Archive for February 2010

Single Song Sunday: Ring of Fire
(A dozen folkcovers of the Carter/Cash classic)

February 27th, 2010 — 08:50 pm

According to Wikipedia, 80% of the world’s major earthquakes take place in the Ring of Fire, a volatile region of the Pacific that spans a 40,000 kilometer horseshoe of coastland and island nations from New Zealand and Japan to Alaska, Mexico, and a huge swath of the American continents. Last night, for example, an 8.8 earthquake hit Chile, killing hundreds, and leaving as many as a million people homeless. The resultant tsunami activity – earthquakes move water like a kid rising out of a bathtub – is bearing down on the Americas, and has already proved a real threat to Pacific islands from Hawaii to French Polynesia.

Why so little relative death from an earthquake as much as 100 times more powerful than the quake which recently hit Haiti? Infrastructure and population density, mostly. Chile has money; its buildings shuddered, but most did not fall. Whether the waves that follow will hit already-broken communities, adding significantly to the death toll, remains an unknown.

June Carter didn’t have the seismic activity of the Pacific in mind when she wrote of her burning love for Johnny Cash way back in the early sixties, of course – instead, as the story goes, she took her titular phrase from the line “Love is like a burning ring of fire,” which she found underlined in one of her uncle A.P. Carter’s Elizabethan poetry books.

But the consuming conceit of loving an addict and alcoholic is a complex and effective device, a metaphor of “the transformative power of love,” as Roseanne Cash puts it, that has rung true through the ages. Ring of Fire is one of Johnny Cash’s most covered tunes, and generally cited as such, despite having been recorded first by June’s sister Anita on her 1962 Mercury Records album Folk Songs Old and New, which is where Johnny first encountered the haunting lyrics. According to Cash, adding the mariachi horns came from a dream, and the south-of-the-border punctuation seems to have clicked, as it was his version that caught the ear of the culture, eventually settling in as #87 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest songs of all time.

Johnny Cash would have been 78 this week. Other blogs have been celebrating by noting the release of his final posthumous collection of new material American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the last of the deliciously folk series of Rick Rubin-produced “American” recordings which Cash released in the final years of his life – a set of records that form the core of my own Cash collection, as, perhaps more than any of his life’s work, they serve as evidence of the true folk sensibility of the artist.

Originally, my intent today was to pay tribute to the Man in Black by offering some favorites from that series, which is chock full of poignant, perfectly broken covers of Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, and other songs stripped to the bone and retranslated as spiritual guideposts, a man looking back on a life spent walking the line between pain and redemption. But in the context of the most recent global disaster, there is perhaps no better way to celebrate his influence and soul than through a spectrum of folk and roots artists’ coverage of Ring of Fire – a song originally written to express a troubled love for Cash himself, ultimately redeemed by Cash and his loving partner as a dark celebration of love and its trials, and eventually grounded in the popular imagination as a song from the man’s own soul.

For to love the world’s music is to love the world. And as the walls of our safe havens shake and crumble, and disasters crash the beaches that we have built as bulwarks around us, we are reminded evermore that the world needs our love, just like Johnny needed June, to be whole.

Speaking of helping hands and natural disasters: Thanks to all who participated in our recent “pay it forward” fund drive – together, we raised over $80 for Doctors Without Borders and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts!

As a very special thank you to my readers, all those who give five dollars or more to help cover server costs at Cover Lay Down before the end of March will receive a homemade live bootleg mix of covers from this past year’s Clearwater, Grey Fox, and Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals. Click here to donate, and learn more about the project.

1,396 comments » | Johnny Cash, Single Song Sunday

Pat Wictor Covers:
Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Son House, Dave Carter & more!

February 24th, 2010 — 09:43 pm

Success is a fickle and elusive concept in the modern folk world. Being well respected in such a small community of fans may keep you on the road, but it takes an awful lot of coffeehouse sets to pay a mortgage. It’s no secret that even well-recognized names performing in the folk vein are lucky if their new albums sell a few thousand copies. For every one of the tiny handful of acts in each generation – From Dar to Dylan, from Patty Griffin to Nanci Griffith – that manage to break the barrier between small folk radio and mainstream recognition, there are hundreds of excellent acts on the circuit for whom success is measured in smaller increments of rise and fall.

