Archive for November 2010

Holiday Coverfolk 2010, Vol. 1: Christmas, (Re)Covered
(New and newly-found holiday songs from familiar faces)

November 27th, 2010 — 07:41 pm

Every year, I find my struggle to stave off Christmas Creep stymied by the drive to provide the meaningful and new before early-season eagerness can be replaced by weary resignation.

Oh, sure, I wish it were otherwise – after all, December has so much more to offer, from Hanukkah to the very real possibility of an early snow day. But being the last blogger on the block to cover Christmas risks hitting folks when their patience for the songs of the season has already been exhausted. And dropping the best of what we have to offer into an unwelcome lap frames fruitful artistry as fruitcake, heavy and unwanted, when it should arrive fresh and new as the December snow, sparkling and light with joy.

So yes, it’s early for the holiday samplers to begin in earnest. But then, we’ve but a month before these songs get shelved again, and all competitive urgency aside, giving artists their due time in your worthy ears does seem to warrant the immediacy.

In the spirit of the modern season, then, and in the interest of giving the people what they want to hear, here’s the first of what will surely be several holiday-themed features this year. We’ll start with ringing in the new, so that this year’s top crop can be given their full potential, with new work from familiar faces this weekend; stay tuned for old favorites, carols and coverage from young and newly-discovered artists, and more as the weeks progress.

The Indigo Girls – who we covered in full way back in September, 2009 – have waited a long time to take on the holiday spirit, perhaps because their early work, so heavily steeped in raw depression and rage, was anathema to the tone and tenor of the season.

But the long-standing duo has broadened their perspective since then, finding comfort and joy in creating anthems and courting hope where once they spewed forth only anger. Now, in keeping with their long-standing commitment to diversity and social justice, they present new seasonal record Holly Happy Days, a diverse set of songs from various sources and traditions, which yaws from sparse yet cheerful pop to dark folkrock. And though the synthesized production causes a few tracks to come off as cursory, the underlying pain of their earlier work still lingers appropriately in such tunes as Peace Child and the album-closing piano-led hymn There’s Still My Joy – providing balance to the larger mass of upbeat and hopeful numbers, including both their fast-paced take on a Klezmer Hanukkah tune, which would have fit easily into our midweek feature on the Guthrie family, and this mellow cowboy take on O Holy Night.

In his new holiday EP Christmas Gift, alt-country fave Scott Miller, who we’ve not yet covered, takes on John Prine, who we have. I don’t know as much about the Southern-based one-time rock star as I apparently should, though several Americana bloggers I trust seem to think he’s at the forefront of the modern canon. But the gentle gospel lilt he lends to Prine’s old chestnut makes for a pretty stunning transformation of an oft-covered favorite, while other cuts, from a “dueling banjos” arrangement of Joyful Joyful to a slow twangy cover of Neil Young’s Star Of Bethelem, along with several well-crafted originals, shine as well. If the Christmas Gift EP is typical of Miller’s work, he’s got one more fan in me as of right now.

For comparison’s sake:

Just One Angel, a new project spearheaded by Christine Lavin, is predominantly a collection of originals, from many of the same crowd that brought you the In My Room tribute album which we featured earlier this year. Lavin’s lighthearted spirit and tender nature are easily evident, with songs ranging from irreverent to holy, and like the aforementioned tribute, this one comes recommended especially for older folkies, who will recognize the names of many artists here.

Among the gems on Just One Angel, I found a Dar Williams cover from Darryl Purpose, who we first took note of in our July 2010 tribute to the Dave Carter songbook; a quick search of the archives brought me to the softspoken folksinger’s self-released 2002 Christmas album The Gift of the Magi (And Other Seasonal Stories), a delightful set of modern folk coverage which includes both the Dar tune and a second Carter cover. Head back into our own archives for features on both Dar covering and Dave covered, but don’t forget to pick up both Darryl’s holiday record and the Just One Angel compilation first.

Bonus points for Kate Taylor‘s take on Auld Lang Syne from the same compilation as above, originally released at the turn of the century as her very first single after a 20 year hiatus from musicmaking. We hit a few of our favorite covers of the perennial New Years tune last year around the turn of the calendar, but there’s a hidden secret bonus traceback here, too, for those who recognize the harmony vocalist on the track. Yes, that’s Kate’s more famous brother, alright. Uncredited here, but unmistakable.

