Archive for December 2011

Single Song Saturday: Auld Lang Syne
(On community, friends, folk and hope)

December 31st, 2011 — 08:20 am

It’s not a new year’s song, per se, though traditionally sung at midnight here and abroad. Rather, its message of friendship everlasting after a life well- and long-lived finds voice in, and brings hope and closure to, a multitude of celebrations throughout the English-speaking world, predominantly funerals and other ceremonies of remembrance.

I posted a set of covers of Auld Lang Syne back in the waning days of 2009, too. But the Robert Burns poem and its various melodies seem particularly apt this year. For we heard its echo in the way our small community come together in the wake of a series of natural disasters – the tornado that tore our town apart, the floods that overflowed our banks, the autumnal blizzard that brought cold and powerless darkness. In the warm feeling of the ensemble, which filled my theater days and nights. In the loving family that comes back each year to build the folk festival from the field, before carefully putting it away.

Even in the virtual spaces we occupy together we live out the dream, tied heart and mind in our waking hours. Kickstarter and Indiegogo work because they double the folk equation, turning ideas into nexuses for collaboration between artist and fan, strengthening and supporting the art which speaks that love and shared understanding into our collective consciousness. And though I am especially proud of the hundreds of dollars this particular community raised to support our town when it was most in need this year, the donations that trickle in just in time to pay the bandwidth bills here at Cover Lay Down remind me that I, too, am a nexus. As are we all, in those places where our own passions find play.

Which is to say it’s been a year of community building together: plays and houses, blogs and albums, environments and experiences. And if I’ve learned anything, it is that the truism holds, even in the Internet age: to act globally, one must think locally. The occupy movement is but the beginning. If we can take what we have learned there, and occupy our own communities, perhaps this world can truly belong to our children, and theirs.

And so, as the lyric says, here’s a hand, my trusty friend, and give me a hand of thine. Our offering comprises 12 takes, to match the months that brought us here again – from pubfolk to the pristine, from celtic to the crooned, from the waltz to the quarter time, from the warm welcoming tones of the singer-songwriter to the sweet and mournful appalachian banjo. May they ring in a year full of cheer and goodwill, for you and yours. And may we meet again in strength and friendship in 2012, to raise the glass for old time’s sake, and for the times to come.

5 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Single Song Sunday

Last Minute Discoveries: Lotte Kestner Covers
Vic Chesnutt, Billy Idol, Beyonce, Split Enz, Elvis Costello & more!

December 29th, 2011 — 03:43 pm

We follow over a hundred blogs, and listen to everything that’s sent to us, but we can’t claim to be completists here at Cover Lay Down. The world of folk is too big, and the borders fluid and everchanging; even if we had the luxury of listening full-time, we’d surely miss some of the good stuff.

But 2011 was a year which found us particularly removed from the outside world. New teaching assignments at the desperately struggling inner-city school where I teach had my head down for weeks on end, developing and adapting curriculum on the fly. A renewed commitment to theater and a race to cram enough into my head to pass the state English teaching test this summer meant less time for music; in the end, I attended just one folk festival this year, and only made it out to hear live music six or seven times. And several weather-related disasters in our besieged hometown pulled us off the grid for weeks at a time, causing us to miss a number of radar blips in our struggle to merely survive.

As a consequence, my awareness of the artist’s marketplace was generally weak throughout the late summer and fall, and pretty much anything released in either June or the end of October slipped through the cracks entirely. And the results of this lack of attention are still sparking in my consciousness as I wander the quiet wasteland that is the end-of-year web, taking advantage of a relative silence on the music blogs to sift through the feedreader, and finally catch up on what I missed.

Case in point: Lotte Kestner – the solo project of Anna-Lynne Williams, the female half of shoegaze duo Trespassers William – released a covers album and a companion covers EP in June, and a second EP of equal merit in the waning days of December. And though the collected works involved surely would have merited mention in our year’s end review posts, we’re embarrassed to admit that we wouldn’t have found any of them, were it not for recent mention of the last at Slowcoustic this morning, and a dogged determination to follow songs back to artists pages for source notes.

But these three project pieces are well worth whispering about from the rooftops, even at year’s end. The tracks are sparse, wholly fragile dreamfolk, with guitars used like chimes and light washes of synthesized sound under Kestner’s syrupy, echoey alto creating a haunting atmosphere and, overall, a chillingly potent set. And, other than a few familiar song names – Bon Iver’s Flume; a haunting Eyes Without A Face, a skeletal, melodically-turned Beyonce cover – the set list is sourced largely from obscurities, too, from Elvis Costello and Yaz b-sides and Trashcan Sinatras strip-downs to tracks from indie go-tos such as Vic Chesnutt, Kings of Convenience, Fleet Foxes, The National, and Ghosts I’ve Met, making the set a folk-loving hipster’s dream.

The end result reveals depths unplumbed in a wide-ranging set of songs many will have to track down for comparison, not hardly because the lists are maddeningly untagged, with no reference to original artist names, leaving us googling lyrics all morning to keep up. Given Williams’ tendency towards the sparse and the mystical in both her solo work and with Trespassers William, it’s tempting to ascribe deliberation to this lack of labeling, too, as befits a covers album which so carefully reclaims its source material, strips it down to its ghosts, and calls it Stolen. No matter: here’s the stuff, plus a few older recordings, and a pair of tracks from recent American Laundromat Records covers projects – a lovely Rainbow Connection from indie lullaby dreampop compilation Sing Me To Sleep, and an utterly dreamy cover from last year’s Smiths tribute Please Please Please that features Anna-Lynne Williams in rare form – with more to stream and buy via Lotte Kestner’s Bandcamp page.

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and a special 12-song set of favorite 2011 Holiday Covers in easy-to-digest mp3 format.

1 comment » | Lotte Kestner, Trespassers William

Local Folk Notes: New Coverage In The New England Scene
featuring Laura Cortese, Cliff Eberhardt, and a new YouTube covers project!

December 28th, 2011 — 11:50 am

Other than a short feature on local newgrass heroes Crooked Still back in September, it’s been a year or more since we returned to the local here on Cover Lay Down. But as previous features on Kristen Andreassen, Rose Polenzani, and various members of the Berklee College and New England Conservatory scenes have demonstrated, Greater Boston remains a hotbed of folk hybridism, thanks to ongoing cross-pollination among a still-growing set of artists living and attending school in and around the area.

Berklee still continues to crank out great acts through their bluegrass, roots, and folk programs, of course – most recently, we’ve been watching the emergence of Chasing Blue, a young bluegrass/Americana group whose promising May 2012 kickstarter-driven debut is still open for microfinancing. Local festivals still bring out the best of the region; local clubs from Passim to the Iron Horse continue to feature the best in local talent of several generations, furthering the spread. And the Lizard Lounge’s Sub Rosa series, aka “the secret society of Rose Polenzani with friends and strangers”, in which a dozen or more rotating local-and-beyond singer-songwriters serve as session players for each others’ songs, remains a central component of these singer-songwriter’s co-evolutionary paths, with each month’s roster a vertiable who’s who of emergence and interconnection.

But of the players in this fluid powerhouse of collaboration, several newer developments have also emerged in 2011, lending heft and bringing further honor to the traditional and singer-songwriter folk development in the region.

Of these, none has stood out more in the past year than the combined works of Laura Cortese, fiddler, singer-songwriter, co-organizer of the Boston Celtic Music Fest (which will take place next weekend in and around Harvard Square), and founder and editor-in-chief of Folkmopolitan, a hilariously snarky, tongue-in-cheek gossip blog on all things style and sex behind-the-scenes in the world of folk music, not unlike a Seventeen magazine for the hardcore folk set. But further moves, including a new peer-coverage YouTube-based blog series, are also part and parcel of the scene, and they, too, deserve our recognition and rally. So, too, do new cover albums from long-time players and stalwarts of the scene, lest we forget that the richness of a region spreads wide through its various traditions and communities.

Today, then, as a nod to that local scene whose success supports our hearts and souls throughout, and as a kickoff to a new year of ethno-musical pursuit, we introduce you to these new developments in our own nearly-home base – the better to build upon as we enter our fifth full calendar year of artistic exploration here at Cover Lay Down.

When Boston-based Laura Cortese started a midsummer Kickstarter campaign to begin raising money to produce, compile and release a series of tracks recorded in the past two years with a number of well-known peers from the Boston-area scene – among them Aoife O’Donovan, Sam Amidon, Jefferson Hamer, and a host more of artists who we have followed closely and touted often here on our pages – she described it as a project under her own name. And knowing that Cortese’s career and craft lead her towards both the traditional and the experimental, I couldn’t help but throw in a few bucks to help make it happen.

Since then the collaborative (with Cortese at the center, as bandleader and primary songwriter) has reconfigured itself as The Poison Oaks, finishing off their first album and a few extras, releasing a teaser or three via their website, and beginning to tour as a band. And though Pine (the album in question) hasn’t technically been released yet, the sum total of this work is stunning, pushing the boundaries of American folk into the realm of folk rock and indiepop, grounded in the lush, joyous, gleeful sound of the collaborative at work and play, and built around Cortese’s full-bodied, percussive, lusty fiddlework, her hearty yet oh-so-feminine vocals, and her playful, surprisingly deep songwriting.

You’ve heard two of these tracks in the past weeks, in fact. Despite its unofficial release via Laura herself as an exclusive thank-you for Kickstarter support, and despite the fact that it seems to have been recorded in-studio in 2009, with Laura’s permission, I included The Poison Oaks’ Magnetic Fields cover in our “best of 2011″ singles set, where it truly belongs. And thanks to a last-minute streaming-only web release on the cusp of Christmas, their take on Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December found top billing in our last-minute holiday set posted Christmas Eve, which we hope you were able to use as a soundtrack to your last-minute celebrations.

But equally exciting is the various collaborations which Cortese took on under her own name during the two year window in which she was recording and planning the debut of what would become The Poison Oaks. And since my Kickstarter support netted me the full set of Laura’s recent projects – a collection that’s quite literally filled the CD changer – I’m passing on the joy to you, with a track per album/EP, and our highest recommendations for any and all of these.

Among them you’ll find chamberfolk (The Acoustic Project, with sisters Natalie and Brittany Haas and Hanneke Cassel on fiddles and cello), duo singer-songwriter stuff (2010 release One Mic, Two Amps, a collaboration with Jefferson Hamer), “vocals project” femmefolk (Simple Heart, which features many voices we know and love from the local scene), and the hybrid indierock of Poison Oaks itself, whose debut album Pine is a full-blown delight. Any of them are worth the find – so pick and choose among them based on your genre preferences, or order the whole set direct from Cortese’s website.

Here on the other end of the state, there’s also news for rejoicing: one-time Fast Folk growler and elder statesman Cliff Eberhardt recently teamed up with iconoclastic Philly-bred singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley to release an entire album of acoustic Doors covers and reinventions called All Wood and Doors – a follow-up of sorts to Stanley’s 2005 Stones tribute All Wood and Stones, created at the urging of founding Doors drummer John Densmore – and though it arrived at our doorstep just a hair too late to consider it in our year’s end “best of 2011″ lists, the result is certainly award-worthy, featuring slow, bluesy pick-driven takes on a canon often thought of as nearly uncoverable.

There’s some notable sidemen here, including ex-Monkee Peter Tork and Paul McCartney guitarist Lawrence Juber, but the album primarily revolves around Eberhardt’s torn lead vocals, Stanley and Eberhardt’s light walking-blues picking styles, fluid contemporary production dynamics which echo Richie Havens’ most beloved albums, and rich, layered 70′s-era folk rock harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash or Buffalo Springfield. And the local connection? Eberhardt may have made his name in the 80′s-era New York City folk scene, but residency matters: he’s currently based out of Williamsburg, MA, just a hop and a jump from our mid-Massachusetts home, and does regular shows in the area when he’s not on tour. Pick up All Wood and Doors direct from the project website, or download the entire album from for only $4.99.

More globally/regionally speaking, we’ve had our eyes closely glued to Cover Your Friends, an amazing concept created and implemented by percussive Maine folksinger and guitar-slinger Connor Garvey. The premise: singer-songwriters learn and then record themselves covering their peers via YouTube, on a site which, linguistically-speaking, at least, seems targeted towards those singer-songwriters…but which remains public, so we can watch them share the joy amongst themselves.

The videos range from the playful to the intimate, with a broad variety of interpretation, and each serves as apt introduction and tribute to both performer and songwriter, promising an ongoing fount of new coverfolk to expand our horizons as the project continues. The site, which necessarily runs broader than our New England focus would imply, nonetheless features many locals among its mix; two rounds of coverage have been published and collected so far, from the likes of Carrie Elkin, Anna Vogelzang, Ethan Scott Baird (of Pesky J. Nixon), and Garvey himself. The future seems bright, indeed.

Carrie Elkin: Along The Way (orig. Robby Hecht)

Justin Roth: Real Love Song (orig. Amy Speace)

What’s on the horizon for 2012 in our region? Plenty. Boston-based folk foursome Pesky J. Nixon, who recently were announced as the hands-down winners of the 2011 Falcon Ridge Folk Emerging Artists Showcase, have recorded and are expected to drop Red Ducks, a covers album, in February. Local label Signature Sounds, who brought us both Boston-based singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst’s Cars tribute and a rock and roll tribute EP from Amherst, MA transplant Chris Smither in 2011, has several projects in the works, too, and they’ve yet to disappoint us. And here in rural Monson, we’re just starting to reach out to artists for a Spring 2012 House Concert Series that’s sure to impress.

So stay tuned throughout the year for more folk coverage from near and far. And if you, too, want to help us continue to bring you the best in coverfolk on our regular twice-weekly basis, won’t you please consider a charitable donation to Cover Lay Down? All proceeds go directly to bandwidth costs on one of the largest ad-free music blogs in the blogosphere; all donors will receive our exclusive LP-length 2011 Xmas covers mix, and that warm fuzzy feeling.

1 comment » | