Archive for January 2010

New Artists, Old Songs Week Vol. 1: Popcovers
The songs of Bob Marley, Aha, Beck, Neil Young, Survivor & more!

January 30th, 2010 — 09:53 pm

Here’s how it works: become a brand-name niche-blogger, and people send you stuff. Most of it is way off topic; some of it is decent, but not ready for prime time. A bunch more has saturated the blogmarket so much already, there’s little point in posting it again. And a few songs just don’t tickle the fancy – after all, if every song worked for every blogger, you’d never know who to trust.

But there’s wheat in the chaff, if you’re willing to listen. And in the interest of serving our stated mission – connecting artists with fans, through interpretation of familiar song – I listen to all of it, trying to find the best of an otherwise undiscovered country, always with an ear out for what our ever-growing readership clamors to hear.

This week, in a series of genre-focused features (Top 40 rock and popsong covers today; folk covers, indie covers, and a few random oddities to follow as the week progresses), we turn our ears and hearts to the best of those emerging artists whose new works have come our way in the past few weeks and months. Though they remain under the radar, may these songs help these musicians claim their rightful places in the pantheon of modern music.

I found out about Kelley Ryan through a short review in Straight No Chaser, who called the one-time astroPuppees frontwoman’s solo debut Twist “the best female folk record of this short year” and compared it to the Indigo Girls, Linda Draper, and Mindy Smith. Intrigued, I promptly wrote off for the full album, only to discover that, if anything, SNC may have undersold Ryan’s subtle-yet-potent way with song and performance, missing equally valid comparisons with Janis Ian, Sandy Denny, Lisa Loeb and Kate Wolf.

Ryan, who has also been paying the bills collaborating with and selling songs to the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, aimed to make this record a true feminine folkpop manifesto, eschewing the masculine sounds of the electric guitar for warm loops and acoustic strings; the result is a masterstroke of femmefolk prowess, strong, seductive, and eminently accessible. This Beck cover is a perfect example: where the original evokes slow lazy summer, low and buzzing, Kelley’s cover is frozen winter incarnate, her beautifully clear voice, coupled with a slow electropop production, catching the song in crystalline ice without losing a whit of the power and beauty of the song itself.

Twist drops Feb 16, but until then, it is being sold digitally through Kelley Ryan’s website for just a single buck – so preview below, and then head on over for a great deal!

I wish I could remember how I heard about Acoustic Americana fiddler and guitarist Sadie Compton, whose bright red dreadlocks and heavily tattooed punk-rocker’s skin seem completely counter to her Tennessean drawl and the timeless mountain sensibility of her performance. But a search of inbox and feedreader alike reveal nothing, and Sadie’s web presence is sadly out-of-date. I am forced to conclude that Sadie’s music dropped out of the sky, and be grateful for such gifts: clearly, the universe loves me.

Much of the music on Compton’s MySpace page is sparse and broken, a fine mix of fiddle-led cajun blues and old time Appalachian music reminiscent of an old Lomax field recording; listen with your eyes closed, and you can almost make out the ancient backporch countrywoman she channels through her music. But the lazy sixties folkpop sound of Compton’s Three Dog Night cover, complete with banjo and sweetly ragged harmonies, is an equally delightful antidote to the winter blues, while her Hank Williams cover just has to be heard to be believed. New album Black is the Color was supposed to be released last year, but I can find neither hide nor hair of evidence; if anyone out there can help me out here, I’d be eternally grateful.

Backwater-born Australian singer-songwriter Emily Barker has enjoyed a bit of press recently in the rest of the English-speaking word, thanks to the folks at the BBC, who selected a version of her song Nostalgia as the theme to the award-winning series Wallander. But Americans are notoriously slow to pick up on folk beyond our borders, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’ve just discovered this countryfolk chanteuse despite her long history in BBC-land, a record which includes several years touring and recording in the UK as part of folk group The Low Country, and her 2007 solo debut Photos.Fires.Fables., which provides a solid introduction to the able, twang-voiced songwriter, framing her performance as tender and wry, and reminiscent of fellow countrymen The Waifs.

Barker and her all-girl Aussie band The Red Clay Halo, who lend cello, fiddle, accordian, flute and four-part harmonies to Barker’s guitar-based singer-songwriter fare, originally recorded Nostalgia for their intimate 2008 group debut Despite The Snow, which led to opening slots for the likes of Jose Gonzalez, The Waifs, and Mary Gauthier. Since then, there’s not been much in the way of new recordings – the single for the new version of Nostalgia doesn’t come out until Feb. 8th – but their press kit included this gentle recent take on Neil Young’s Look Out For My Love, and it’s a wonderful showcase for Emily’s warbly alto and sensitive songwriting, and the band’s lush, modern take on the british tradfolk sound.

Ghana-born, Ontario-based “Urban Folk” artist Kae Sun pulls from a vast cultural stew – a childhood in the church choir, his father’s soul records, traditional folk chants, and the reggae and hip-hop so prevalent on Ghana radio – emerging with an evolving hybrid sound that teeters exquisitely on the line between fluid worldbeat and intimate songwriter fare. This soulful cover falls more solidly on the acoustic side than the vast majority of his recent album Lion on a Leash, but the combination of reggaepop origin and subtle folk performance are lovely, and given Sun’s preference for acoustic performance, provide an apt entry for any folklistener willing to follow the thread to African continent and beyond.