Like many labels this time of year, Bedroom Community – that’s Sam Amidon‘s label, for those without encyclopedic recall – will be releasing its own collection of seasonal tunes, aptly entitled Yule, which in the case of the tiny Icelandic outlet in question means remixes, exclusive tracks, unreleased album outtakes and scores which trend towards the fragile, icy extremes of the indiefolk world, all available free to download exclusively with every purchase made through their web store until the New Year. The collection includes an acoustic version of Kedron, Amidon’s contribution to the 2008 nufolk spiritual gathering Help Me To Sing: Songs of the Sacred Harp; the tracks from Yule haven’t been released yet, but here’s the original release to warm the heart a bit before it drops.

Finally, and in other news: Sam Billen, whose kickstarter-funded holiday project we wrote about several weeks ago, reports that the album has been sent along to the printers as of last Friday, so expect the freebies to be available pretty soon; in the meanwhile, here’s a pair of delicate, sweetly soaring tracks from his 2008 holiday collection Merry Christmas, now available free to download from the website.

Oh, and in the interest of not repeating myself this year, while also providing fodder for those once again searching for just the right mix for the holiday season, here’s the full set of last year’s Christmas posts:

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk sets and features twice weekly without fail, come snow or unseasonal warmth. Coming soon: new holiday covers from new artists, acoustic favorites from yesteryear, and more holiday cheer!

1,280 comments » | (Re)Covered, Holiday Coverfolk

Folk Family Double Feature: The Guthries

November 24th, 2010 — 10:11 pm

We’re long overdue for a comprehensive look at the Guthrie legacy here on these pages. And with Arlo’s infamous long-form Thanksgiving narrative Alice’s Restaurant Massacree riding the airwaves this weekend in anticipation of next week’s inevitable all-Christmas-all-day switch-over, it seems there’s no time like the present.

Thinking more deeply, though, Woody’s songbook also bears out well as a soundtrack for giving thanks. So many of his narratives point to the dustbowl world, with its depression-era desperation for that which we take for granted today, from freedoms to support structures, from our pastures of plenty to the homes we share. To listen to Woody Guthrie in this time and place is to recognize that, though we have come so far, and have much to give thanks for, there are still those whose lives are defined by what they lack. To play out these songs as a soundtrack of thanksgiving is to honor those who have no gatherings to attend, no families with which to break bread, little resources for travel or table.

Today, then, as a companion piece to the testament to Woody’s poetics posted today over at Star Maker Machine, we offer a relatively short holiday-ready exploration of three generations of Guthries – Grandpa Woody, dad Arlo, daughter Sarah Lee, and more – followed by our biggest weekday song-set yet, a true double-feature, with both Guthries covering and Guthries covered.

May the songs, and the story behind them, serve as soundtrack for the heavy heart and the light spirit alike on this Thanksgiving weekend.

There’s little debate over the significance of Woody Guthrie. Arguably the most important singer-songwriter in history, the man’s influence on and in American folk music is unparalleled, his impact on Western culture profound. From his anti-fascist guitar to the recently-cast songs, previously unrecorded, which both Billy Bragg and Wilco and the Klezmatics have brought to marvelous musical fruition in recent years, thanks to the excellent curative work of daughter and Woody Guthrie Foundation overseer Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s stature continues on larger than life – which is saying a lot, given his presence in the early labor and folk movements, and the strength which he lent to culture in his years on this earth.

Of course, Woody’s legacy continues through his family as much as it does through his iconic stature and songbook. While the fine work of preservationist Nora nurtures that legacy, son Arlo Guthrie, himself an inheritor and continued chronicler of his father’s work, had a powerful career of his own in the heady revival days, hitting the charts with Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans and several strong originals, including the well-covered minor hit Coming Into Los Angeles. And though he’s better known for his talking blues style of performance than for the more traditional fare which his father made famous, like his father before him, Arlo’s life and work are steeped in social justice, featuring common themes of protest, unionization, and inequality throughout.

More recently, graddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion have cut several solid albums, as solo artists and as a collaborating duo, including the recent kindie-folk album Go Waggaloo, spearheaded by Sarah and with various family members, which continues a family-friendly trend started by Woody and continued by Arlo. Another of Arlo’s daughters, Cathy Guthrie, has teamed up with Willie Nelson’s daughter Amy; the duo, who call themselves Folk Uke, are a bit more punk and a lot more obscene than the rest of their kin, but the music is fine indeed, and firmly grounded in the folk tradition.

