Archive for February 2011

Covered In Folk: Bill Withers
…from country swing to acoustic funk…

February 27th, 2011 — 10:59 pm

I’m in a restless mood tonight, yawing wide in both taste and timbre. But my nocturnal meanders keep taking me back to covers of the same few songs – and for me, that’s generally an indication that the blogger’s mind will not rest until we take on the history of the author and his songbook.

Ironically, however, tonight’s feature subject exists in a short window of time indeed, even as his songs linger as cultural earworms in the culture today. So let’s move right along to this living legend who has not recorded a single studio album in over a quarter decade. Ladies and Gentlemen: Bill Withers, covered in folk.

In his time, Bill Withers was a relatively prolific statesman of the radio dial, winning multiple Grammy awards for his unique and often genre-bending approach to composition and performance: a powerful combination of blues, R&B, and soul produced both alone and in partnership with a broad set of influences, from Stephen Stills to Hammond organ player and producer Booker T. Jones, both of whom supported his first major release in 1971 on Sussex Records.

But though his star rose quickly throughout the seventies – thanks to funky beats, a sultry voice, and a knack for simple, perfectly soulful melodies and catchy walking melodic lines – Withers was frustrated by the workings of the industry, which kept throwing legal problems his way. By the end of that decade, Withers was already on semi-hiatus, focusing on collaborative projects with the likes of Saxophonist Grover Cleveland Jr. and Bobby Womack in order to avoid his commitment to his new label. In ’85, just fifteen years after he had cut his first album, he walked away from Columbia, nominally to spend more time with family – and though he did ultimately make a few live appearances in the subsequent years, unlike some artists, who keep a hand in as outsiders or secret session players, Withers never formally recorded in the studio again.

Of course, the man lives on: in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2005; in samples and remixes, which keep fragments of his work alive in their original form; in the two songs he contributed to Jimmy Buffet’s 2004 album License To Chill; on the soundtracks to a hundred shows and films and commercials, which surely keep the man happy, wherever he may dwell. And in coverage, he truly shines, with a small handful of songs given life over and over, providing ample evidence of his genius – and plenty of fodder to shake until the best of the best rises to the top.

Here’s a few post-millennial favorites from the vaults, many on the borderline of folk and something else – the backstage unplugged, Country swing, irish folk, and folkblues quadruple-take on Ain’t No Sunshine is an apt example – with each set a fitting tribute to a man whose undeniable influence crosses many lines, even as its origin is so condensed as to confound linear narrative. Heck, I’ve even thrown in a double-cover: an Irish acoustic gospel take on Grandma’s Hands mashed with No Diggity, the rap-soul song by BLACKstreet featuring a young Dr. Dre, which sampled Withers’ original tune for their own Grammy, way back before the turn of the century.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets twice weekly without fail, thanks to your support. Coming soon: a host of great new folk artists have dropped their work in our laps, and we’re eager to introduce you to them through coverage!

798 comments » | Bill Withers, Covered in Folk

Insufficient Funds: The Dwindling Community Chest
(plus 12 coversongs about poverty)

February 24th, 2011 — 12:58 am

We’ve started the budget process over at the school committee table, and the outlook is bleak: State budgets are getting tighter, health insurance takes a bigger bite out of our state-determined minimum funding level every year, and here in Massachusetts, the only way to raise local taxes is to appeal directly to the voters – a tactic we lost by a factor of 5 to 2 just three years ago when we tried to get enough to reopen the middle school library.

It’s all part of a larger trend, of course. Since 2002, our school system has cut 40 full-time positions – that’s 25% of its staff – and though for the first few of those years we were able to keep up with increases in heating costs, textbook costs, state-mandated services, and other such inflationary spending by skimming from the rest of the system, our spendable dollars-per-kid has shrunk significantly in each of the last four. When I was elected to the board in 2007, I inherited a system that was already sustaining a “pay to play” athletic department, and charging kids for bussing in grades 6-12. Professional development – a prerequisite for helping teachers adapt to the changing demands of everything from testing to the rise of the Autism spectrum, and for state-mandated re-licensure every five years – was zeroed out the following year.

And now, with the last of the Federal stimulus dollars on the table just to keep class size from rising past 30, we’re about to throw every chip we’ve got into the pot just to make it through next year. And even with that, my older daughter’s class size is about to go up by 20%.