Nominally an indie-rock band, The Rural Alberta Advantage – yes, they’re from Canada, too – are nevertheless a folk-minded bunch on paper, mining the experience of their own rural small-town upbringing to craft driving, guitar-heavy songs which play just fine as folk once the reverb fades a bit. 2008 debut Hometowns, which contains some great hipster dancetracks, was all over the blogs; this tune, which layers earnest alt-whine vocals over a play-it-straight Jose Gonzalez guitar-trance approach to a classic tongue-in-cheek cover favorite, was released as a B-side mid-January; I picked it up via Captain Obvious, whose January Covers Mixtape also includes a few tracks from past and recent posts on Cover Lay Down.

Finally, eminently cute folk-uke-centered duo Shiny and the Spoon came together in 2008 after a chance meeting at a folk festival. Since then, the gleeful couple has gone on to record several YouTube videos, mostly covers, and most notably this playful cover of Aha classic Take on Me, which netted over 70,000 views in its first few months – and, like many surprise YouTube sensations, they’ve now moved on to record their first EP, hoping to cash in on the cute cachet. The EP will drop ASAP on CD Baby and iTunes; keep abreast of the news via their YouTube channel.

Want to hear more? As always, Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to promote the spread and survival of folk music. If you like what you hear, follow links above to support the artists herein: buy the album, see the concert, and spread the word.

And don’t forget to return Tuesday night for the second installment in our New Artists, Old Songs Week extravaganza! Still to come: new takes on classic and revival-era folk songs, a whole slew of acoustic indiecovers, and a few surprises from the American Popular Songbook.

2,402 comments » | New Artists Old Songs

New and (Re)Covered:
Carolina Chocolate Drops, Patty Griffin, and Suzanne Vega

January 27th, 2010 — 07:55 pm

The mailbag is bursting with delight – so full, in fact, that I’ve decided that next week will be New Artists, Old Songs Week here at Cover Lay Down, featuring a whole host of new artists who have kindly sent along their demos, one-off tracks, and pre-releases in anticipation of greater recognition for the next generation. It is, as always, an honor to be able to share these folks with you; I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do, and pursue the links provided here to support their emerging talent.

While we compile and winnow the wonderful new voices that have come our way in the last several weeks, let’s clear the palate a bit by regrounding our ears in a few more familiar faces and thematically relevant songs which have popped up in the inbox alongside that cornucopia. Here, that means yet another installment of our popular (Re)Covered feature, with news, new songs, and newly-found tracks that have come our way, and should be coming your way, too, now that the new year has turned.

I finally managed to catch the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who we first featured back in April, last weekend at the Somerville Theater, and was utterly thrilled to find they are even more stunning in concert than I had imagined. Their infectious joy in not just recovering but truly rejuvenating a whole set of found song, from old country blues and minstrel-show jazz to stringband and rural jugband classics, is evident in every smile, holler, and nuanced move on an array of authentic instruments, from quills and autoharp to banjo, fiddle, guitar, voice and bones. And as performers and ethnomusicologists, their patter and performance offers a first rate journey through the folk traditions of Black America.

New album Genuine Negro Jig, which will include a studio version of their infamous Blu Cantrell cover and a delicious take on Tom Waits’ Trampled Rose alongside a whole new set of resurrected stringband and old-time jazz and blues tunes done in their inimitable Piedmont style, drops on February 16. Here’s two delightful cuts from the newest – the aforementioned Blu Cantrell cover, and a sweet, wry newly-recorded version of old stringband classic Cornbread and Butterbeans – plus a live cut to keep your feet moving in the meantime; for more, preorder Genuine Negro Jig, sit back, and wait for the magic to arrive.

Patty Griffin‘s new album Downtown Church is a true blue Americana Gospel album, not folk, but I hardly care; despite my ambivalence about her overproduced sophomore release Flaming Red, which recently caused a minor inter-blogger firestorm over at Star Maker Machine, it’s no secret that Griffin is one of my favorite artists, having first featured in our pages way back in our first few weeks as a blog, and several times since. And Downtown Church’s dustbowl gospel is utterly amazing, in no small part because of Griffin’s achingly, hauntingly, drivingly beautiful approach to a series of gospel classics, not to mention stellar support from Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale, and a host of other powerhouse artists.

The result: a true gem of a new album that has the Americana world drooling in anticipation of what may well turn out to be the biggest release of the year. The NPR full-album stream disappeared yesterday upon the album’s release, but there’s a live concert over at No Depression tonight at 8:00 EST, full-length samples at Paste, and of course, you can and should buy the whole thing here. The whole damn thing comes with my strongest recommendation, but I really, really love the sparse piano and voice of final track All Creatures of Our God and King, and the power of the penultimate We Shall All Be Reunited, which, like Heavenly Day before it, has Grammy written all over it, especially now that an appropriate nomination category has been created.

The coverblogger code doesn’t usually consider a remade song a cover if it’s the same artist performing it – else we’d have to count pretty much every demo as an original, and every live performance an incident worthy of note. Wikipedia, however, seems to beg otherwise. And so just this once, I’m going to give honorable mention to the newest from Suzanne Vega, Close Up Vol 1: Love Songs, in which the once-ubiquitous singer-songwriter comes out of the shadows after years of living off residuals to put forth an utterly lovely album of acoustic versions of her own songbook – the first of four rounds of such self-coverage, if Vega’s press release is to be believed.