Pat Wictor is an interesting case in point. After leaving a teaching career in 2001 to focus on musicianship full time, his fourth album, Waiting For The Water (2004), reached #4 on the FolkDJ playlist by February of 2005; his subsequent release, Heaven Is So High…And I’m So Far Down (2006), was a critical breakthrough, netting him nationwide playlist slots and plenty of positive press in the folk publications.

Being voted one of three “Most Wanted” artists at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival’s emerging artists showcase that year netted the New York artist a feature spot on the mainstage the following year. Similar accolades from the Kerrville Folk Fest in 2007, plus a nomination for emerging artist of the year at the International Folk Festival, seemed apt confirmation of his well-deserved welcome from the folk community.

But as many artists discover the hard way, keeping the buzz going after the “new” label wears off can be an uphill climb.

[Update, March 2: after further research and discussion, I see that I mistook Pat's move from "new and peaking" to a more settled spot on a more national scale as a loss of status and recognition in the folk community - which was, it turns out, a misrepresentation of Pat's own experience. I'll address this more formally sometime in the next week or three; in the meanwhile, my commentary on his excellent musicianship stands, and Pat's newest album, like the rest of his work, remains highly recommended.]

Like many singer-songwriters of his generation, Pat Wictor’s turn in the spotlight as a rising star has not necessarily been the first step on a larger ladder to fame and fortune. 2008 release The Sunset Waltz was a solid album, but it’s noticeably absent from Wictor’s website bio, perhaps suggesting that it did not receive the same critical reception as his two previous works. And noticeably, Pat’s presence on festival mainstages has waned significantly since 2007. Last year, his only even semi-official appearance In 2008, for example, my only experience of his performance at Falcon Ridge was a tiny unmiked vendor-sponsored set in the aisle of the vendor area, attended by a small crowd of perhaps twenty wandering souls and shoppers, and me. A far cry from the mainstages, indeed.

I’ll admit, catching Pat Wictor’s casual off-stage performance at Falcon Ridge ’08 was my first chance to hear him play live; my volunteer work at Falcon Ridge often keeps me from the stage, and I’m no longer young enough to stay up until the wee hours of the morning at the song circles on the hill. But finally having the chance to encounter Pat Wictor’s performance in person was a revelation. Thing is, though I had thoroughly enjoyed the few tunes I had found on his website in previous years, now that I’ve had the chance to see him, and spent some time steeping myself in his catalog, I really, really like Wictor’s work.

Wictor’s undeniable talent as a performer and songwriter, coupled with the relatively unique combination of bluesy, fluid, slide-guitar-driven folk and spiritually uplifting lyrics, are a potent mix. His warm, mellow tenor drips with Dave Carter’s gentle soul, and a soulfulness that is as light and graceful as Odetta’s was deep and dark. Combine this with his powerful, gentle presence – there’s something genuine and earnest about Pat that comes across through both his studio work and his live performance – and you’ve got something rare and precious, indeed.

Pat Wictor isn’t the kind of artist that’s going to make a splash on Contemporary Pop radio, and that’s okay – it’s clearly not his bag. He continues to release his work on his own in-house label, the professional nature of which speaks to a solid attention to his craft, but also seems an indication of a continued existence under the radar. His current tour calendar is sparsely populated with house concerts and co-bills. Four years after the wave of popularity, it’s hard to tell if this is an artist who will still be on the popular folk radar at all a decade from now.

Still, if there was any question that Wictor deserves to stay on our radar, his newest album Living Ever-Lovin’ Live answers it profoundly. Recorded live during a series of intimate 2009 concerts, the album captures an excellent songwriter and performer in fine, confident form, his gentle nature and optimism coming through every graceful lick, and each audience interaction.

A DIY project in every way – self-released, and recorded by the artist as well – Living Ever-Lovin’ Live features several new originals, unreleased takes on crowd favorites, and a trio of familiar blues and gospel songs done up with aplomb. The end result is a sweet, beautiful record, mature and thoughtful, playful and peaceful in turn, refining our impression of Wictor’s genuineness and artistry – and reinforcing my conviction that this is one artist who really should not be forgotten.

Wictor may no longer be eligible for recognition as a new artist, but as Living Ever-Lovin’ Live aptly demonstrates, he deserves our support for a continued canon of work that is well worth our collection and celebration. Here’s a few well-treated covers from his last few albums, shared with permission from this fine folk artist himself; listen and then pick up a copy of Living Ever Loving’ Live direct from Pat Wictor’s website. Perhaps, with our help, we’ll see this potent performer on the main stage once again, where he belongs.

Remember, folks: Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to promote the artists we feature, so that folk music may continue to stand as a thriving component of culture and community. If you like what you hear, please consider pursuing the links above to purchase work from Pat Wictor, and from all the artists we present.

1,490 comments » | Pat Wictor

Monday Exclusive: NEW tradfolk from Decemberists side project Black Prairie

February 22nd, 2010 — 10:37 pm

Hope no one minds the mid-week jump-in, but I just opened an email announcing brand new Decemberists side project Black Prairie – their first show isn’t until next week, at San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival – and was thrilled to discover a beautifully dark, moody acoustic Americana take on traditional folk song Red Rocking Chair attached that just begged to be passed along.

According to the press release, the Portland-based band, who will be releasing their album Feast of the Hunters’ Moon on Bluegrass-and-more label Sugar Hill Records on March 9, features predominantly instrumental string band compositions from three members of the Decemberists – guitarist Chris Funk on dobro, bassist Nate Query, and Jenny Conlee’s accordion stylings – with violin and guitar from fellow Oregonians Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld, and gorgeous here-and-there vocals from Tornfelt on a few tracks as well. As Red Rocking Chair reveals, the resulting sound has elements of gypsy music and bluegrass, coupled with a fluid yet modern indiefolk sensibility; if this song is any indication, the project is poised to take SXSW by storm.

The combination of label and talent speaks volumes about both the great work going on over at Sugar Hill, and the continued development of the Portland scene. More significantly, in this particular case, the appearance of Decemberists/Death Cab producer Tucker Martine, the backgrounds of the various members, and the promise of both a few more traditional numbers plus originals “containing multiple movement that ebb and flow”, leave me more than eager to hear the rest of the album.

Check out the exclusive track below, plus jumpin’ gypsy/klezmer jamgrass track Back Alley on their MySpace page, and then join Black Prairie’s facebook page to stay abreast of a group that may well prove to be the next big thing in both the ongoing string band revival and the continued evolution of folk music.

Apologies for the quick-and-dirty “press release” post style – it’s rare for a coverblogger to be so early in the blogosphere with something this juicy, and I just couldn’t resist. We’ll be back Wednesday with our usual full feature.

1,155 comments » | Uncategorized

To The Stars: Coversongs of Space

February 21st, 2010 — 10:41 pm

It starts with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Goodnight Moon, and before you know it, you’re out in the yard long after bedtime, the winter cold against your upturned nose, holding hands with Daddy and tracking yellow-red Mars through the trees on a clear and moonless night.

From there, looking up into the dark for more than a moment is never done without soulsearching. Summers, we lie on our backs in the folk festival fields to watch the meteor showers, and wonder at how brief the light, and how hot the distant fire. Even tonight, on the long ride home after dark, the moon followed us again, as if to remind us that though we ourselves might wax and wane in our skins, the night skies are our constant companion, our truest metaphor for everything that is holy and mystical.

Our tendency to point and ponder into space is essential to the human condition: an embodiment of and focal point for our love of mystery, and of the endless, boundless potential of the universe around us. Historically, the everpresent heavens have featured heavily in our explanations for how the world works. In an age of science, the pursuit of the unknown and the fears and excitement which accompany our upward gaze after the sun has set and the heavens turned infinite have not faded, just transformed, from stories told by the constellations to stories of the space station, now finally complete, its glorious picture window framed in moonrocks, its view of the world and its cradle of sky there for the taking.

In a way, that is, we depend on outer space to help us understand our inner space. For the skies are the limit, they say – of imagination, and of our understanding – and so we imbue them with everything we are, and wish to be. Fear and fancy, side by side: the moon, the stars, the sun, the space between, and everything else we see but cannot touch, except inside our secret selves.

There’s a rich vein to be mined in the myriad of ways we see the firmament. Over at Sci Fi Songs, John Anealio has inaugurated his new Interstellar Jukebox series with a set of “Space” songs, each contributed by a writer, blogger, or musician which he admires. Though I’m proud to announce that my own round two contribution, a Roches cover of an old Harry Nilsson tune, is due to appear in a day or two, there’s no reason to wait; head over for some great writing and song choices from the sci fi set, and stick around to serve your inner geek via your talented host’s weekly-posted originals, coversongs, and other “odes to androids, princesses, and vampires” while you’re there.