And in the last several years, the trio of Arlo, Sarah, and Johnny, along with Arlo’s son Abe, sisters Cathy and Annie, and various and sundry friends and relations, have gone on tour as the Guthrie Family Legacy Band, performing songs performed and penned by Woody himself along with their own work and the occasional folk standard, proving that the strength of the Guthrie bloodstream remains undiluted even as its progeny branch out into the brave new world of modern singer-songwriter folk.

We’ve posted our share of Woody Guthrie covers in our three years and then some on the web – not surprising, given the rich presence of those songs in the hands and hearts of his peers and his musical progeny. Some remain live, or have been reposted since; as evidence of the man’s legacy, you’ll find links to many of those original posts below.

But much of our earliest Woody Guthrie coverage is worth revisiting, especially in the context of today’s broader lens. And there’s more to share, too, from half a century of tributaries both inside and out of the folkworld. So here’s a doubled set to tide you over until Sunday, with some covers from each Guthrie generation followed by a long set of favorite folkcovers of the Woody Guthrie songbook, in tribute and in thanks.

Set 1: Selected Guthrie Family covers

See also: The Guthrie Family Legacy Band in concert, a full-sized 2007 Mountain Stage concert of Woody’s originals and other songs performed by Sarah, Arlo, Abe, Johnny, and others.

Set 2: Woody Guthrie, Covered In Folk

A favorite Arlo cover, as a bonus:

And more Woody Guthrie coverage, previously on Cover Lay Down:

Cover Lay Down is thankful for music and musicians, independent labels and small-scale concert venues, coverage and content … and you.

935 comments » | Arlo Guthrie, Folk Family Friday, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody Guthrie

Single Song Sunday: Amazing Grace, Redux

November 21st, 2010 — 11:42 pm

I’m full of grace and gratefulness as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches this year, most especially because I’ve just this evening returned from the final performance of an especially intense and intensive two-week production run of Willy Wonka at our local community theater. The cast was wonderful, and working with my entire family a treat; the rush that comes with stagecraft may be fading already, but the love I feel right now for an awful lot of people is keeping me up late, burning the near-midnight oil to make our Sunday night deadline.

It’s funny to be back on the stage after two decades shunning the limelight. I forgot how much work it is, to be true, but I also forgot how close the bonds are that grow onstage and backstage, through the shared work of bringing something to light and life. Sure, the applause is a nice boost to the ego, the joy of getting it right from inside the character and scene deeply fulfilling and well worth savoring. But tonight, I’m thinking about how lonely we were, when we moved here after months of homelessness; how rich our lives are now, to have such easy closeness available to us at every turn. How amazing it is to sing together, to play together, with such ease; to have found such community, such opportunity, such grace, when we were once so lost.

I seem to remember from a childhood treading the boards that such highs never last; better to get in what I can before I crash, and sleep sound enough for work again tomorrow. We’ll have a full set of songs of thanksgiving come Wednesday, for sure; for now, in the interest of time, here’s a relevant repost of our very first Single Song Sunday, with the usual repost bonus tracks to flesh things out for those who have been with us since the beginning.

One of the things that makes the hymnal an interesting source for folkmusicians and audience alike is the way the traditionally full-bodied plainsong harmonies and oft-included church organ give way to the sparse plucked-string instrumentation and more gentle, albeit more secular and impure, vocalization of the folk musician, bringing a sense of daily toil and heartache to what can otherwise seems like just another Sunday morning stand-up between platepassing and sermon.

Which is to say: once in a wonderful while the folk tradition turns to the hymnal, and not just because that’s where you find the songs everyone knows.

But to best appreciate the case of today’s featured song, the Christian hymn Amazing Grace (originally known as New Britain; lyrics written by John Newton, who is pictured above), we must remember that most Americans first hear this song as a gospel tune. For many, it was the transitional gospel that first bent the tune beyond the straightness of the pew, pointing the way toward the kind of secularized, humanized ownership of song which marks the folk tradition.

That many of the best folk versions of Amazing Grace seem more grounded in the gospel than the church itself is no surprise; after all, here’s a rare beast that is easy to sing at first glance, and is both lyrically and musically simple and elegant enough for a multitude of meanings and methodological approaches. And despite origins in different communities, folk and gospel go way, way back: both traditions share a sense of songs as communally owned, and both celebrate intent and interpretation over note-for-note perfection.

To further explore this curious drift from church to coffeehouse, today, we feature a set of five folk interpretations of this well-covered spiritual: the high-produced uptempo stomp of Laura Love’s cover, the simple, plaintive pluck of Sufjan Stevens’ banjo, the crossing a capella harmonies of folksisters Chris and Meredith Thompson, Mark O’Connor’s nearly-classical fiddle, and lo, even Barbara Cohen’s twangy, almost alt-country steelstring-and-singer heartache.

Our list is by no means a complete one, but in its breadth, the potential of the hymn as folksong, the clear folk connection between the heard and the played, and the very diversity of the folk genre itself shine through like a light unto the lord.

Let there be light:

Today’s Repost Bonus Tracks include Martin Sexton’s slow, bluesy muse, an instrumental from the mid-seventies Mud Acres collaborative, Ani DiFranco’s electrofolk pastiche, a mellow Garcia and Grisman mando-led version, and Rob Anderlik and Erin Flynn’s pure, delicate guitar-and-stringed take from an Old Town School of Folk Music session.

As always, all purchase links go to the artist’s preferred source. Oh, and feel free to leave your favorite version in the comments, as always. Can I get an amen?

1,313 comments » | Uncategorized

Radio Coverfolk, Redux:
On The Radio, and other thoughts in verse

November 17th, 2010 — 11:44 pm

Two weeks ago, I stayed overnight in the home of Bob Weiser, an old folkfest friend, community organizer, and long-time community radio mainstay with regular shows in two Massachusetts communities. As both a music publisher / distributer of sorts and an old radiohand myself – see below for more on that – it was inevitable that the conversation turn to radio, and we stayed up late chatting about the changes which digitalization has brought to both radio signal distribution and playlist management, not to mention the potential transformation of form, function, and fandom which the streamable show and, increasingly, the clickable track has brought to the form in its newest incarnations.

Since then, the radio’s been on my mind more and more. It continued this week, when my students started to study the subject, as part of our exploration of the evolution of electronic media and their impact on US society. And it will kick in in earnest tomorrow, when, thanks to the wonders of random selection, I start a one-week stint as a diary-keeper for the Arbitron Ratings System, keeping a daily log of my listenership – which will primarily mean tracking car rides, as I tend not to listen to other people’s playlists in the home, despite my respect for Internet radio as a true and viable phenomenon for social participation in what was once thought to be a truly dying medium.

Looking back in the archives, I find that a week’s guestblog over at Breakthrough Radio prompted a short musing ramble on the subject way back in December of 2008. As I said back then, elseblog,

Over a decade ago, before I was a music blogger, I had a regular late-night radio show at the boarding school where I lived and worked. My audience was primarily a captive one: the broadcast range was small and, other than our own student population, consisted mostly of New England hills and a few sparsely populated towns. The playlist was broad, and mostly geared towards my own tastes, and if anyone didn’t like it, it wasn’t like they had any other choices in the area.

Since then, of course, the music media spectrum has shifted significantly, and so has my employment — the inner-city public high school where I teach these days isn’t open at night, and even if it were, it has no radio station for me to commandeer. But then, it hardly needs one. Technology evolution and industry changes have brought about new media possibilities which tend towards a global reach rather than a local one; I suspect few folks still listen to that old prep school radio station over the airwaves, now that it and every other radio station in the universe is online, but I also suspect that significantly fewer people listen to that tiny school station at all, given that our primary listenership was once comprised of folks who had little choice of what to listen to at all.

The joys of joining Breakthrough Radio that week went beyond the wonderful confluence of blog and radio station 2.0, of course. But there’s something to be said for the continued collaborative coexistence that is blogging and radio, and it’s worth saying it out loud: stations like Breakthrough Radio, with its internet presence and “DJ’s choice” format, not to mention the streaming and increasingly webbed presence of more traditional forms, remain “where it’s at” in radio these days.

And conveniently, as I noted here at the time, radio is a popular theme in song: once upon a time, musicians penned songs in tribute to the DJ voices which spun out their adolescences one heartbeat at a time; long after The Buggles raised the specter of video, the radio holds a place in our memories both cultural and individual.

But though many songs about the radio play off of the Top 40 subject, with both covers and originals coming across as sonic reflections of the mainstream, there’s still a few folk and folk-y covers out there which fit the theme. Here’s the lot, an unusually broad-sounding set even for us, with hope that those who have been with us since 2008 don’t mind the few repeats from that long-ago feature.

769 comments » | Uncategorized

Covering The Elseblogs: Coverfolk from around the web

November 14th, 2010 — 11:03 pm

We’re team players here at Cover Lay Down, and though it’s been a bear of a month on the home front, it’s been an especially good time to find great coverfolk “out there” in the bloggiverse. So today, we recognize our peers – enjoy the linkage, and don’t forget to bookmark the blogs you discover along the way!