We featured Suzanne Vega in our first Mother’s Day post way back in ’08, noting at the time that she had decided to focus on motherhood first and foremost after her daughter was born in 1994; it’s good to see her back in the studio, and though there’s a part of me that aches for a new set of songs, her early work is certainly strong enough to support reframing. So while you head over to her website to preorder, here’s a remade “original” from the newest, a pair of older Grateful Dead covers from Cover Freak’s least favorite album, and a few other takes on a personal favorite from the Suzanne Vega songbook for balance.

Looking past the horizon, I note that Carrie Rodriguez, who we first featured here upon release of her 2008 album She Ain’t Me, will be coming out with her first covers album in April, and on first listen, at least, it’s sounding like a practically perfect fiddle-driven Country-Americana Folkpop collection.

We’ll have more to say about this eventually, and a song to post, for sure, but I’ve been asked to keep the buzz and the songsharing on the down low until the date creeps closer. Still, Carrie’s currently on tour with Ben Sollee and Erin McKeown – a great choice of companions for the achingly sweet-voiced Rodriguez – and she’ll also be doing a few dates with Alejandro Escovedo and Los Lonely Boys in the next few, so if your town is on her touring schedule, make it a point to stop in to preview a track or two from the upcoming disc in a live setting.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets each Sunday and Wednesday. And remember, folks: February 1st marks the kick-off date for New Artists, Old Songs Week here at Cover Lay Down, so don’t forget to head on back with your ears handy for a first-rate set of covers from a solid crop of up-and-comers come Sunday.

1,543 comments » | (Re)Covered, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Carrie Rodriguez, Patty Griffin, Suzanne Vega

Woodpigeon Covers:
Abba, Bjork, Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Magnetic Fields and more!

January 23rd, 2010 — 01:42 pm

Exploring the boundaries of folk is a challenge these days, not hardly because the word “folk” is so often abused by a growing bevy of slash-using promotors and artists trying to lay claim to the term and, by proxy, to the authenticity of its community and heritage – even as they offer up music which provides little in the way of respite or even recognizable folk characteristics for the weary folkophile.

Oh, sure, there’s elements of folk music in much of what passes by the modern blogwatcher. The influence of the sixties post-revivalists, for example, is evident in a large swath of the Contemporary Indiepop and Indie Rock world, from Sara McLachlan to Sara Bareilles, from Beck to Ben Harper, from Death Cab to Wilco; we’ve included songs by some of these artists before here on Cover Lay Down, and I expect that they’ll come up again.

But that’s primarily because there’s elements of folk in modern popular music, period. Writ large, it’s in the air. But as the 16-bar 3-chord song structure does not make Rock and Roll a subtype of the blues, neither is the occasional historical lens, a moralistic story lyric, or the inclusion of an acoustic stringed instrument sufficient to suddenly make a given band’s output a form of folk.

It is much rarer to find a band that does not use the term “folk”, yet comes across as obviously within the tradition. Such is Woodpigeon, an ersatz karass based around the guitar, voice, and songwriting of Mark Hamilton, a typically bearded indie lad whose website’s tongue-in-cheek philosophical statements include the ideas that “everything starts off as a rock opera” and “girl voices are instruments. Boy voices are sex objects.”

Nominally an indie pop collective, Woodpigeon’s sound is nevertheless delicately acoustic, and the group is prone to confessional narrative, if framed within definitively post-modern lyrics. Despite its size, the instrumentation is more bare-bones than bombastic, with participants in a given song often contributing little more than a subtle vocal or string drone layer. Though its studio work, most especially in brand-new release Die Stadt Muzikanten, often utilizes the echoey indiepop production values and brushbeats so typical of the genre, both off-record and on-, the group’s music is nonetheless environmentally-grounded and subtly constructed, less beat-oriented than lyrically and melodically driven. And though some of their choices for coverage speak to a clear love of Swedish popsong, others – including two Gordon Lightfoot covers, and a lovely recent take on Mother, Pink Floyd’s only political “folktune” – underscore their connection to the folkworld.

Calgary-based Woodpigeon is an oft-cited favorite of fellow Canadian and indie-lover Chromewaves; we owe Frank a great debt for sharing so much of their work over the past year or three, a good bit of which has included lo-fi off-album covers originally shared on the band’s website. He doesn’t call them folk, either, but I think you’ll hear what I do in this lovely collection.

Regular readers, take note: the vast majority of the above covers are available free on Woodpigeon’s website, making the usual track-by-track album listing essentially moot. For much, much more, head on over, download at will, and bookmark the site for upcoming new web-releases and dispatches.

Of course, Woodpigeon’s in-studio work is richer by far, and worth the bills. Purchase older LPs Songbook and Treasury Library Canada, plus a plethora of EPs, at your leisure, and definitely pick up Woodpigeon’s newest Die Stadt Muzikanten, which dropped just last week. Coverlovers, especially, should keep an ear open for new track Woodpigeon Vs. Eagleowl (Strength In Numbers), which uses Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down as a perfect springboard for the quintessential post-millennial indie grungepop number.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and coverfolk sets every Wednesday and Sunday, plus the occasional otherday. Coming soon: the mailbag is bursting with great new artists; we feast upon the best covers in the bunch.

1,089 comments » | indiefolk, Woodpigeon

RIP, Kate McGarrigle

January 19th, 2010 — 07:57 pm

Quebequois folk artist Kate McGarrigle, whose name will be forever entwined with that of her sister and performing partner Anna, passed yesterday after a long struggle with cancer.

Kate & Anna McGarrigle were performers first – taught to play the piano by nuns in their rural village, the singer-songwriters played the Montreal coffeehouse circuit in the sixties as part of The Mountain Four. But like so many artists before and after, it was their songwriting which paved the way for fame, especially after Linda Rondstadt not only recorded but named her album after Anna’s Heart Like A Wheel. From there, their curiously concrete-yet-intimate, oddly touching songs spread far and fast in the hands of others, from Emmylou Harris to Billy Bragg, leaving a wake of opportunity for their eponymous 1975 debut, and a lifetime canon of both French and English masterworks which I will always treasure, both in their original gorgeous harmonies and, as true folk songs, in coverage.

The McGarrigle legacy goes beyond songs and songbook, of course. The sisters’ multiple collaborations with family and friends, most notably personal favorites The McGarrigle Hour (1998) and its equally strong follow-up The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (2005), were warm and wise, calling to a long folk tradition of both family gospel hootenanny and intimate living room songsharing performed for the sheer communal joy of it. And though Kate’s children Rufus and Martha, who have both crafted wry and aching songs about their family life, carry the name of her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III, through Rufus’ vocals, Martha’s ear for a sweet yet grounded lyric, and a pantheon of achingly personal songs from Kate, Anna, and Loudon himself, the life and lives that Kate brought to this earth will remain with us for decades to come.

Which is to say: although Kate’s loss leaves a hole in the heart of so many, she also leaves us with much beauty, wonder, comfort and fulfillment, through recordings, song, tribute and ancestry. And as we were blessed to have her with us, we are grateful for what she has left behind.

Here’s some favorites, from Kate & Anna, family and friends, to remember her by.

Bonus tracks:

We’re all about the music here at Cover Lay Down, and generally, that means promoting the artists themselves. But there are musicians everywhere, and pain runs rampant through the world.

So I’ve eschewed linkage today, although you absolutely should pick up the Kate & Anna McGarrigle catalog when you have a chance. Instead, for the short term, I’d like to ask that folks consider making a donation in Kate’s name – either to our own Haiti-and-then-some campaign, which sends 40% of all gifts to Doctors Without Borders and a local food bank, or to The Kate McGarrigle Fund, which goes to rare cancer research at the McGill University Health Care Foundation. Please give, if you can.

1,675 comments » | Uncategorized

Help Haiti.
For The World Is Ever In Your Hands.

January 17th, 2010 — 03:11 pm

The news runs all night and all day: in the barber shop, at the proverbial watercooler, on the seldom-watched television that has always lurked in the corner of our living room. In class, I ask my students to search news sites and blogs, and report on all the ways that social media – the stuff of postmodern interconnection – serves our global awareness. At night, my daughter and I find Haiti on the map, and I explain: how the houses were poorly built, how the concrete fell on the people: look, there they are in photographs, hurt, orphaned, helpless, alone in the midst of everything fallen.

Over at Bottom of the Glass, Billy reminds us that Haiti “no more needs our love and attention and money now than they did two weeks ago”, and it’s true: the world has always needed us, both here and abroad. But it is just as true that as the last few survivors pass on in their dark undiscovered graves, there is a danger that we are already moving on, returning our attention to our smaller selves. Disasters focus our attention, but our attention is ever-more fleeting. Facebook status updates return to the trivial, our daily minutia more immediate than some distant civilization in ruins. Just four months after the Indonesian earthquake, as with so many other, older global hotspots of desperation, the wells of our still-needed support have run dry.

Remember the dead, and the damaged; the poor, and the hungry. Remember, too, the support we did not send: the money that would have strengthened those walls before the world shook in anger, and they fell. Commit to the dream: that one day, all children will join hands as sisters and brothers, and play together, and know each other, and not forget until it is too late.

Give of yourself, now and always, in your own community and abroad. For the world is always crumbling somewhere. And that somewhere is always all around us.

Across the world, musicians and artists from Arcade Fire and Amy Millan to rappers Flo Rida and Young Jeezy to Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean have already begun their outpouring of support for Haiti. Inevitable yet no less appropriate or desperately relevant than the concerts for Katrina, the rallies for Tibet, the drives for the Asian tsunamis, the memorials for a post-9/11 New York, these events and fundraisers are nonetheless worth our attention.

If you have the power to give, then there is nothing gauche about seizing the moment that seems right for you. Find or organize your own local benefit. Donate to Paste. Download Adrian Heath’s new album. Head to NYC’s City Winery this Wednesday through the following Monday for a 4-night series of concert events starring Josh Ritter, the Swell Season, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Roseanne Cash, Vienna Teng, Yo La Tengo, and a whole host of other talent. Do it, and along with some great music, you’ll get that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from giving.

Myself, I’m committing 40% of every donation to Cover Lay Down for the next month to those who need it, both locally and abroad: half to our local food pantry, and half to Doctors Without Borders to support efforts in Haiti and beyond. As a gift-in-kind, all who donate through Cover Lay Down before Feb 17th will receive a bootleg mix of live covers from this past year’s Clearwater, Grey Fox, and Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals, with all tracks recorded by yours truly, and available nowhere else. Featured artists include Old Crow Medicine Show, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Crooked Still, Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry, Susan Werner, Stonehoney, and more. I think you’ll like it, and I’m honored to open up my personal archives for this excellent cause.