I’ve been an elected official for four years, and this part of the process never gets easier. Last year with nothing left to dig into but programs traditionally considered essential to a decent school system, we had to cut music and French district-wide, in order to preserve essential core programs like Math, Science, and English. I can only ask you to imagine how hard that must have been for a kid who only survived high school because of chorus and musical theater. Who sings to his kids at night. Who summers at music festivals. Who fell in love through a song. Who writes this blog.

I’m pretty sure I cried on television. And then I voted to cut the damn programs. Because what the hell else was I supposed to do? You can vilify politicians all you want, but in the end, if you won’t pay for it, all we can do is do the dirty work you elected us to do.

It makes the world go ’round, they say. And I wish I had an endless supply to give my kids, and their kids, ad infinitum, to keep the whole damn thing going. Instead, what I’ve got is a chip on my shoulder, a feeling of guilt and frustration about living on the teetering edge of the lower-middle class and yet not having the power to keep my community’s basic services sustainable, and a dozen songs about not having enough. Tonight, it’ll have to do.

Of course, if there’s one singer-songwriter who specialized in portraying the poor, it’s Woody Guthrie. Head back into the archives for our Folk Family Double Feature on the Guthrie Family, including covers of several songs that belong on any good poverty playlist.

Oh, and if you ever have a chance to do so: vote, run for office, protest, give, help, teach, and make change in your community. Lord knows, we need all the help we can get.

935 comments » | Theme Posts

Bluegrass and Beyond: Notes from Joe Val Fest, 2011
featuring Michael Daves, Frank Solivan, The Bee Eaters, Della Mae & more!

February 20th, 2011 — 11:18 pm

In my heart, Bluegrass is the epitome of summer, calling up images of bare feet, hot sun, cold beer straight from the cooler, and warm outdoor nights pickin’ tentside in the camps. And in most audiences, the genre is grounded in the geography of the American South, where summer lingers long and lazy – both in the appalachian ranges which hold its old-timey roots, and in the country music of Grand Old Opryland which so supported its evolution.

But there’s plenty of good reasons why the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival – an annual mid-winter event which celebrates the surprisingly strong New England bluegrass community, previously featured here in 2008 – has won fan accolades and “best fest” awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Crammed into a turreted Sheraton Tara, its conference room workshops, lobby picking circles, and grand ballroom mainstage sets defy all expectations – and the Boston Bluegrass Union, who sponsor the event, deserve kudos for packing in enough time, energy and diversity to make for a grand and intimate experience.

Though it’s a strong festival in its own right, I tend to approach Joe Val as a preview tour for discovery, a guide for what not to miss come July as I make my annual pilgrimage to Grey Fox. And it works: without fail, each time I have attended, I have come away excited about a few new discoveries, and this year’s festival, which ended yesterday, was no exception.

In five years of regular attendance, Joe Val has introduced me to The Infamous Stringdusters, The Steeldrivers, Sierra Hull, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and a plethora of other stringbands, gospel quartets, and high tenor crooners both new and old. Many of these discoveries are driven by coverage – after all, the Bluegrass canon is chock full of old standards, and the genre itself is intimately tied to the performances and songcraft of a finite handful of individuals, from The Carter Family to Flatt and Scruggs, from The Stanley Brothers to founding father Bill Monroe himself.

Given that recent and personality-driven history, I was surprised not to hear any Louvin Brothers covers at this year’s festival, though we did hear three different bands take on Kentucky Waltz on Saturday alone, in fitting tribute to Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday this year. But though, as you’ll see below, I did find a number of new favorites on the mainstage this year, I was even more surprised to find that this year’s most exciting discoveries sprung from the set of one of the most well-known of all bluegrass banjo players.

I’ve seen Bluegrass-and-beyond banjo wizard Tony Trischka solo a few times, including a revelatory introduction 8 years ago at the now-defunct Winterhawk 2000 festival, and in partnership with fellow five-string star Bela Fleck at a memorable Grey Fox workshop a few years later. Trischka’s performance is always fluid and masterful, but it’s never showy, and for this year’s Friday night closing set he played it especially cool, allowing a hand-selected trio of young performers to share his limelight.

Trishka was amazing, as always: fast and magical, both solo and in tandem with another banjo player. But I’m grateful that he gave front billing to Territory, the band he had recruited and organized. Because fiddler Tashina Clarridge was stunning, fluid and graceful, keeping up with the legend’s licks like lightning. And vocalist and guitarist Michael Daves, who I had never even heard of before this weekend, so impressed me that I spent an hour the next morning in his well-attended guitar-and-voice workshop.

Thankfully, both artists perform in other formations, so there’s ample opportunity to celebrate and listen to them outside of the unexpected sideman’s slot. For example: along with her brother Tristan, who plays cello for Crooked Still, Tashina performs and runs string workshops regularly with The Bee Eaters, a group who travel in the same classical-meets-old-timey vein as Crooked Still, The Folk Arts Quartet, and other Boston bands we’ve featured here in the past, and I think you’ll find their Beatles cover below an apt introduction to their chamber folk style and flair.

Meanwhile, Brooklynite Michael Daves, who in performance and morning lesson showed himself to be a mature, thoughtful, extraordinarily deliberate master in hipster glasses and Chuck Taylors, has the mind-blowing power and presence of a bluegrass and neo-old-time superstar. His utterly stunning vocals and deliberate guitar work are only available in live recordings – on his website, and on Live At The Rockwood, a 2007 album which represents his only purchaseable work to date, but even they reveal a star on the rise, with Del McCoury’s raw, high-strung tenor vocals in his throat and no less than Bill Monroe’s deliberate, note-by-note method running through his hand on the strings.

NYC-based readers can catch Michael Daves at the Rockwood every Tuesday night; the rest of us will have to wait until his duo album with indiegrass darling Chris Thile of Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek drops this Spring. After this weekend’s performance, I’m ready to call it album of the year without even hearing it first.

Of course, other voices should have their due here, too. Among this year’s other big discoveries was Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, a modern bluegrass quartet who seem to be making waves in their native Washington, DC. Powerful multi-instrumentalist bandleader Solivan, who whet his chops as a mandolin player and fiddler in both classical and bluegrass venues in California and Alaska before joining Country Current, the United States Navy’s elite country and bluegrass band, early in the 21st century, released two solo albums and mentored and toured with some big names indeed before organizing three other award-winning musicians into the tight-knit group that goes by Dirty Kitchen; together, they craft and arrange some mighty fine original compositions, and Frank delivers them in a powerful, clear voice just right for easy bluegrass listening – fine enough, in fact, to have come to Joe Val straight from the weekend’s National Folk Alliance conference down in Memphis.

My festival companion’s favorite this year was Hot Mustard, a two-banjo, two-couple quartet who moved up from a showcase set last year to an early Friday evening mainstage debut this year, and who will be touring with Tony Trischka this year. As my father said, their set alone was worth the price of festival admission, due in no small part to the virtuosity of Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, banjo players brought together initially by a NH Arts Grant apprenticeship, and to the sweet, gutsy vocals of lead singer and guitarist April Hobart.

Though they played several in concert, Hot Mustard don’t seem to have any covers recorded, or indeed any albums for sale at all, so I’ve included two of Hobart’s folky home recordings below – a familiar Carolina Chocolate Drops revival and a sweet, quiet kidfolk cover – you’ll hear what brought us is; just imagine it with strong stand-up bass and double banjos for full effect. But Frank Solivan’s quartet has an equally strong knack for reinterpretation, when they put their shoulders to it – and you can hear it in these two vastly different endcaps from their newest album, as well as in an early track from Solivan’s 2002 solo release.

Of course, there’s never time to see everything. Attending Michael Daves’ workshop taught me to appreciate bluegrass in a whole new way, but it also caused me to have to skip the morning’s set by Chasing Blue, an old-timey-style five-piece, born out of Berklee School of Music, who seem eager to make a first impression on the larger New England audience after a solid live performance at the IBMA Awards a couple of years ago. I bought their self-titled EP fresh off the presses afterwards, and am enjoying their youthful energy immensely, not to mention their solid original compositions; their Jimmy Martin cover, which seems to be a track from a previous, now out-of-print debut EP, speaks well of their performance and their potential for more.

More significantly, I had to skip Sunday at Joe Val this year, which meant missing the morning’s gospel performances, and that’s a shame – imagine a two-hour block of gospel harmonies, and you know your ears are in for a mighty fine morning. It also meant missing Della Mae, a relatively new New England-based all-girl bluegrass quintet that came with no small amount of buzz. I’m quite disappointed to have missed what promised to be quite high-octane performances from this year’s two big young barnburner bands, so I’m making it up to them by sharing the covers below, in the hopes that it’ll help keep them at the top of all of our minds as we look towards summer.

In other Bluegrass news, as a coda of sorts: the Gibson Brothers, who so impressed me with their Greg Brown cover this summer in a workshop stage set at Grey Fox, release their newest album Help My Brother on Compass Records this Tuesday, and – thanks to some fine sibling harmonies, smooth-ride instrumental interplay, heartfelt lyricism, and guest spots from the likes of Claire Lynch and Ricky Skaggs – it once again demonstrates why the band of five remain strong headliners on the festival circuit. They weren’t at Joe Val, but we discovered them there, and they’re on my mind and my CD player today, along with all the other artists above.

794 comments » | bluegrass, Michael Daves

José González covers:
Kylie Minogue, Nick Drake, Joy Division, Springsteen, Low & more!

February 15th, 2011 — 11:04 am

Blogging at the crossroads of coverage and folk music makes for a venn diagram audience: some folks come for the ethnography, others come because they see what we do here at Cover Lay Down as somewhere between a reclamation and repudiation of the popular. And though both blogwatching indie hipsters and purist folkfans claim to represent outsider’s canons, the mere singularity of our existence suggests there’s not a strong overlap in experience or taste between these groups outside of our little node.

Recognizing this allows us to predict a relatively large familiarity gap between one group and another, especially in those cases of artists whose coverage, like their work in general, is oft celebrated in the blogosphere, but who don’t usually self-identify as folk. Today’s featured artist is a perfect exemplar: hipsters know him, but folkies may not, unless they’re habitual television watchers, and remember either his multiple appearances on soundtracks for The O.C., Bones, House, and Scrubs, or perhaps that Sony commercial from a few years ago, the one with 250,000 brightly colored balls falling down a street in San Francisco, set to his cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats.

But though he’s much more likely to show at Coachella than your local folk festival, José González is very much a folk artist, both in the way he watches and reflects a vast swath of culture, and in the intimate acoustic narratives he performs. And though those who think they know González often think of him as an artist who emerged out of the ether less than a decade ago with his solo debut Veneer, which didn’t truly hit US and UK audiences until rerelease in 2005, to make that mistake is to miss the mark on how deep and deliberate his output truly is.

Shyly confident 34 year old José González is known for his classical-style guitar and soft voice, but it wasn’t always the case. Influenced early on by Latin folk, pop, and reggae, he started out at 15 as a bass player in a punk band influenced by Blackflag, the Misfits and Dead Kennedys – hardly a typical start for a performer more often compared to Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, or Brazillian Bossa Nova creator Joao Gilberto.

From there, González spent almost a decade honing his chops in the hardcore ouvre, moving from there to indie rock, and finally settling on the heartbreaking stripped-down sound which first brought him to the attention of Swedish audiences after the century turned. Along the way, he started a PhD in Biochemistry, and developed a taste for deep readings in bioethics and evolutionary biology, which continue to inform his original compositions today.

And this winding path, in turn, can be heard in coverage which ranges much wider than most artists – a tribute to both the unusual path González has taken from punk bassist to indie darling, and to the diverse influences which the Swedish-born artist has internalized as he has perfected his craft over a scant decade of solo performance. Indeed, though he welcomes remixing, and often works alongside electronic music performers to make his music accessible to trance-and-dance-hall audiences, there’s so little overlap in listenership between the pop and electronic worlds González often mines for inspiration and the indie-acoustic realm where he performs, many who hear his delicate covers first never realize that they aren’t originals; see, for example, the ongoing thread in the page for Heartbeats, with its repeated suggestions that fans band together to murder everyone who tagged the song a cover.

But there is a consistency in his output, too. Listeners know: though he prefers to perform bare and honest, even when he teams up with others, like the indiefolk trio Junip, or in collaboration with The Books and Zero 7, that gorgeous guitar with its hypnotic rhythms is a mainstay throughout. And that mystical voice in the wilderness, high and thin, with its faint accent, bubbles faint beneath the surface, always letting the guitar lead, as if the voice was in its neck and strings, with the lyrics solely an afterthought.

It’s not your father’s folk music, to be sure. But if this is the future – part of the same mold as Bon Iver, maybe, with a prescient Nick Drake before him, and a few others of a similarly throbbing, atmospheric indiefolk bent alongside – then I want to be there at the forefront when it arrives. Come with me, won’t you? Here’s José González, covering some songs you’ve never heard – and some you might just find familiar, albeit transformed.

José González is hard to cover – that delicacy is so grounded in his performance, few dare to take on his originals – and, to be fair, with only three full-length albums (two as a solo artist, one with Junip) and a small handful of EPs under his belt, there’s not much materials out there to cover in the first place. YouTube is stuffed with bedroom imitators, for example, but these amateurs trend heavily towards note-for-note retreads of both his covers and originals, among them Cycling Trivialities, Crosses, and other fan favorites, the best of which garner high praise from commenters for sounding “just like him”.

But his interpretations of other people’s songs have widened their appeal, providing a channel for otherwise-unheard off-genre songs to make it into the hands of other singer-songwriters. As such, Today’s Bonus Tracks offer a few transformative second-hand covers, clearly influenced by – and sometimes even erroneously attributed to – our featured performer.

1,125 comments » | Jose Gonzalez, Junip

Single Song Sunday: The Water Is Wide
(A Valentine’s Day tribute to the song which brought us together)

February 13th, 2011 — 09:36 pm

Twenty years ago this fall my wife-to-be and I broke into a deserted chapel at our college to sit by the piano and make this song our own, staking our claim for the future and for each other through natural harmony and a shared sense of adventure. And now, if we have a song, it is this: a traditional English ballad which we knew before we met, that jumped out at us from the page that sunny afternoon, and, in doing so, guided us to forge ourselves as something more than the sum of our parts.

It’s an unusual choice, despite common inclusion as a tender love song in the broad canon of modern culture. Though the first verses of The Water Is Wide stake a claim for love as the only way across the deep waters of our lives, its subsequent narrative moves on from romanticism to disillusion, becoming a litany of potential pitfalls: faithlessness, and the waxing of love, until love falls away like a sapling, or fades like summer dew.

And yet, and yet. The history of this song in modern culture is such that most of its many performances return to that first verse as a coda. Depending on its mood, the repeated stanza becomes either a wistful reminder of the false promise of love at its inception, or a renewed commitment to the work that we must undertake if we are to live deep inside our love forever. And though the third and fourth verses are couched in absolute terms, clearly, those of us who take this song to be our own together have made our choice to see them as a warning, not an inevitability.

Hallmark would have it that love is made of candy hearts, and a thousand other gifts that mimic thoughtfulness: lingerie and chocolates, bright cards and flowers, diamonds and chains. But love has no shortcuts. To be honest with love is a prerequisite for its success and its permanence. As I’ve written about in previous Valentine’s Day posts, flowers are nice, but if we are to make love stay, time and attention and respect must be a daily absolution.

So here is your oar, my darling, my love. Here is mine, beside. Come, row with me into the setting sun, to the eternal shoreline. May we never stop singing our way home.

Looking for something a bit more romantic? We’ve had six Valentine’s Day posts in four 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.

955 comments » | Single Song Sunday, Valentines Day Coverfolk

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 11: On Keeping It Local
Plus: WIN the Putumayo Kids Acoustic Dreamland CD!

February 11th, 2011 — 12:24 am

As we’ve alluded to in our recurring Covered in Kidfolk series, there’s a growing universe of family-friendly music out there that doesn’t suck, and a large portion of it seems to be centered around the American Northeast region which we call home.

Not all of it is folk, of course – increasingly, alternative music, world music, and even rap have found a niche in the hands and ears of cool moms and dads, who continue to insist on healthy yet artistically mature songs which they can enjoy alongside their offspring. But collectively, such music provides an apt antidote to the Disney, Kidz Bop and Barney crowd, filling a need for those of us who want our children to appreciate “real” music which nonetheless still contains themes and narratives which can appeal to the young.

Though surely supported, at least in part, by hip, up-to-date TV programming from Yo Gabba Gabba to Laurie Berkner to Sesame Street, it is also true that even as music listening habits move ever-closer towards the private headphone experience, global sea-changes have provided a more stable platform for family-centric music. A growing set of kidblogs and radio programs seem to be sustaining a renaissance of anti-pop, hold the cheese; “kids tent” performers continue to astound at local festivals from Clearwater to Falcon Ridge, and increasingly, concerts and festivals for kids can be found well beyond the traditional places – mostly elementary schools and libraries – to find a home in local churches, rock clubs, parks and outdoor arenas.

