteller David Massengill; thanks in no small part to the hard work of my tireless event-planning spouse, each was a success in its own way, and I am proud to consider myself both fan and friend to the artists we have hosted.

As I had been warned, our initial forays into house concert hosting have been highly addictive, and I have high hopes that 2010 will bring even more opportunities to share the best traveling musicians with family and friends both new and old. If you live within driving distance of Springfield, Northampton, or Worcester, MA – our nearest urban hotspots – make sure to sign up for our facebook group to keep abreast of upcoming concerts as the warm weather returns. In the meantime, though the ladies of the FAQ have since moved on to other projects and pastures, here’s a bonus covertrack each from the two incredible solo folk artists who were kind enough to grace our home in 2009.

I’m a habitual statwatcher, but even if I weren’t, it would have been hard to ignore that our November Punk Covers post was our most popular yet, thanks to notice at top-ten “directory of wonderful things” Boing Boing and, subsequently, on a holy host of punk forums from around the world. Our stats for the month show a 300% boost in readership, and though many punkwatchers did not choose to stick around for more folk afterwards, I’d like to thank those open-minded souls who have since decided to become regular visitors.

Popular “all folked up” thematic posts, especially those which cast such a broad and controversial net, inevitably beget also-ran submissions here at Cover Lay Down; in this case, the influx of new readership made for a fine platform for new discovery, as visitors new and old clamored to add their favorite punk cover to the atmosphere. Here’s some of the best previously-unheard or otherwise-forgotten first and second-wave punk covers that came my way in the aftermath of popularity, with a promise that 2010 will bring an equally great post chock full of third-wave and post-punk covers from the folkworld.

Finally, though we never truly got around to compressing our year-long discussion of 2009 tribute albums and cover compilations into a single omnibus, I think our two primary posts on the subject – one from March, the other from November – provide a relatively thorough overview.

But even the best folkwatchers with day jobs cannot catch everything the first time around. Though I continue to maintain that, like Nellie McKay’s recent Doris Day tribute, despite the appearance of multiple folkpop artists (including CLD faves Patty Griffin, Sam Phillips, Sara Watkins, Jill Sobule, and Missy Higgins), this year’s Cy Coleman tribute is not folk, but a true genre-centered pop vocal album through and through, a comprehensive list of the year’s best folk-and-roots tribute albums should, by all rights, include the indiefolk and other subgenre coverfolk gems hidden among larger collections.

As such, we should at least note release of the Wilco-esque folk rock tribute EP Heartaches By the Pound: The Rosewood Thieves Sing Solomon Burke, which Ray over at Cover Me included on his own best-of tribute list for the year. And we should also point out that Holiday Coverfolk albums are still cover albums, and give honorable mention to both Score! 20 Years Of Merge Records: The Covers!, which includes some great indiefolk tracks from the likes of Laura Cantrell, Bill Callahan, St. Vincent, Tracey Thorn and Jens Lenkman, and more, and the Lemonheads‘ all-cover extravaganza Varshons, which – while broad in its genre base – includes plenty of Evan Dando’s sparse grungefolk among the harder stuff.

Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk sets and features each Wednesday and Sunday throughout the year. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

998 comments » | (Re)Covered

New Artists, Holiday Songs:
Seasonal favorites from the newly-discovered

December 15th, 2009 — 11:55 pm

I have mixed feelings about Christmas. Having grown up Jewish, I always felt a little besieged by what I long considered other peoples’ holiday. These days, as a professional culture vulture and cohost to a humanistic Jewnitarian household, the commercialism grates on me, though the threat of otherness has faded. I’ve even learned to live with the constant name-check of someone else’s savior which permeates even the most innocuous of shopping mall soundtracks.

But I have always loved the trappings of the holidays: the garish colorful world of lights and decorations everywhere, the smell of green pine that emanates from entryways, and most especially the universality of Christmas music, and the way it transforms the culture – the way songs of peace and joy are on the lips and ears of everyone around, as if the world were about to burst into song at any moment, and the crowd right along with it.

Of course, one of the great joys of Christmas is the way it brings out the coverfolk like nobody’s business. And along with new and familiar carols played out by the beloved artists we celebrate here with regularity, there’s something especially wonderous about the way new artists emerge from the woodwork and the mailbox, the blogs and the fanbase, carols in hand, to introduce themselves at holiday time.

Which is to say: I had quite literally heard of none of these artists just a month ago. And now, look – here they are, bearing gifts.

Merry Ellen Kirk plays earnest music, predominantly pianofolk, some of which sounds like Regina Spektor or Imogen Heap, and some which is a bit diva-poppish for my ears – check out her cover of O Holy Night featuring David Ask to see what I mean – but her acoustic-guitar driven version of Do You Hear What I Hear offers a clear, perfectly produced venue for her whispered vocal style, and her version of The Christmas Song brings a warm, quiet, delicate sound and sensibility to an old chestnut. You can get a full copy of Merry Ellen’s Christmas EP on a “tell five friends or pay what you want” basis at Noise Trade, and all of this and more can be heard on her website; sign up for her mailing list, and you’ll also get a beautiful, haunting a capella rendition of O Come O Come Emmanuel.

I picked up a Paste Digital VIP subscription a few months ago, mostly for the free monthly albums and samplers; at under three bucks a month, it’s a steal well worth sharing. This lovely atmospheric slowsong by indie up-and-comers The Rocketboys was a Paste freebie just this week, and I couldn’t resist: the combination of its full-fledged Sufjan-esque holiday production and the lead singer’s slightly nasal vocals really hits the spot.

Indie-folk band Desert Noises is known, if at all, for their gorgeous harmonies, which in my opinion gives them an edge on those Monsters of Folk guys any day; they also get serious cred for one of their members’ recent tour with Joshua James, but now that they’re back in the studio, they stand their own ground majestically, too. Proof of concept: the pace and build of this yuletide gospel hymn, which provides a stellar antidote to the perfect polish of the pop set this time of year. Thanks to 21st and Ivy, where there’s a new Yuletide Download to be had every day until Christmas, for passing this one along.

Like so many sensitive-yet-rocking singer-songwriters these days, NYC’s Neil Nathan is making waves via the small screen; when he sent along news of this Christmas cover and the accompanying “loony video”, he also noted that he’s had “a great year in folky covers”, citing the appearance of his cover of ELO The Move’s Do Ya on the Californication soundtrack and the release of his covers EP Songsmiths as evidence. And sure enough, like the rest of Nathan’s work, this one grows on you, if you let it. So let it.

I found Caravan of Thieves on one of those everpresent label samplers that clog the mailbox this time of year. But discovering hidden gems is why I listen to such things: the gypsy guitar and fiddle tones of this cover lend a playful swing and an edgy warmth to a song too often played as cloying and over-vamped. Please Please Me tourmate and solo singer-songwriter Jessie Torrisi‘s take on Alvin and the Chipmunk’s Christmas Don’t Be Late is a weird, warbly slice of Americana pie. And though – folkies beware – it’s got some sweet hard rock in it, the rest of this year’s XO For The Holidays sampler isn’t bad overall, either.

I’ve been looking for a chance to introduce y’all to British alternacoustic songstress Betty Steeles ever since she sent along a gorgeously hushed, magically layered rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, a MySpace track which has fast become perhaps my favorite cover of the song ever, which is really saying something. But Betty’s a smart girl, and – noticing that I’m pretty much stuck in the Christmas groove right now – decided to jump the gun with this Cover Lay Down exclusive, a tinkly electrofolkpop “holiday take” on Louis Armstrong fave What a Wonderful World. And I’m in heaven.

Jim Hanft isn’t so new as all that here at Cover Lay Down; we first featured his cover of The Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby in our New Artists series back in midsummer, making him an alumni of the feature. But I still love his particular brand of well-crafted “soundtrack-ready singer-songwriter bedroom folk”, so I’ve decided that the addition of Hanft’s “fulltime harmonist” Samantha Yonack to this classic duet allows it in on a “New Artists” technicality – which makes me happy, as theirs is a marvelous transformation of the tune into a playful-yet-soft acoustic coffeehouse number, complete with bells on.

LA “guitarist turned singer-songwriter” John Dissed, who offers a private collection of 25 coversongs free to anyone who joins his mailing list, has fast become a darling of the coverblogs, having in recent months appeared on both Cover Me’s Cover Commissions and Coverville’s gloriously vibrant and entirely free Spinal Tap Tribute Compilation [yes, I said Spinal Tap Tribute Compilation]. The former, a solid cover of T Rex’s Bang A Gong, is off topic, albeit worth the visit. The latter, however, is right on and relevant.

Remember, folks: Cover Lay Down exists to promote artists first and foremost. If you like what you hear, please follow purchase and website links above to learn more about the artists we promote, and consider purchasing CDs and downloadables for yourself and your friends and family. Thanks, and Happy Hanukkah!

1,276 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, New Artists Old Songs

Covered in Kidfolk: Stocking Stuffers
(New tribute albums and compilations for cool moms and dads)

December 13th, 2009 — 12:05 pm

A three-fer feature today, folks: a great new Putumayo Kids holiday album for the whole family, a new take on classic popular and showtunes from a familiar and beloved kidfolk performer, and a wonderful family-friendly tribute album to a long-standing kidfolk icon. All make perfect gifts for the cool kids and kids-at-heart on your holiday gift-giving list. Enjoy!

Barry Louis Polisar – the guy who wrote and performed All I Want Is You, the cute, silly opening number for the movie Juno – is actually much weirder than you’d think, and much more famous, at least among a particular subsection of the cool parent set. Over 35 years on the road and in the studio, he has made a name for himself as an award-winning kids entertainer and a strong proponent of imagination and literacy; his songs have been featured on NPR, School Library Journal, Newsweek, and on endless rotation on my CD player, and their titles speak for themselves: current favorites in our house include My Brother Threw Up On My Stuffed Toy Bunny, I Wanna Be A Dog, and I Eat Kids.

Now, in recognition of his years of service to a rising generation of children, a host of international artists and family bands, many of who grew up listening to these hilariously warped kidsongs, have come together to pay tribute to Polisar and his surprisingly vast catalog. And just as I really recommend Barry’s endearing originals, I’m putting the two-CD tribute We’re Not Kidding at the top of my stocking stuffer list, and recommending you do, too.

It’s hard to describe the sprawling tribute that is We’re Not Kidding. Where Barry’s original works tend primarily towards the kind of cheerfully ragged acoustic rock that typifies some of my favorite kid’s albums, the sixty songs here run the full genre gamut – there’s grungy hard rock, twangy country, klezmer, ska, Zappaesque electrofolk, girl-group harmonies, the odd samba, and a healthy dollop of acoustic indiepunk and singer-songwriter anti-folk.

But despite the vast sound spectrum, a closer listen reveals several unifying elements here beyond Polisar’s direct, imaginative silliness. To wit: these songs are all short and weird, almost universally experimental and wobbly-voiced, highly gleeful, and – regardless of genre – predominantly steeped in a ragged, one-take sensibility. Put it all together, and it’s like a complete box set of fun off-genre bonus tracks from the entire SXSW cadre. Or like someone decided to put together a heroin-punk and mid-nineties New Zealand Underground compilation for kids, and every artist took a different approach to the problem, with some choosing to take up a more kid-friendly genre mantle, others stripping their sound down to the acoustic roots, and the rest figuring that hell, kids would like punk, too.

Either way, this is a fabulously fun album, and a fine showcase for the oddly endearing talents and songs of the long-standing children’s entertainer. My kids absolutely LOVE it, and so will the kids and parents on your holiday list. Check out some of the folkier tracks below, head over to Barry’s site to sample the whole damn thing, and then order We’re Not Kidding and a couple of CDs worth of Barry Louis Polisar originals today.

We’ve featured popular kids entertainer Dan Zanes and his Family Band here in our kidfolk posts before, but his new album 76 Trombones, a set of beloved songs from Broadway musicals, is worth the just-released celebration, as much for how well it continues to demonstrate his prowess as a kids entertainer and bandleader as for how effectively it makes well-chosen familiarities accessible to the kidset.

Not so much an ex-rocker as a kids’ coolness revivalist, a parent who turned to kids entertainment after a long career with popular 80s rootsrocker band the Del Fuegos, Zanes continues to prove that kids music need not be sappy or cheesy with his marvelously playful stage shows and albums, and this hefty new release is no exception. 76 Trombones features 17 songs transformed into rootsy party tunes, each one a gem sure to please both parents and kids, with the likes of Carol Channing and Matthew Broderick as guest vocalists; it’s on my Christmas wishlist, and I expect after hearing the samples below, it will be on yours, too.

Just as the Putumayo parent label has made a name for itself for its constantly growing collection of perfect thematic coffeehouse samplers from around the world, Putumayo Kids has become well-known among cool moms and dads for a series of well-collected compilations of family-friendly music, each with its own special regional or thematic focus. As such, unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of holiday cheer on A Family Christmas, the most recent of four holiday releases from Putumayo Kids.

But though we have come to expect great selection and great songs from Putumayo Kids, A Family Christmas is an especially potent mix of familiar carols and popular holiday fare, flowing seamlessly from roots to blues to folk to rockers with nary a dud or a skip-over.

As with most Putumayo samplers, the tunes included herein are relatively recent but not new releases – I’ve long treasured [and previously posted] Martin Sexton’s Holly Jolly Christmas, love Deanna Carter’s delicate fireside Winter Wonderland, and we featured Kate Rusby’s Christmas album, which includes the version of Here We Go A Wassailing found on A Family Christmas, in Tuesday’s feature on Rusby. But even if you’ve already got a few of these tunes, the particular success of the sequential arrangement of song here, and the universal comfort and joy of the songs and performances themselves, make this a perfect last-minute holiday gift for the kid or kid-at-heart in your life. Here’s a playful pair of tracks to get your whistle wet before purchase.

As a bonus, in addition to releasing Brave Combo’s polka version of Jolly Old Saint Nick as a website freebie, Putumayo makes a great Seasons Greetings ecard for the holidays, featuring playful graphics and Leon Redbone’s warm, acoustic swing version of Let It Snow. Send one to the kids you love now.

Looking for more kid-friendly Holiday Coverfolk? Chromewaves has note of a deliciously delicate and diverse Canadian compilation tribute to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas; head over to download Jill Barber’s cover of The Christmas Song, and The Awkward Stage covering Christmas Time Is Here. Or try these archived features from last year:

Also, for those celebrating Chanukkah this year: Last year’s feature on Chanukkah Coverfolk is still live and relevant, as is this mini-feature containing two wonderful covers of Rock of Ages.

1,005 comments » | Barry Louis Polisar, Dan Zanes, Holiday Coverfolk, Kidfolk

Kate Rusby Covers:
Iris Dement, Richard Thompson, The Kinks, Suzanne Vega and more!
(plus Holiday Coverfolk from Kate’s newly rereleased holiday album Sweet Bells)

December 8th, 2009 — 09:58 pm

Oddly, I was introduced to the music of Kate Rusby through my own blog, via a guest post during my first summer hiatus way back in 2007. Since then, I’ve fallen completely in love with the gentle songstress; this time of year, especially, her clear sweet voice and that Yorkshire accent cut through the chill like a searchlight to the heart.