But in the end, it does not matter how we give. It matters that we give. And that we commit our life to giving, and to the memory of the fallen, if we are able.

More than ever before, we are living the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. We are all one people, and as such, we are beholden to each other to sustain the world. We have learned, each in our own way: remain silent and aloof, and the world will fall around us.

Here’s a short, somewhat random soundtrack for the occasion, with a little something for every one of us – both those who suffer, and those whose hands reach out to help.

Click HERE to donate to Cover Lay Down / Doctors Without Borders / The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and receive your link to our exclusive live Summer ’09 bootleg digital download. No minimum donation required – even a dollar makes a difference…

304 comments » | Social Justice

Birthday Coverfolk, Vol. 3: Tocayos
(17 Coversongs from Rouse, Radin, Ritter, Pyke, James and White)

January 13th, 2010 — 09:41 pm

Tomorrow, January 14th, is my birthday – my third, in fact, since beginning the musical journey we call Cover Lay Down. Two years ago, in celebration, we featured covers of and from musicians who shared my birthday, a list that included Allen Toussaint, Dave Grohl, LL Cool J, and T-Bone Burnett. Last year, we gathered in covers of and from a set of artists born in 1973, and that was fun, too: it’s hard to feel old when you’re the same age as Andrew Bird, Rufus Wainwright, and other luminaries whose careers are still gathering steam.

As a set of bonus party favors, I’ve re-upped the songs on those old entries. But don’t click through just yet. Because this year, in an attempt to continue the trend, I’ve decided to step out of the pseudonym a bit to feature artists who share my name.

Oh, I know: you know me as boyhowdy, a convenient pseudonym whose murky origins involve a series of band rehearsals and my own high tendency towards ADHD distraction. But in the meatworld, I’m known as Joshua: an old testament name, and – according to Wikipedia – “a species of arborescent monocot native to North America”. Due to its biblical origins, it’s a popular name, especially among Jews – until recently one of the top five male names in the US, in fact – and as such, it’s no oddity to find several beloved artists in my collection who share it.

Surprisingly, there’s no English word for “someone who shares the same name as you” – namesake is close, but despite what Wiktionary claims, it technically only means “someone named after”. But though I’m not so self-centered as to believe that fave singer-songwriters Josh Ritter and Josh Radin were named after lil’ ol’ me, and am reasonably confident that I myself was not named after early Piedmont folk-bluesman Josh White, to share a name with someone is to share a special kind of connection. And happily, there’s a lovely word for this coincidental soul-connection in Spanish – tocayo – suggesting that other cultures, at least, recognize this nombrelationship as valid and meaningful.

No matter; we’re happy to take our linguistics where we find them here at Cover Lay Down. Y, convenientemente, mis tocayos se incluido muchos cantautores increíble. Here, then, are some of mis tocayos.

I was lucky enough to see Josh Ritter at the Green River Festival way back in 2003, before he graduated to the festival mainstage and beyond; I even plopped down next to him on the lawn to check out Redbird, with Erin McKeown alongside us both, once his set was finished. Ritter is a few years younger than I am, but he exploded onto the scene young, thanks in part to some attention from Glen Hansard, and a knack for backstory-rich songsmithing which resonated with audiences here and abroad; trivia buffs may also note that Ritter was recently married to Dawn Landes, whose gorgeous voice has been featured in these pages several times before as well, so clearly, the guy’s doin’ alright for himself.

These days, in fact, Ritter is huge; his recent Symphony Hall show was well-blogged, and it’s hard to imagine topping any show where the first Poet Laureate of the United States opens for you. But I’ll always think of him as the kid with the goofy grin, the slow vocal drawl, and a talent for earnest, down-to-earth lyrics and well-crafted love songs that ache with authentic adolescent longing. I’d been holding out for a full feature on the lad, but we dropped his great cover of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel a few months ago, and today’s theme just wouldn’t be complete without a few favorites, so what the hell: here’s five.

I first heard of Aussie singer-songwriter Josh Pyke a few summers ago, thanks to an incredibly well-textured folkpop Kate Bush cover on No Man’s Woman, a collection of male Down Under artists covering their female counterparts’ signature tunes. Since then, Pyke has come out with a sophomore album that seems to have spawned several singles, but to be perfectly honest, I’m cribbing off Wikipedia here. It’s not just me, either: Pyke charts high back home, and he’s won several ARIA industry awards in the adult contemporary category in his native land, but although the streams on his website are deliciously McCartney-esque and soundtrack-ready, and despite regular airplay on “national youth broadcaster” Radio Triple J, which coverlovers know well for its ongoing series of cover challenges to the musicians they host, he seems to be relatively unknown in the States. Perhaps these two vastly different covers will help raise some well-deserved consciousness.

Ohio-based singer-songwriter Joshua Radin is prone to that slow, delicate echo-and-hushfolk that tends to accompany those maudlin Scrubs montages in which Zach Braff’s character stares morosely into the distance; sure enough, he was one of the Grammy-winning Garden State soundtrack compiler and indie music champion’s proudest discoveries, and his list of television and movie soundtrack appearances puts most other, older folksingers to shame. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that: in his element, Radin is one of my favorite indiefolk artists, capturing the inner life of ache and winter longing in a low whisper and soaring, perceptive lyrics.

We featured (okay, buried) Radin’s totally emo pianofolk take on the Sesame Street theme a few months ago, and it seemed pretty popular. He also does a killer eighties cover. Here’s two, to prove it.

I wrote about mid-western alt-folk singer Joshua James recently in passing, and posted a newly-found tradcarol (Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel) from his holiday sampler to boot. But since then, I’ve been slowly falling in love with the empathy he wrings from his strained, half-broken tenor, most especially the way it wraps around the subtle banjo and guitar strains of his recent Daytrotter session. I don’t usually use Dylanesque as a compliment, but it fits perfectly here, especially in his rhythmic sense, and his tough treatment of tragedy; there’s shades of Neil Young’s darkness, too, though the voice is easier on the ears. And Paste loves him, but we’ll let you make your own call.

Josh Rouse‘s new album El Turista is due to drop in a few weeks, so he’s closer to the top of my mind – and my stacks – than most of the other folks on today’s list, if only because I really haven’t spent the time I should have to get into his good works. Partially, that’s because the harder-edged alt-country side of folk tends to get short shrift in my collection anyway, what with my preference for true-blue folk and pop harmonies. But it’s also because his cover work tends almost exclusively towards the slow and maudlin, while the rest of his songstyles range widely – which makes them easy to collect piecemeal, and a bit easier to rummage through outside of the usual old-school full-album format, but ironically, makes them a bit less cohesive as a full playlist altogether.

But what Rouse does, he does exceptionally well: his perfectly radiopop 2005 album Nashville, especially, has had its fair share of play and replay in my collection, both for its dreamy-to-alt-rocking diversity and its catchy guitar hooks; his quiet bedroom cover of The Clash, from a mag sampler released the same year, is a personal favorite. And the man is terribly prolific, with over a dozen albums in as many years, and more if you count the deliciously intimate ongoing self-released Bedroom Classics Closet Archives subscription series he’s been running off his website, which so far have included great live concert recordings, in-studio sets with string quartets, and the below Mother Love Bone cover.

Finally, turning back the clock a bit, my archives reveal a few old tracks from pre-revival folkie and “Singing Christian” Josh White which would have fit in just fine with last Sunday’s Subgenre Coverfolk feature on the Acoustic Blues. White spent the first wave of his career doing the blues gospel circuit, and it shows in his vocal mannerisms: there’s a bit of Nat King Cole or Sam Cooke’s croon here, coupled with the faintest post-transition crack and yodel. Laid over a barely audible laid-back acoustic guitar, it’s the real deal, sad with the fields, ready for the folk-world fame that never truly caught up to him before his 1969 passing, though his early years were thankfully flush.

Thinking it’s time to give something back? Donations are always nice, but all I really want for my birthday is a comment and some good wishes. How ’bout it, folks?

1,781 comments » | Josh Pyke, Josh Ritter, Josh Rouse, Josh White, Joshua james, Joshua Radin

Subgenre Coverfolk: Acoustic Blues
Covers of Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and more!

January 10th, 2010 — 06:18 pm

Mississippi John Hurt

Last night’s utterly amazing Greg Brown show started off with a short solo set from perennial sideman Bo Ramsey, who played a set of hushed alt-country blues originals and an achingly delicate cover of Lucinda Williams’ Joy, his hands barely brushing the strings. Brown, too, played mostly blues, when it comes down to it: recognizable chords in sixteen bars; low, quickspoken, plaintive lyrics that pulsed along with the bass string beat. Stunning stuff.

Which got me thinking about the acoustic blues, and its relationship to modern folk music – not necessarily just as ancestor, but as a subset of that music which one can reasonably expect to hear on any folk festival stage. And, turning to the archives, I find that many of the living artists we’ve included here in the past, from Taj Mahal and Jorma Kaukonen to Ruthie Foster and Pat Wictor, would certainly fit within a generous definition of the subgenre.

It’s been almost a year since we focused on a particular style of music here at Cover Lay Down. The links are long dead on previous Subgenre Coverfolk features on Freak Folk, Zydeco, Bluegrass, Celtic Punk and more, though this summer’s Pianofolk feature remains live. But I think we’re long overdue for a return to one of our most prodigal series, and there’s a rich vein to be mined at the intersection of country, blues and folk. Ladies and Gentlemen: the acoustic blues as folkform.

Elizabeth CottenA century ago, the acoustic or “country” blues was a distinct genre from folk, grounded in a different population, forked in its sonic ancestry. But the “discovery” of Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker, R. L. Burnside and other stylistically similar musicians by bourgeois ethnomusicologists like John and Alan Lomax and Mike Seeger, and the subsequent incorporation of several of these artists into the folk circuit late in life alongside such inheritors as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Odetta, and Taj Mahal, places the acoustic blues square at the roots of the folk revival.

Since then, of course, like so many other components of the rich tapestry of American music, the stylistic elements handed down from the blues have found their way into much of the mainstream, from R&B to Rock and Roll to Country music, both alt- and otherwise. As such, the acoustic blues form is hard to pin down, in part because so many components of the blues have so fluidly made their way into folk performance since the time of Lomax and Seeger. But as a subgenre, the form is generally typified by acoustic solo performance, an ear for the folklorist’s communality in lyrical delivery, and the marks of blues writ large – slippery vocal mannerisms, repetitious “call and response” lyrics, and a consistent 12 or 16 bar song structure built from power chords and a pentatonic scale.