And here’s a set of coverfolk that casts the nets a bit wider, covering the full spectrum of our mixed emotions about space and all it contains. As always, if you’ve got an on-theme coverfolk song to share, we’d love to hear it; feel free to leave mention in the comets below.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and coverfolk sets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,793 comments » | Theme Posts

Tidbit Thursday: Jeff Pianki covers Loggins and Messina
plus Disney, Dr. Seuss, Vampire Weekend, and A-Ha covers here & elseblog

February 18th, 2010 — 10:31 am

Credit where credit is due today to other bloggers for turning me on to the following cover artists and songs.

First, major kudos to Chad of the newly-resurrected, totally refurbished Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands for finding and promoting Jeff Pianki, a young upstart who knows how to play and how to play the social media rising star game. The Michigan-based artist, who posts his own new covers at both YouTube and Tumblr, refers fans to his homegrown collections for mp3s, but I suspect he won’t mind if we host his newest, an utterly amazing bedroom folk cover of Loggins and Messina classic Danny’s Song which, truly, blows every last hint of sappiness out of the original, replacing it with a tenderly broken lo-fi indie greatness.

Pianki seems poised for greatness, too: though he’s not released an official album yet, or even a single studio track, according to his Facebook page, the artist will be opening for Gregory and the Hawk, aka Meredith Godreau, when she comes through his area in May. Makes me wish I lived in Michigan, too.

Elseblog, thanks to Kurtis of the now fully-revived Disney covers blog Covering the Mouse, who asked me throw in a guest post, and posted my contribution yesterday. I chose a particularly international cover for the occasion, in keeping with the multi-national chaos currently overwhelming Kurtis’ Olympic-hosting home province, but to be honest, I found it elseblog myself: at Spanish coverblog Torre De Canciones, who continues to impress with otherwise-undiscovered coversongs that quite often suit our penchant for the gentle and acoustic here at Cover Lay Down.

To prove my point, here’s the pseudonymous Spanish sensation Anni B Sweet with a dreamy, delicate popfolk uke-and-guitar cover of A-Ha classic Take On Me, posted by her blogging countrywoman just this week. Add Torre De Canciones to your feedreader, head over to Covering The Mouse to check out and stream French gypsy-punk band Famille Grendy’s acoustic cover of Chim Chim Cher-ee, and in general, give daily thanks to the Internet for being just plain awesome.

Oh, and speaking of awesome music elseblog: we’re featuring Canadian artists over at collaborative blog Star Maker Machine this week in honor of the Olympics; near as I can tell, my first contribution marks the first time Moxy Fruvous’ amazing nerd rap version of Dr. Seuss kiddie classic Green Eggs and Ham has been on the web since Cover Lay Down moved on from its old host in 2008.

Head over to Star Maker Machine to catch the tune, and to pick up more great musical content from “Canada: America’s Hat”.

1,009 comments » | Elseblog

Covered In Folk: Talking Heads
(featuring 6 covers of Naive Melody and 10 more!)

February 16th, 2010 — 03:17 pm

My brother was the Talking Heads fan in our household. As such, my strongest memories of the group are primarily visual: David Byrne in his trademark oversized suits; album cover images, most especially the stark black-and-tan cover of Stop Making Sense; the New Wave theatricality of the concert video espied in passing as I wandered through the living room looking for books.

By the time we were old enough to venture out to concerts on our own, the band, while technically still together, was primarily involved in solo projects, due in no small part to David Byrne’s tight hold on the musical output released under the Talking Heads moniker, and the resulting on-again off-again bad blood which lingered throughout much of their career as a foursome. Though we did spend a memorable evening in a basement dive bouncing around to Tom Tom Club, a spin-off from married musicians Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth which first formed in ’80, neither of us ever made it to a Talking Heads show, and now it’s two decades too late.

That’s not to say that I don’t recognize their songbook when I hear it, of course. Like so many of our Covered in Folk focal points, Talking Heads play a significant role in the radioplay of our culture. Though their entire reign produced but one American Top 10 hit (1983′s Burning Down the House), their songs are peripherally familiar, choruses heard in record shops while browsing, melodies locked in our heads from almost three decades of movie soundtrack placement and cultural cache.

Though their canon is oft-covered in the jamband world – Phish took on Remain in Light in its entirety for one of their infamous Halloween shows; Dave Matthews and Widespread Panic have recorded covers as well – there’s less Talking Heads coverage in the rest of the musical spectrum, leaving us pushing the definition of “folk” even more than usual in today’s top-heavy set. Yet there’s something about This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) that lends itself to folksong, as our broad set of covers of the song aptly demonstrate. And – as with any band so steeped in the popular consciousness – the songbook lingers, its neurosis-laden, experimental lyrics and easy-to-manage chord progressions available to all, leaving us with a few more gems from the folkworld.

    From the sparse and chilly drone-and-chant of The Old Believers to the fluid, pensive contemplation of Shawn Colvin’s cover, this paean to the feeling of home is the Talking Heads song that seems to offer the most flexible opportunities for coverage. Gunnar Madsen goes for the most delicate version, just guitar and faint jungle drums to match his strained voice; on the other end of the musical spectrum, Bloomington, Indiana rockers Mysteries of Life come in with an alt-country surf rock piece that, while not folk, has plenty of rootsy charm. Acoustic surf-rocker Trevor Green goes worldbeat with a laid-back jam. Even popular indierockers Arcade Fire come in for a turn on the tune, offering a folkrock take with a Jamaican touch, thanks to some well-placed steel drum.
    Yet another lo-fi bedroom cover from The Morning Benders. Though their new album reveals a band much more rock-oriented than their early covers release might have suggested, the raspy, unrehearsed band-around-the-campfire feeling serves the obscure selection quite well, I think.
    Originally recorded for an in-studio Paste session back in 2008, the rising stars of Irish folk rock strip it down to a singer-songwritery guitar-led indie folk ballad with just the right touch of banjo. Perhaps the most delicate cover in our short set, and – as such – a delicious treat from Bell X1.
    This Jim Bianco track comes from Robin Danar‘s mixed-bag all-covers Altered States collaborative collection – just one of many TV, film, and compilation appearances from one of indie music’s hardest-working singer-songwriters. A touch of Tom Waits’ vocal booziness and more than a hint of electro-americana blues make for an appropriately alien landscape of sound.
    Indie darlings The Editors go weary No Depression country rock in this live acoustic take, apocryphally from a 2008 BBC session.
    Okay, it verges on a track from one of those mass-produced “Pickin’ On” cover albums. But the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers are a true-blue bona fide newgrass jamband whose cover comes off like a bluegrass Led Zeppelin, and they get bonus points for demonstrating that there was a picker’s lazy delight hiding in here all along.
    A deliberately mellow, bossa-beat cover from Prozak for Lovers II, Bruce Lash‘s oft-maudlin yet oddly endearing attempt to transform popular songs of disenfranchisement and alienation into something soothing and warm. Lash’s virtual acoustic gigs in Second Life under the name Winston Ackland are well worth finding, if you’re into that sort of thing.
    Roadhouse bluesrock from the reigning queen of white-girl electric guitar blues, recorded live and released on mid-nineties double disc Road Tested.

Bonus points today for a pair of delicate covers from David Byrne’s prolific solo career, plus a surprisingly sensitive take on Richard Thompson from the man himself.

As always, Cover Lay Down exists first and foremost to promote the continuation of folk music; if you like what you hear, we encourage you to follow the links above to purchase and support the next generation of folk.

That said: our month-long “pay it forward” promotion ends tomorrow at the stroke of midnight, and our bandwidth bills are running sky-high these days. DONATE to Cover Lay Down today without delay, and we’ll regift 20% of your generous donation to Doctors without Borders, and another 20% to our local food bank.

As a very special thank you, all donors to Cover Lay Down will receive our Summer 09 Festival Coverfolk Bootleg, an exclusive 17 song compilation of coverfolk featuring Old Crow Medicine Show, Sarah Jarosz, Tim O’Brien, Crooked Still, Tracy Grammer, and more, recorded live by yours truly, and available nowhere else. Click here for more details, and to tender your gift. Thanks, as always, for supporting our collaborative mission.

1,958 comments » | Covered in Folk, Talking Heads

Sweets for the Sweet: Songs of Sugar & Candy for Valentines

February 14th, 2010 — 12:10 am

Part five in an ongoing series.

With two little girls in the family, and a deliberate tendency towards inclusion over babysitters, Valentine’s Day seems to have become a family affair by default. This year, for example, what was originally intended as a suggestion for a romantic afternoon has somehow turned into plans for a nice brunch out with the four of us, followed by a family hottub soak – though I’m not saying what might follow once the kids are abed.

It’s nice to think of Valentine’s as a platform for love on a larger scale. And, as long-married couples well know, though it is truly both sin and stumble to miss Valentine’s Day altogether, missing the mark the other 364 is a bigger sin by far. Hallmark notwithstanding, it is the careful craft of the life together throughout the year which really matters – and planning and capturing the romantic moments as they come is a big part of that.

As such, I think it’s important to take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to not only mark our love, but to reflect on our expression of it, and consider what we can do better in deed and word as the year goes on. And though I tend to be a romantic soul by nature, I’ve been tired this year, missing opportunities more often than not.

Which is the whole point of the flowers and chocolate, in the end – to make our offerings as neither overture nor apology, but as a confirmation of love, and renewal of commitment to that love.

Happily, my sweetheart is a doozy of a gal: sweet and sassy, tender and confident, solid as a rock, understanding in all ways, and always sure of what I need before I can put it into words. Most years I’m her candy man in more ways than one come Valentine’s Day, but she’s been skipping desserts as of late, so this small virtual sampler of Valentine’s candy will have to do – until the kids fall asleep, anyway.

As noted above, we’ve had four Valentine’s Day posts in three years here at Cover Lay Down, and all remain relevant and live – so whether you’re looking for a dozen songs about roses or one of several sets of sweet songs about love, don’t forget to head back in time for the following previously posted tributes to the ones we love.

1,415 comments » | Valentines Day Coverfolk

Popfolk Thursday: The Living Sisters
cover Nancy Wilson, Bessie Smith, ABBA, Little Feat, Tom Waits & more
…plus new recordings from Harper Simon and Brandi Carlile

February 11th, 2010 — 06:46 pm

In trio form, the sweet-voiced ladies of The Living Sisters – LA-based songstresses Eleni Mandell, Inara George of The Bird and the Bee, and Lavender Diamond frontwoman Becky Stark – come off as something akin to a modern version of The Roches, with the production and harmony dynamics of a particularly delicate, indie-fied country girl group. In case you’re new here, from our perspective, this combination is a very good thing indeed.

Love to Live, the upcoming debut from the new femmepop supergroup, is already moving through the bloggiverse like a tsunami, garnering good reviews on the strength of the three performers’ history and new original single Double Knots, which is available all over the place. But both coverlovers and fans of the particularly smooth, production-driven indie popfolk sound which the performers share in common would be well served by putting Love To Live‘s March 30th release date on their calendars on the merits of both the delicate covers streamed with permission below, and the previous work of all three ladies.

  • The Living Sisters: How Glad I Am (orig. Nancy Wilson)
  • The Living Sisters: Good Ole Wagon (orig. Bessie Smith)

Bonus points: it’s not folk, but with the Greyboy All-Stars behind them, The Living Sisters get funky on a totally different version of How Glad I Am originally posted in December over at Rollo & Grady. The setting, a year-end mega-feature in which 60 artists picked their favorite releases of 2009, is worth visiting on its own merits, of course.

In other cover news on the radar, Brandi Carlile‘s new iTunes-only Valentine’s Day EP XOBC has three great originals and two covers: a rendition of The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love which is so blandly interchangeable with the original it’s hardly worth the cost, and an utterly redemptive, heartbreakingly delicate indie-acoustic version of Bryan Adams’ 80s pop hit Heaven which shows that Brandi at her best is truly something very, very special. Out of respect for the small-scale release, I’ll not post the new stuff, but her older Ray Lamontagne cover and this more recent Willie Nelson cover are well worth reviving in honor of the occasion.

Finally, Harper Simon‘s recent NPR studio visit reveals a penchant for ragged singer-songwriter folk with a hint of No Depression Americana, at least in solo morning-after mode. Not bad for a guy older than I am, who cut his chops as a back-up guitarist on tour with his famous father before heading out to Berklee College to emerge as an indie musician.

Harper has taken his sweet time finding fame, but seems perfectly grateful just to be forging ahead on his own time, polishing an on-album sound that ranges from alt-country to indie twee; the result is surprisingly good, and worth sharing. His recent self-titled debut sports guest spots from both Eleni Mandell and fellow second-generation artist Inara George, making it a fitting addition to today’s post, as well. Here’s his Cure cover from the NPR session; you can hear more there, and order up at Harper Simon’s MySpace page.