Over at Cover Me, where a host of new contributors have cranked up the incidence of posting, Greg shares two new tracks from 20 year old singer-songwriter Laura Marling, whose newest double-sided single sports a pair of delicate covers produced by Jack White, and released through his label Third Man Records as one of a series of limited edition 7-inch singles.

I’ve included one of the new tracks below, a stunningly anachronistic take on Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run the Game reminiscent of an early Joni Mitchell combined with Nick Drake’s best, and thrown in a great version of a Mumford & Sons song taken from an NPR World Cafe session last Winter, and an older collaborative cover we first shared here a year ago as part of a discussion on the Commodification of Folk; head over to Cover Me to stream the other new Marling track, a sweet, delicate cover of Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done, and then follow the links to check out both more of Laura Marling and the entire Third Man Records catalog, which is coming along nicely.

Laura Marling: Blues Run the Game (orig. Jackson C. Frank)

Both Cover Freak and Chromewaves celebrated International Bowie Day this weekend with coverage; neither of the shared sets are folky, really, but coverlovers whose tastes run broad should definitely check ‘em out. Our own 2007 tribute to the man and his songbook is no longer active, but the writing remains; here’s two favorite covers from that long-ago feature, as a belated contribution to the weekend’s theme.

I received notice of this delightful Sufjan Stevens cover direct via email, with an offer to share it as a free download, but not until after The Recommender had posted it as an exclusive stream, after which the track made the inevitable rounds of the folkblogs, including The World Forgot. The result is that, thanks to my inability to keep up with the frantic pace of the bloggiverse, you get the best of both worlds here: a link to other worthies celebrating a worthy band, and the song itself as a downloadable. Cool.

The Good Natured, which is really just the girl depicted above and a few occasional yet able assistants, are new to me, and their MySpace page styles them as some sort of Electro-gothpop, but after this fragile, melodically-rich cover of one of my favorite heartbreaking songs, you better believe I’ll be on the bandwagon from here on out. For comparison’s sake, I’ve also included an older cover from indie guitar/banjo instructor Doron Diamond, aka Cougarman8, which is also beautiful, if much less transformative.

Seattle-based singer-songwriter and Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman‘s take on Neil Young album Tonight’s The Night is dark and intimate, with Tillman’s scratchy voice and sparse arrangements a vast improvement on Young’s whine. The set comes out of nowhere, with no source notation and nary a mention on Tillman’s Wikipedia page, but Aquarium Drunkard’s got the lot, and I highly recommend ‘em all, most especially the first track below, with its gorgeously broken harmonies. With thanks to amazing indiefolk coverwatcher Captain Obvious for the passalong.

Thanks to regular reader and frequent commenter Maine Character, who sent along a link to Singapore-based bootleg site Big O Magazine and its recent posting of the original demos for Gillian Welch’s first studio recording, in beautiful soundboard quality. An oddity in the world of demo recordings, in part because so few of the tracks would ultimately make it onto her true debut Revival, or indeed ever be released on an official album at all, the set includes two songs which would be recorded first by other artists – making the recordings technically cover songs, despite their early 1995 performance here by the artist who wrote ‘em.

I’ve had these sitting around for a while, ever since A Truer Sound posted them in 2007, but maybe you haven’t heard ‘em yet – or maybe, like me, you just plumb forgot about them, and needed the reminder. So here’s the goods, with the caveat that both Kathy Mattea and Emmylou Harris quite probably had a chance to hear these takes before they recorded their “originals”. For more songs recorded “first” by other people than their famous songwriters, head over to Star Maker Machine, where this week’s theme, entitled Other People’s Songs, continues the thread.

Finally, as we noted when we first featured their delicate indiefolk in January of this year, Woodpigeon blogs their own stuff, and much of it includes homespun tracks of one sort or another – including, frequently, a coversong or two. Most recently, they posted an odd indiefolk collage cover from an upcoming tribute to Plumtree entitled We’ve Liked You For a Thousand Years, and a couple of covers recorded live on CJLO radio in Montreal last November with principal Woodpigeon songwriter Mark Andrew Hamilton and fellow folksinger Leif Vollebekk; taken together, the latter pair make an excellent tribute to both Bob and Hank. Check it all out, including a link to purchase their newest EP Our Love Is As Tall As The Calgary Tower, which includes new songs and remixes, plus a cover of Withered Hand’s No Cigarettes, at the Woodpigeon website.