Here in our local area, for example, we find a cohesive community continuing to build around Bill Childs, who along with his daughter Ella hosts Spare The Rock, Spoil The Child, a weekly “indie music for indie kids” program which first began broadcasting on a small community radio station when Ella was just a toddler. Spare the Rock was picked up by regional AAA indie-to-folk alternative station WRSI a year or so ago, and since then, Bill and now-nine-year-old Ella have leveraged the exposure into a growing empire of dad-mom-and-tot-friendly music, encompassing multiple local weekend matinee concert series, Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti – a benefit CD which kidblog Zooglobble called “the year’s best family music compilation and one of the year’s best kids music CDs, period” – and Kindiefest, a Brooklyn-based family music conference and concert scheduled for the end of April, set to feature Elizabeth Mitchell, Robbie Schaefer, Dean Jones, Laurie Berkner, Verve Pipe and more as panelists and/or performers.

More broadly, on a universal scale, the new musical models of distribution which typify the digital age seem to have leveled the playing field somewhat, making what was once a niche market better able to thrive alongside the broader spectrum which the web supports. A trip to your local library may reveal a surprising upgrade in the taste and spectrum of what’s available out there, with delightful small-label and self-released works from Trout Fishing In America, The Nields, Hullabaloo, and much, much more, their bluegrass and folk finding space in and among the Raffi, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins collections which have traditionally been the mainstay of any good kids audio collection. Heck, I’ve even found myself skimming the stacks for works which will ultimately be more for me than the kids, depending on their taste, despite the children’s label.

One of the biggest drivers of this trend is Putumayo Kids, who – like their parent company before them – has carved out a place for their well-curated world and folk music collections both within and beyond the usual venues for music. Their product, found but on the shelves of trendy, upscale, and bohemian toy stores from here to California, stands along with Melissa and Doug projects, toys, and puzzles, raw cotton dolls, wooden playsets, and other such deliberately crafted delights an an antithesis to the music which lies dying and unsold alongside the plastic trinkets and popcult princesses that populate mall culture.

Putumayo Kids’ newest release, Acoustic Dreamland, which is due to drop February 22, is a particularly strong example of the increasingly great work which comes from the well-respected publishing house, and I’m quite proud to have had a hand in helping to curate the songs on this particular sampler. The selection is inspired, if I do say so myself: delightful covers and originals from Hem, Rosie Thomas, and other artists which we have touted for their more mature, adult-themed work here on these pages stand alongside surprisingly mature work from Rick Scott, Victor Johnson, and others who have dedicated their careers to making music nominally for kids, though I think you’ll find that this is a set which stands on its own as sheer music, joyful, pensive, and potent, regardless of who’s listening.

As with most Putumayo’s output, most of the songs here have appeared elsewhere – we’ve previously shared Lucy Kaplansky’s delightfully smooth, sweet take on Mary Chapin Carpenter lullaby Dreamland, for example, which appears on 2007 kidfolk lullaby collection Down At The Sea Hotel, and I’ve posted my own contribution, the atmospherically layered acoustic dreamscape William Fitzsimmons makes of James Taylor classic You Can Close Your Eyes, which originally appeared on 2008 classic popfolk covers collection and Teach For America benefit Before The Goldrush, more than once as well.

But the collection overall is seamless, making sequence and the novelty of any new discoveries well worth any duplication. As with previous Putumayo releases, too, this collection, while cohesive, is also diverse enough to pretty much ensure that many artists here will be new to you, and those that are will surely prompt futher discovery – for example, I’m determined to pursue the works of Daniel Martin Moore after his utterly amazing original The Hour Of Sleep, whispery with piano, plucked tenor guitar, brushed drums and strings, got stuck in my head on first listen, and I had totally forgotten about the late-night majesty of Mark Erelli’s lullaby rendition of Wilco deep cut My Darling. And two previously unreleased tracks, otherwise unavailable – a gorgeous sleepytime rendition of the Allman Brothers’ Blue Sky from Elizabeth Mitchell in an increasingly rare solo turn, and an original track from Frances England entitled Here With Me which I find truly charming – are almost enough, in themselves, to justify the cost.

Highly recommended, in other words – both for adults and kids. And though I hope you’ll buy copies of Acoustic Dreamland for every expectant and new parent you know, thanks to the kind folks behind the record, I’m offering two lucky readers a copy of the CD totally gratis, so you can sample the wares for yourself before you stock up for summer births and birthdays.

To enter to win a copy of Putumayo Kids Presents: Acoustic Dreamland, comment on this entry with your opinion about the songs and strategies discussed at the END of this entry, OR email me with the same information. Don’t forget to include your email, so we can notify you if you win.

In the meantime, here’s a pair of favorite covers from the new collection, plus a few other tracks from previous gems in the Putumayo Kids catalog, to listen to while you cue up to enter the contest or go off to purchase the CD for yourself. Trust me: whether you’re a parent or just a fan of good acoustic songcraft, this one will stay in the disc changer for a long while to come.

As a coda of sorts to today’s feature, let me note that although we generally stick to celebration here at Cover Lay Down, and though I truly love the Allman Brothers cover above, I have mixed feelings about Sunny Day, Elizabeth Mitchell’s newest album – partially because I think Mitchell’s voice seems weaker here, partially because there’s less of the transformed-for-kids pop and rock songs which she featured on previous releases, and partially because as her family ages, Mitchell and her performing partner and husband Daniel Littleton have begun featuring their daughter Storey’s untrained voice in an increasingly doggerel-driven canon.

Don’t get me wrong, here: I’m not suddenly turning against Mitchell and her family. We’ve long championed Mitchell’s work as a trailblazer in the world of gentle, truly beautiful folk interpretations of pop, rock, and classic children’s tunes for the younger set; I still maintain that anyone who has not purchased Mitchell’s first few albums cannot claim to have a functionally complete set of good kids music in their home. And both Putumayo and the Spare The Rock crowd respect her work as I do: Mitchell is a mainstay of Putumayo Kids canon, and she was given late-afternoon feature act status at last year’s Many Hands release concert, which was sponsored and emcee’d by Bill Childs.

But though some of the tracks on Sunny Day are sweet and light, albeit a little more ragged than her previous work, those which include her daughter are much harder for me to listen to. There’s love there, for sure, and smiles beaming through the music, but prioritizing that love over performance isn’t without its cost: music by kids doesn’t always have the same raw audiophillic tone or represent the same mastery from a purely artistic perspective, and that’s absolutely the case here. And I worry that Mitchell has sacrificed some of the music’s appeal in her attempt to continue what we surely should respect as an organic and fully celebratory evolution of the family as music-maker.

Should we listen all the same, to honor that artistic process? Should we reserve judgment, and see what the kids say? Is it simply mean to criticize a kid singing joyfully if somewhat shyly on her parents’ record, or is it acceptable to criticize the parents for asking us to lower our expectations for what their music sounds like in return for celebrating their process and family life? I’m not sure. But I will say that the goal of our Covered in Folk features has always been to find and feature music which can be shared, and I’m not sure this new path Mitchell and her family have chosen includes me or other adults as a listener. As such, if we’re talking about music for children and adults to enjoy together, I can’t recommend this one as highly as I did her previous works – and would note, as well, that at the aforementioned Many Hands release concert, neither parents nor kids seemed as engaged with Mitchell’s family music as they did with the higher-energy acts which preceded or followed them, though to be fair, that may have been the result of putting music which has always thrived on intimacy in a large, open-air space.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe, unlike her previous albums, this one isn’t for me, and I’m just missing the concept. But either way, I’d be interested in your opinion – and I’m interested enough to make it a criteria for today’s contest to win the Putumayo Kids Acoustic Dreamland CD. So here’s a covertrack or two from Sunny Day, one with Storey, and one without; let me know what you think, making sure I get your email address alongside, and I’ll enter you in the Putumayo Kids contest.

847 comments » | CONTESTS, Elizabeth Mitchell, Kidfolk

A Post Postponed: On Schedules and Such

February 9th, 2011 — 10:29 pm

As our regular readers know, Cover Lay Down has been posting new features twice weekly, generally on Sundays and Wednesdays, for over three years. In that time, we’ve missed but one post date – when blogger sent us notification that our use of their service was to be terminated, and that we’d have to find a new home.

Today, we step into the fray to let you know that a combination of factors – work, theater rehearsals, committee meetings, and a mild bout of family illness – have us running late, exhausted, and practically incoherent. As a consequence, in the interest of sanity, and of not skimping on content to the detriment of the artists, songs, and labels we support, we’ll be bringing you our usual mid-week feature on Thursday instead.