1,065 comments » | Brandi Carlile, Eleni Mandell, Harper Simon, indiefolk, Lavender Diamond, The Bird and The Bee

Tim O’Brien Covers:
Randy Newman, John Hartford, Jimmie Rodgers, Dylan, Hendrix & more!
…plus bonus covers of the Tim O’Brien songbook!

February 10th, 2010 — 04:16 pm

I’ve been thinking bluegrass all week, thanks to a pair of tickets to this weekend’s Joe Val Festival – an annual mid-winter marathon excursion which we’ve written about profusely in past years. It’s a form that often doesn’t get included in the folk blogger pantheon, save for the tradfolk and oldtimey set, and a tiny handful of Bluegrass specialists, but here at Cover Lay Down we like to define our terms broadly.

In an older sense, of course, our inclusion of the ‘grass is easy to defend: bluegrass is most definitely a folkform, though of a vastly different branch than the revivalist folk which generally defines the term in the popular mind. And though it is one of the newer folk genres – hewn out of old timey and appalachian countryfolk by a young Bill Monroe, and spread outward from there to infiltrate the corners of a culture – modern bluegrass is a broad umbrella, filling in the odd-shaped nooks and crannies between folk, country, and other peripheral forms, its sound ranging from countrified all-out newgrass to a gentle and sweet-sounding music bordering on popfolk.

Still, its origin in the band-driven sound generally frames bluegrass performance as a group thing; Joe Val, for example, will feature plenty of bluegrass groupings, but nary a soloist on the mainstage. Rarer is the bluegrass soloist, though there’s certainly room for the singer-songwriter in the ‘grass. And no one has worked harder to bring solo folk performance back to the bluegrass audience than Tim O’Brien. Today, we feature just a small slice of the vast spectrum of covers from this contemporary bluegrass legend – followed by a short set of bonus tracks from other, newer artists covering his own songbook. Ladies and gentlemen: Tim O’Brien.

Tim O’Brien has been around the barn and back again, as far as the Bluegrass world goes. Famous as a founding member of the seminal 70s and 80s contemporary bluegrass quartet Hot Rize and their Western swing alter ego Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, whose members moved on in the early nineties after a five album run, Tim moved on easily to a strong career as both a highly respected producer and collaborator, and a solo artist trying to capture the full range of folk music, from singer-songwriter work to the exploratory, oft-countrified sound of pop bluegrass.

As a solo artist, O’Brien cites James Taylor and Joni Mitchell as antecedents; though he is generally found in a different section of the CD racks, there’s something to this comparison. O’Brien’s voice is sometimes strained, but it has its own unique beauty, and his adept delivery carries easily from poignant and lonely to playful and proud. His masterful guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin work is stunning in its direct simplicity; as both interpreter and composer, his lyrical tenderness and melodic prowess have an inimitable, easily recognizable style.

Prolific and dedicated to stretching the boundaries of his own craft after 30 years in the business, the Tim O’Brien canon includes over 25 albums in a variety of incarnations as soloist and group member, and each is worth celebrating. O’Brien won a well-deserved Grammy in the Traditional Folk category for his spare, intimate 2005 album Fiddler’s Green; his simultaneous release, 2005 album Cornbread Nation, is a personal favorite, one that moves fluidly through a batch of predominantly trad-song source material, teasing the worldbeat, the folk, the blues, the gospel, and a host of other influences out of oft-shadowed lines where genre blurs, marking his rightful place in the folk pantheon as a name-brand. Cover lovers will also be thrilled with Red On Blonde, Tim’s 1996 tribute to the man whose recordings first prompted him to pick up a guitar at age 12.

I’ve been lucky enough to catch Tim live in several guises: as a sidestage solo act, in duet-mode with his sweet-voiced sister Mollie, and even in full-blown progressive newgrass mode with a revivalist version of Hot Rize, who will next appear together for the unwashed crowds at this summer’s Bonnaroo. Each was a delight. And though even his canon of coverage is far too vast for us to include it all, I’m proud to share a fair sample of his work with folk fans who may have overlooked him. Listen, and then visit Tim O’Brien’s store for much, much more.

Of course, any musician as talented, influential and ubiquitous as Tim O’Brien has inevitably had his share of tribute from other artists, too. Earlier coverage came from the likes of Kathy Mattea, The Seldom Scene, New Grass Revival, and more; today’s bonus tracks include a half-dozen more recent favorites from the next generation of artists performing on and about the lines between bluegrass, folk, country and pop.