953 comments » | Uncategorized

Solitude Songs:
On Being Alone In The Middle Of Everything

November 10th, 2010 — 03:01 pm

It’s pretty quiet here, just after noon on a rare sickday at home. The kids are at school, as they should be; the wife is off with a friend, doing some last minute shopping for Friday’s opening night. One of the cats – I can never tell them apart – curls up next to me on the couch; the dog rests on the chair opposite, her eyes closed, her breathing gentle in sleep. And though the phone rings occasionally, startling in the overwhelming silence, I’ve turned off the music, the better to hear the rare rush of wind as November chills the air outside.

It’s rare for me to be alone in the middle of the day. I spend my worklife in front of students, my evenings at rehearsals and meetings. Weekends are generally for family, as they should be. Those precious hours between, when they come, are in high demand, as grading, friendships, and other social obligations crowd the brain, demanding that we do for others, always others, supposedly in the name of our selves.

Even those few hours I do spend on my own each day are often framed by their exceptionality, hemmed in by their transitional nature. My early morning wake-up ritual before the family awakens, the commute in and out, those few tired hours late at night while the kids and wife are asleep: such sacred time is meaningful, but it is defined in most ways by the social structures which make it both possible and necessary. To be alone, in this state, is more about what it isn’t than what it is. And though that’s true and accurate, to consider aloneness as a state of being without, instead of a state of being, limits what we can do with our time by ourselves – and how it can be used to serve us.

For so many of us, becoming an adult means trading solitude for partnership and survival, parenthood and love, collaborative worldchanging. We exist in the comfortable companionship of community, friends and talking and beer and joy: the cast and crew laughing on stage as we try to trip each other up during tech rehearsal, the teacher’s lounge at the beginning of the year, when all is fresh and new and full of promise, the thirteen of us on Halloween, old and young, costumed and laughing as we walk the orange-leaved streets.

We are told that such a life is fulfilling, and I’m not disagreeing. I’d never give it up; I am blessed; my life is full and satisfying. I am, at heart, a people person, defined most often and at my best in reaction to others, most honest and joyful in discursive interaction. Having children and a loving partner is part of how I remind myself that I am alive.

But I miss being alone, sometimes. And sometimes, it’s hard to find sympathy for that emotion. Because in a connected culture, we don’t often speak of the value of finding comfort in the company of the self.

In the world of music, especially, being alone is most often synonymous with loss and loneliness, and vice versa. A year ago, for example, we posted a whole mess of covers of Gillian Welch’s Orphan Girl, a song which speaks closely and dearly to our topic today. Our 21-song Covered In Folk feature on the John Prine songbook last March included four favorite covers of Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, from the likes of Amos Lee, Jeffrey Foucault, Hayes Carll, and Nanci Griffith. In May, we treated you to 16 covers of Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, and spoke therein of the ways in which losing others took its toll on our happiness. More recently, for the anniversary of Sept. 11, we took on two favorite covers of Paul Simon’s Only Living Boy In New York, and there’s plenty about loss there, too, as you might expect. In all four cases, the songs are still up, and I highly recommend the posts if you’re a fan of any of our culture’s greatest chroniclers of emotion.

But there’s many ways to approach solitude, from celebration to regret. And so, today, we offer a broader set of songs, as heavy on the upbeat folk rock as it is on the maudlin and sparse, that address the state of being alone, in all its glory and grief. Most are, predictably, more sad than celebratory. But may this short playlist nonetheless serve you as a stalwart against the chaos of busyness and being. May you celebrate the self in all ways, always, in solo practice and in communality, as warranted. And may you never be alone, except when you want to be.

Cover Lay Down still loves you … twice a week, without fail.

1,105 comments » | Uncategorized

Single Song Sunday: Long Black Veil
(Vandaveer, Rosanne Cash, David Grey, Jerry Garcia, Tim O’Brien & more!)

November 7th, 2010 — 11:51 pm

This well-covered ballad, originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell just over fifty years ago yet so timeless it’s often erroneously cited as a traditional tune, is not as simple as it seems. Where the vast majority of both traditional and modern folksongs range from simple verse to simple chorus and back again – if indeed they use chorus structure at all – here, the doubled chorus makes for a tripartite pattern, a heart-stutter that well suits the Saki tale of the story, twisted and self-sacrificing, with its well-timed reveal at the end of the second verse, and its grounding in the simple, monosyllabic imagery of cold, darkness, and death.

And yet – in part because the original recording represented Frizzell’s deliberate move away from honky-tonk and towards a more folk/Nashville sound – there’s room for a surprisingly broad variation in the narrative voice, a range of angst and honor available to those who take on the role of the falsely-accused man ready to take his secret to the grave to protect those he loves. As a consequence, the song entered the coverstream early as a standard in several genres, thanks in part to mid-century coverage by Johnny Cash, The Band, Fred Neil, Burl Ives, The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, and outlaw country musician Sammi Smith, who gave the tune it’s biggest charting record in ’74.

As with many well-covered songs, there’s plenty of hit-or-miss to be found in the archives here. The Mick Jagger and the Chieftains version, for example, which serves as title track for the Irish band’s 1995 collaborative release, is just about as awful as that combination promises, a dragging poptune with piercing Irish whistle that manages to be both maudlin and syrupy. Baez’ work is not to my taste, either, though to be fair, that’s more of a universal sentiment than a comment on either of the takes she recorded. The infamous Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash duet is, sadly, drowned in strings. The pre-revival folk-hootenanny style which Neil, Ives, and The Kingston Trio adopt is a bit much for me this evening. And much of the best work out there is far too country for a folkblog, leaving Don Williams, Bobby Bare, Smith, and others off our plate for good reason, though you’re welcome to pursue ‘em if your ears bend that way, too.

Still, like all our Single Song Sunday feature songs, Long Black Veil is more than folk enough to have spawned a strong set of eminently listenable covers, from the classic folkrock of Dylan, Dave Matthews Band, and a country-rock-ified David Gray to vastly different yet equally comprehensive rhythmic, melodic, and structural breakdowns from true folk artists Caroline Herring and Kate McDonnell. Roots/bluesman Spencer Bohren turns in a dark, lap-steel driven piece, while the bluegrass balladry of Tim O’Brien and Garcia and Grisman demonstrate a wide range within the form, too. And even more slow, tender, and stripped down alt-folk versions from Vandaveer, The Proclaimers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Rosanne Cash call more to the country origins of the song without straying beyond a core folk sound.

Here, take a listen, and hear what I mean.

Cover Lay Down posts your favorite coverfolk each Wednesday and Sunday.

1,302 comments » | Single Song Sunday

Mailbox Mayhem: The Smorgasbord Post
(Duncan Sheik, Sarah Jarosz, Frank Turner, Kickstarter Projects & more!)

November 3rd, 2010 — 07:23 pm

It’s another busy week here in the boyhowdy household, what with our production of Willy Wonka a week away and midterm grading upon us at my day job. But I’m not even home today – I’m three hours away, crashing in an old friend’s off-season beach house, so I can attend tomorrow’s annual conference of the state’s School Committees and Superintendents, where they’ll be discussing social media in the classroom and school policy crafting, two subjects near and dear to my media-teaching heart.

It’s not a vacation per se; indeed, with cyberbullying a constant threat, the stakes are high in the current political atmosphere. If I play my cards right, I can help school leaders across the state see the value in crafting good policy that allows teachers and students to have better access to and support for using tools which truly support collaborative, 21st century learning in the classroom, from wikis and blogs and chat spaces to the more rarified forms of edu-specificity. Do it wrong, though, and committee members in many schools are likely to throw out the baby with the bathwater, the better to protect themselves from potential pitfalls and the everpresent threat of lawsuits or worse.

But though my head is full of jargon, my ears are full of the newest in coverage to come down the pike. So here’s a few strong selections from this autumn’s most recent mailbox contributions and other songsources, with thanks to those who send along the best new music – the better to make the miles pass quickly, and the heart stay at peace among the chaos.

I got into Duncan Sheik when you did, probably – it was hard not to like Barely Breathing the first hundred times we heard it on the radio, though thanks to classic and AAA radio, it’s come on a bit too often since then. Since that one charted, the artist has been a busy man under the pop radar, scoring a Tony Award-winning musical, producing for other singer-songwriters, playing with others on tour, and writing music for film soundtracks, not to mention producing a handful of albums which – while good – never made the splash his solo debut did.

Happily, Sheik’s newest half-pint release, a 5-track EP of 80′s covers, is a return to form, bringing a nice steady popfolk beat to beloved gems and deep cut b-sides from The Cure, Howard Jones, and Depeche Mode. Here’s his pulsing radio-ready take on everyone’s second-favorite Tears for Fears tune, with here-and-there vocal support from Rachael Yamagata and some beautiful plucked strings that fade into atmosphere by song’s end.

Kelsea Olivia, perhaps aka Sing The Body Electric, is hard to track down – a google search of the LA-based amateur reveals mostly personal pages on Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, and Facebook, and she’s clearly not any of the all-male bands which come up when you google the band name attached to the track. But her take on Bright Eyes’ First Day of My Life is a darling slice of lo-fi indiefolk-slash-americana, complete with an instrument that sounds like either a slack-key guitar or a deliberately out of tune dobro, and something toy piano-ish. It’s nice to be a coverblogger; you get such wonderful stuff from the universe…

Young newgrass prodigy Sarah Jarosz‘ wonderfully funky fiddle-and-mando-driven b-side take on Bill Withers’ Grandma’s Hands is but one track of two on the aptly-named The New 45, which creates a conundrum for the honest, artist-centric coverblogger. I don’t usually post songs in this sort of situation – after all, sharing the one cuts the profitability of the two-song single in half – but My Muse, the original which pairs with the cover on The New 45, and is due to appear on her as-yet-untitled sophomore album coming this Spring, is equally delish, so I’ve decided to compromise by streaming the trackproviding a label-approved 45 second sample, confident that my readers will do the right thing here.

So listen below to the stream sample, check out a live version of My Muse recorded earlier this year in Nashville, watch Sarah’s set on Austin City Limits this Saturday alongside Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, and then head over to Sarah Jarosz’ website to buy The New 45. Now.

I didn’t know anything about William Elliott Whitmore before I heard this track, but his rough-hewn countryfolk take on Don’t Pray On Me is bluesy and raw, an acoustic stand-out among good if decidedly non-folk company on Germs of Perfection, a newly released tribute to seminal punkers Bad Religion. A quick perusal of the feedreader shows the rural Iowan opening for punk-slash-anti-folker Frank Turner, who also appears on the tribute, and making a splash on several of my favorite alt-country blogs, which is always a good sign.

So here’s a tune from each, the sparest tracks on the sampler, though I also like the covers from The Weakerthans and Tegan and Sara among others. And if you like the harder stuff, the entire tribute compilation is free for download for the next few weeks only over at MySpace, thanks to Spin, who compiled it.

Ernie Halter‘s voice is a little bit poppy for us, but this wistful, stripped-down take on Squeeze classic Black Coffee in Bed, courtesy of Cover Freak’s recent pre-fourth anniversary mailbox review, really is a much better vehicle for the lyrics than the wailing tones of the original. And while we’re checking in on cover bloggers and their anniversaries, kudos to Ray of Cover Me on three years of success, and nice work soliciting a full set of Birthday songs from the artists you’ve supported and solicited work from over the years, including LA singer-songwriter John Dissed, whose earnest, ringing acoustic work on this Concrete Blonde original is delightfully fun and transformative.

And finally, news of two great up-and-coming Kickstarter projects have crashed upon our shores in the past few weeks: CLD faves Arborea and Sam Billen, who we featured together in a (Re)Covered post way back in May, are each using the grassroots project-based microfinance site to raise funds for their next release, with the delicate mountainfolk duo Arborea aiming for funding to complete the production and pressing of their next record, slated to include both a cover of Tim Buckley’s Phantasmagoria in Two and an arrangement of a traditional song Black is the Colour, and indiefolker Billen and pal Josh Atkinson looking towards raising enough to fund a limited-release, totally free 2010 Christmas record which will include 8 originals and 8 coversongs from the popular holiday songbook and hymnal.

As a big fan of both artists, and of microfinance models in general, I cannot recommend these projects more highly; Kickstarter, especially, does good by committing to project cancellation if funding goals are not reached in time, so giving now is the only way to ensure that these projects will see the light of day. And Kickstarter’s pledge/reward system works in your favor, too: a relatively low donation nets you a copy of the music when it’s ready, and that warm fuzzy feeling that can only come from patronage; more gets you more, and the goodies here are lovely all around, with multiple Christmas-gift copies from Sam and Josh and rare out-of-print Arborea albums on the table in the $50-$60 donation ranges.

There’s no tunes to post from either project yet, but previous features on both artists remain live; in keeping with the themes of their upcoming work-in-progress, here’s a pair of earlier holiday tunes from Billen, and a live from SXSW pre-mixdown version of Arborea’s Tim Buckley cover, to tempt you into giving what you can to support even more to come.

  • Arborea: Phantasmagoria In Two (orig. Tim Buckley)

    (live from SXSW, 2009)

Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk news, features, and reviews every Wednesday and Sunday without fail. Like what we do? Then pay it forward: support the artists by recommending their websites to friends, giving the gift of music for the holidays, and purchasing albums, downloads, concert tickets and more!

1,445 comments » | Uncategorized