In the meantime, why not take a gander at our growing collection of YouTube coverage? Here’s an oldie-but-goodie that’s been tickling my fancy today, a Weepies cover from gentle Austin strummer Matt The Electrician:

Help Matt self-release his new album here.

756 comments » | Uncategorized

Love, Afraid: Coversongs to Prepare the Heart for Valentine’s Day

February 6th, 2011 — 08:37 pm

It’s been a long, busy weekend, and it’ll be a long night, too, with end-of-term grading due in the morning and a thick stack of final exams to go through first. I’ve got a great Covered in Kidfolk post half-drafted, complete with a contest give-away for Putumayo Kids’ new acoustic lullaby CD, but it will have to wait; for now, here’s a taste of Valentine’s past, originally posted in 2008, to remind you to start making plans for next Monday.

I spent all morning trying to script a post about songs which struggle with the infinite and indescribably complex mysteries of love. The idea was to celebrate this complexity, and acknowledge as valid the stuff that often holds us back from putting a name to what we feel, lest we call it wrong and mess everything up.

But every time I try to put words to love, things fall apart. Love’s like that, I think. I guess that was the point, after all.

Instead, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, here’s a mixed bag of folk-tinged coversongs that address the myriad and multiple fears we have about love: naming it, finding it, losing it, and losing ourselves to it.

May each of us, regardless of our romantic status, find something in the words of these poets and songwriters which speaks to our secret heart – the better to withstand the oversimplified, candy-red onslaught of emotion sure to come by Thursday.

As always, all artist and album links above go to artist websites and stores, the better to show our love for the folks who speak for us when we run out of words.

Hoping for some more traditional Valentine’s Day fare? Never fear: we’ll back next Sunday with more short, sweet romantic soundtracks for the lucky ones.

1,070 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, reposts, Valentines Day Coverfolk

Covered In Folk: Lucinda Williams
(16 covers from Ben Folds, Kaiser Cartel, Mary Lou Lord and more!)

February 2nd, 2011 — 02:32 pm

Lucinda Williams is surely better known – or at least more easily recognized – for her ragged heartbroken delivery and emotional way with a guitar than her songbook per se. But as we noted back in May of 2009, when we featured her interpretations of other peoples’ songs, it wasn’t always the case: her first Grammy win was as a songwriter, for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 1992 performance of Passionate Kisses.

In many ways, of course, Williams’ is an unusual path towards stardom: though her 1979 debut album, comprised of all covers and traditional blues numbers, got her started on the road to success, its follow-up, Happy Woman Blues, which featured her original compositions, sold poorly, prompting an eight year hiatus from the recording industry while she built up her reputation slowly through performance, struggling to refocus her work and reinvent herself while she learned to depend on her live sets for her bread and butter.

In a world where out-of-the-gate albums so often define an artist’s trajectory, Lucinda Williams prefers to let her work mature slowly – a deliberate process which has often kept her out of the public eye during the long gap between albums, save for frequent appearance on other artists’ recordings as collaborator, and as a regular performer on tribute albums – and most agree that her best albums and songs have come later in her career. The coverage confirms it, clustering around late nineties breakthough Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, though Changed The Locks, which garnered radioplay around the country when it was first released in ’88, whetting our appetite for what would become a powerhouse career straddling folk, country, and alternative lines, also had no small success in the hands of both Tom Petty and, more recently, in Kasey Chambers’ live sets.

Having said it before, I’ve less to say this time around, though you’re encouraged, as always, to head back in time to check out our original post on Lucinda as channeler of song, a portrait of the artist in evolution. Enjoy the set, and the tribute.

  • Duane Jarvis: Still I Long For Your Kiss
    A tender, bluesy alt-country guitar ballad from an undersung West-coast country-rocker. Jarvis, who died of colon cancer at age 51 in 2009, actually cowrote this song with Lucinda, releasing his own take three years after Car Wheels hit the road.
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter: Passionate Kisses
    The obvious choice, AAA radio-ready and heavily rock-influenced; a double-Grammy winner, for performance and song, and you can hear why. Oh, Mary – we’re long overdue for a feature, aren’t we?

Looking for more Lucinda? Check out her newest project, a collaboration with Ray Davies which reimagines 1970 ballad A Long Way From Home, on See My Friends, an album of classic Kinks songs redone with special guests from Metallica to Mumford & Sons.

1,047 comments » | Covered in Folk, Lucinda Williams