*previously posted as part of this Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest feature.
**previously posted along with 8 other covers of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl.
***previously posted as part of a full set of Coversongs about Sleep.
****previously posted as part of a full post of Oceanfolk Covers.
*****previously posted in a set of Passover Coverfolk.

1,129 comments » | bluegrass, Tim O'Brien

New Artists, Old Songs Week Vol. 4:
Covers from The American Popular Songbook And Other Standards

February 6th, 2010 — 04:04 pm

26 year old Frank Fairfield plays old mountain bluegrass and country blues standards solo on banjo, guitar and fiddle; he’s been compared to Mississippi John Hurt, and played sessions with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Robin Peckinold of the Fleet Foxes, who has hosted Frank as a sideman, calls him a man “born out of time,” and sure enough, his recent Daytrotter session, his late November KEXP performance of Cumberland Gap, and this lovely sepia-toned video of Nine Pound Hammer come across like timeless field recordings:

Mack the Knife isn’t an American song by origin, to be sure; instead, it’s from Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, which debuted in Berlin on the cusp of the last Great Depression. But its introduction to the American canon by both Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin in the mid-to-late fifties has made it a popular choice for coverage in a number of genres, enough to win a Grammy for Ella Fitzgerald, and to cause American Idol supervillain Simon Cowell to call it the best song ever written.

Here, on the B-side of his brand new 7″ Newspress Scare, young Vikesh Kapoor breathes new life into the tune, stripping it down to a backporch fingerpicking croon for a folk audience, with great results. And it’s a great introduction to Kapoor, an up-and-coming folk musician whose ear for traditional lyric structure and performance is so resonant with tradition, and whose day-laborer subjects seem so universal, that I spent almost an hour trying to find the “origin” of several of the original tunes on his MySpace page, most notably the delicious ballads Willy Robbins and Down By The River.

Kapoor has been compared to both Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and rightfully so, but he also reminds me of both Davey Graham and more contemporary folk artists Josh Ritter and Joshua James. Newspress Scare drops February ninth on Good People records, and will come with a Midwestern and East Coast tour; Bostonians in our reading audience should plan to catch Vikesh Kapoor at Democracy Center on the 11th for his hometown record release show.

If “non-repetitive pop” musician and trained ethnomusicologist Scott Alexander‘s newest set of songs sound unpolished, it’s because after a sophomore effort with full production, he decided to release his follow-up with a more authentic, cheaper sound. The resulting money-themed 8-song album Scott Alexander Makes 7 or 8 Dollars includes a touch of guitar jangle, slippery one-take production, an interestingly experimental use of banjitar and other instruments, sweet silly lyrics, and a shaky bellow not unlike that of Jonathan Richman, with a hint of Nick Cave’s low, ragged vocal style.

But the cacophony works well, especially on the barebones acoustic Cure-esque Let’s Go Shopping, the fragile female-sung popfolk Penny Gumball, and this strange and ultimately broken-beauty cover. Sounds like he’d be worth catching live, too, and not just because Alexander makes a habit of baking fresh cookies for his audiences, not to mention giving them out free on the streets of his native Brooklyn. And though his songs are arguably anti-folk popsongs through and through, frankly, I had nowhere else to put this Neil Diamond cover this week.

Finally, though we already wrote about local indie pubfolkers The Points North when their label Grinding Tapes released their excellent cover of Auld Lang Syne just in time for New Years, their newest free release – a great, fluid, and mystical lo-fi indiefolk breakdown of Dylan’s Girl from the North Country, which comes via popular blog Ryan’s Smashing Life – only reminds us that this is a band to watch closely. The tension is palpable, the arrangement exquisite, and the accordions, drums, guitar and voice combine to create a sense of distance and longing that utterly transforms the song. Nice work, guys; can’t wait for more.

Thanks for joining us here at Cover Lay Down for our New Artists, Old Songs Week, folks. We’ll return Wednesday with more featured artists, songs, and songbooks from the best of the folkworld.

In the meanwhile, as always, please remember that our goal here at CLD is not just to fill up your iPod, but to connect artists to fans, and vice versa, that music might continue to flow unabated and well-supported. If you like what you hear, please do the performers we feature the honor of following up on links and purchase opportunities.

982 comments » | New Artists Old Songs

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