Exceptionally well-known in her native land, but much less so in the US — perhaps because, as the title track to her 2005 album The Girl Who Wouldn’t Fly explains, Kate is afraid to fly, and thus does not tour much, if at all, on this side of the pond — Rusby tends towards a traditional folk of the old-school type, grounded in the old ballads and songstyles of her native Britain. Each of her eight solo albums, a mere decade of output, features a rich combination of such ageless folk songs, and a scattering of contemporary folk covers and timeless originals which share the same trope and lyrical sentiment.

But this is no mere tradfolk, and Kate is no mere interpreter of song. Her arrangements may be sparse and simple, but they are also deliberate, and delicately nuanced; the 36 year old singer-songwriter may be grounded in life, but the deceptive potency of her pure voice and the ring of her high-strung guitar contain a power beyond description, setting songs of all origin to lift off and soar in all cases, whether slow and solo or tempered by a touch of the squeezebox drone, the pipe and brass, the brushed drum, the low bass, or the full folkrock package of, say, her take on The Kinks.

The result is incredible: deeply personal, highly emotional, proud against the full winds of change, and yet somehow both delicate and universal enough to startle even the most jaded tradfolk or folkpop listener into a second look, and then a lifetime of delight. It’s no wonder she is such a sought after collaborator and guest vocalist in her native land; no wonder that she is so celebrated, though surely not enough, at least on our end of the ocean.

Kate’s newest album is actually a re-release of her 2008 holiday CD Sweet Bells, which – in keeping with her eye on the past – offers stellar interpretations of traditional Yorkshire Christmas carols straight out of storybook England, filtered through regional tradfolk instrumentation and that utterly lovely voice. Today, in a nod to the season, we offer a choice cut from that seasonal delight, plus a mix of covers both contemporary and traditional from Rusby’s prolific songbook; if you like what you hear, head over to Kate Rusby’s own storefront to pick up the full catalog, and a second set for stocking stuffers.

Before fame arrived at her doorstep, Rusby released several collaborative albums, including a short-lived stint as lead vocalist for The Poozies. Today’s bonus tracks come from her early collaboration with friend and fellow Barnsley folksinger Kathryn Roberts, a marvelous gem which features nary an original song; though the production is less precise than in her later solo work, the songs reveal a confidence that would serve Rusby well on her way to fame. Here’s two favorites from the disc:

Cover Lay Down posts new features and coverfolk sets every Sunday, Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. Coming this weekend: kidfolk for the holidays, and for the fun of it.

1,199 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Kate Rusby

Single Shot Coverfolk: Norah Jones covers Wilco

December 6th, 2009 — 04:51 pm

A midday quickie, just for you: Norah Jones covering Wilco in the Sirius Radio studios, with nothing but bass, acoustic guitar, and tight vocal harmonies, in anticipation of a full acoustic performance to be broadcast Dec. 10 at 7:00 EST [details here]. It’s not a Christmas song, but it IS Jesus’ birthday in a few weeks, and this is just too beautiful not to spread around.

Norah Jones: Jesus, Etc. (orig. Wilco)

Live versions of the same cover from the recent Bridge School benefit have also been floating around the interwebs; check out Copy Cats and Muzzle of Bees for performance vids, one incomplete and the other grainy, both complete with minimal crowd noise, each worth celebrating nonetheless.

In other news, I’ve started posting more cover-heavy contributions over at the Star Maker Machine collaborative; head on over for versions of sixties classic Stoned Soul Picnic from Jill Sobule and Laura Love, Chris Smither and Emmylou Harris versions of Jesse Winchester’s Thanks To You, and a swingfolk cover of Guy Clark’s Homegrown Tomatoes. Plus originals in all cases, for comparison’s sake.

And stay tuned later this week for two very exciting features just in time for holiday giftgiving: a look at UK singer-songwriter Kate Rusby, whose album of traditional Christmas carols has just been rereleased, and an exploration of some great late 2009 Kidfolk releases, including new work from Dan Zanes, a holiday album from Putumayo Kids, and a tribute to the guy who wrote that song from Juno.

577 comments » | Norah Jones, Single Shot Coverfolk, Uncategorized

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