More notable, perhaps – at least from a folk perspective – are the racial issues surrounding the subgenre. Unique among modern branches of the folk canon, the acoustic blues community is racially diverse; though there are certainly plenty of white male bluesfolk artists (and a few females, such as Rory Block and, arguably, American Primitives like Gillian Welch, whose fingerpicking style had its origin in the early country blues) still plying the coffeehouse circuit today, it would not be hyperbolic to suggest that the acoustic blues subgenre is the locus for the vast majority of black musicians on that circuit. And sure enough, our set below features numerous black artists, an accomplishment unseen in these pages since last April’s full feature on the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Piedmont blues style and an even older feature on Jazzfolk featuring KJ Denhert and Lizz Wright.

Eric BibbThough Leadbelly and Odetta are long gone, modern inheritors of the country blues label still roam the folk circuit, their audience and their self-designation as folk artists identifying them as a legitimate, staple component of the modern folkworld. But though they share the stage with singer-songwriters and traditionalists of other types and stripes, their distinct sound clearly defines them as something unique and worthy of our attention.

So here’s a sampling of coverfolk from some of our favorite living acoustic bluesmen and women to give you a sense of the subgenre. As always, if you’ve got other suggestions for me and our readership to follow, feel free to leave ‘em in the comments.

Cover Lay Down presents new coverfolk sets and features each Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: covers from some new 2010 folk releases, and a post-New Year’s return to our regular New Artists, Old Songs feature.

1,946 comments » | Subgenre Coverfolk

A Weekend in Massachusetts:
Greg Brown, The Low Anthem, BCMFest, Brooks Williams and Jim Henry
(Plus: Glen and Grant Lee Phillips in NYC, and tributes on the horizon)

January 5th, 2010 — 10:10 pm

This Saturday, January 9th, is gearing up to be the most frustrating night in recent local folk music history, thanks to a huge convergence of talent in the Boston area. I’ve got third row tickets to see Greg Brown at Sanders Theater – a great place to see a folkfan’s favorite wry basso and sensitive songwriter, who once told me a hilarious anecdote about being asked to sign a woman’s breast, “and I had to hold it down with my other hand, it was so jiggly” – so I’m not really disappointed, per se, in my prospects for the evening. But it’s still hard to count the days, knowing I’ll be missing the belowmentioned.

But I’ve also been hoarding the Greg Brown covers against an omnibus post to come, and I’d rather do it right than rushed. So although I’ll include a pair of great GB covertunes at the end of the post today just to keep the juices flowing, in the meantime, here’s a quick survey of what’s going on in and around town, the list itself a reasonably solid statement on the breadth of what we consider folk here at Cover Lay Down, and – as such – a good compliment to Sunday’s restatement of the heart of my fandom.

Were it any other night in Boston, I’d surely try to make it to catch The Low Anthem at the House of Blues, their penultimate show before a grand European tour and some late Feb/early March dates in major cities across the states before heading down to SXSW. I’ve heard nothing but raves about this year’s hottest indiefolk band, and finally got a chance to spin their newest record Oh My God, Charlie Darwin over the holiday break; sure enough, the album is excellent, a balanced combination of relatively hushed indie rock and upbeat alt-country, a bit like a plugged-in Old Crow Medicine Show with Steve Earle and Springsteen sitting in, with a bit of extra cowpunk for good measure.

The Jan. 9 show, a benefit for Hot Stove Cool Music, will also feature State Radio and members of Hanson, Cheap Trick, Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, and Letters to Cleo; money raised will go to support underprivileged youth and families in the Boston area. Here’s a raucously rocking stringband cover from Oh My God that Payton reminded me about in the comments of our recent feature on the songs of Tom Waits – and a few more delicate covers from the songbooks of several others who will share the stage to boot.

Those who have Friday night and Saturday afternoon free, and prefer their folk a little closer to the old country, will surely want to check out this year’s Boston Celtic Music Fest, which returns to its roots this year with a multigenerational set of artists playing pan-Celtic tradfolk at its most traditional. Like last year’s BCMFest exploration of the more marginal and hybrid forms of modern Celtic folk and its offshoots, which I raved about several times in these pages, this year’s festival, which takes place in a set of intimate, close-hewn church halls, attics, and stages in the midst of Harvard Square, promises an utterly delightful time, with floor and pew seating among the artists themselves, and I’m hoping to get into town early enough to catch the Celtic Beatles Tribute at 2:45 – woo hoo! – before heading out to supper and the Greg Brown show.

BCMFest actually kicks off Friday night with a choice of a stage show at Club Passim starring John McGann & Flynn Cohen and a few other acts, or an Urban Ceilidh featuring Laura Cortese and more, and runs through Saturday, culminating in a huge finale concert with tributes to Liam Clancy, Tommy Makem, Jerry Holland, Seamus Connolly and others. Here’s a Cortese favorite, and a pair of Irish-influenced Beatles tunes to whet your tin whistle.

Over to the left a bit on the Massachusetts map, and closer, to be honest, to our usual neck of the woods, there’s more Irish music from two members of the Clancy Legacy over at the uNi Coffeehouse in Springfield, a very promising Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem kidfolk and CD release show midafternoon in downtown Northampton to benefit a local preschool, and shows by both folkblues queen Rory Block and grunged-out acoustic newfolk blog darlings The Duchess and the Duke at the everpopular Iron Horse in Northampton.

All are tempting. But if I were staying in town this Saturday, I know where I’d be: at The Black Moon Lounge in Belchertown, where local favorites Jim Henry and Brooks Williams will play an acoustic set together on the night of the ninth, reprising a good bulk of their 1997 covers album Ring Some Changes, plus some other “classic covers” and originals to boot. We featured both artists separately in our first year – Jim here; Brooks here – and included work from the one-shot collaborative album in each post; each is amazing on his own, but the live pairing is a rarity, and cheap at five bucks a head: a show not to be missed for the middlestate set.

Even farther away, Works Progress Administration — the new project from Glen Phillips and ex-Nickel Creek guitarist Sean Watkins, which we featured back in September when their debut album was first released — will be playing a triple-bill with Grant Lee Phillips and Vienna Teng at NYC’s City Winery. Three of my absolute favorite cover artists, in one venue, just three hours away…sigh. Here’s three reasons why it’s heartbreaking to miss this particular convergence:

And – back where we started – though I’m saddened not to be able to be in a half-dozen places at once, I’m eager to see Greg Brown up close and well-mixed, especially as my only previous experience with his performance is at folk festivals, where sound is often skewed a bit towards the distant hills, and the crowds, though beloved, never cease their low murmur. We’ve peppered this space with Greg Brown covers, both of and from, since the blog’s inception, and for good reason: the respected lyrical poet and Red House Records founder is a voracious interpreter of popular and traditional song, and well-covered in his own right, too. Here’s a singleton cover of, and a singleton cover from, in anticipation of a full tribute set to come in the near future.

In other news, farther on the horizon but closer to home wherever you live, Merge Records – the same label that produced that amazing self-coverage record towards the end of last year – have started pre-distribution of Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox, a huge double-CD set benefit tribute to New Zealand singer-songwriter Chris Knox, who suffered a debilitating stroke last year, and whose late eighties work with Tall Dwarves and as a solo artist helped set the stage for my late adolescent love of ragged EnZed alt-rock-guitar-driven grungepop. No promo tracks here, as the folks at Merge don’t want to undercut the benefit for Chris, and I can’t blame them. But head over to the project page to sample and purchase the lot, most especially the Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy covers.

And speaking of upcoming tributes: Manimal Vinyl has just announced a huge David Bowie tribute to benefit War Child UK, with tracks to begin leaking by mid-February. Again, not exclusively folk – Duran Duran will even be turning in a track – but with Keren Ann, Amanda Jo Williams, Devendra Banhart, and Carla Bruni on the roster, there’s bound to be some lighter fare for the indiefolk crowd. Wears the Trousers has the current set list; don’t forget to pick up their entirely nufolk Odetta Tribute while you’re there if you haven’t already done so.

953 comments » | Uncategorized

Regrounding: Voices From The Subjective Heart

January 3rd, 2010 — 12:47 pm

It’s always tempting to treat the first post of a new year as more significant than it really needs to be. The turning of the calendar, the fireworks at the moment of truth: all that ritual creates a mandate, a weight of liminality that demands deliberation.

I’ve got some strong candidates for upcoming features – there’s a wealth of new coverfolk coming down the pike, and a new sense of appreciation rising for some singer-songwriters we’ve yet to cover here in our virtual pages. But I’d be a fool to ignore the inner voice, nor the opportunity to recenter our mission. Today, we start the new year with a return to our roots, focusing on those folksingers who lie at the heart of the folk experience for me.

We aim for diversity here at Cover Lay Down, and I think we’ve done well in that vein, pushing the boundaries of folk music even as we explore their iterations. But the experience of music is a subjective process, and one of its greatest delights is that we all have our own ears, our own needs to be fulfilled through that sonic landscape and its poetic meaning we call song.

As such, in my heart, the center of modern folk music starts with my own awakenings. How could it be otherwise?

Today, we return to that core.

These aren’t my favorite covers, necessarily. Today is about the artists, more than any particular song. And these are the voices of those singer-songwriters and bands for which I would stop the world to make a show. Their records are my desert island discs, the voices I would listen to forever if I had no choice but to pick a few. Their placement on a folk festival stage frames my attendance.

Of course, our journey here at Cover Lay Down is about coverage, and never is this focus as problematic as when I celebrate artists whose work I love in toto. The covers I have chosen from their records and live bootlegs are those which most closely hew to their own work, and come off as their own. They are the best way I have to celebrate them through our particular lens.

Neither are these covers new to our pages. In many cases, in fact, because these artists are so special to me, I got to them first, before Cover Lay Down had more than a small handful of readers. These original features lie far in our past. The links are dead, their words buried in the archives. But for the way they clarify my world, they deserve our ongoing and repeated celebration.

Let this post be a regrounding, then – a resurrection, a recommitment to that which keeps me doing this, late into the night at the kitchen table while the world slumbers. For as much as I love all of you, and the community which has (to my grateful surprise) coalesced around this blog, in the end, as I noted just yesterday over at Star Maker Machine, I listen to music to commune with myself – to recapture those rare transcendent moments when the worlds outside and in are made complete through song.

Without these artists, there would be no “us”, no “me”. Without them, there would be no Cover Lay Down.

These are the voices that sing in the deepest recesses of my heart. I hope they sing to you, too.

It’s coming on pledge drive time here at Cover Lay Down; if you like what you hear, and want to throw a few bucks our way to defray the high cost of file hosting and bandwidth, we won’t say no. But Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to support the work of folk musicians and singer-songwriters. So click on links above to learn and listen more, and purchase tour tickets and CDs. Give these artists a chance to change your life, too.

1,118 comments » | Uncategorized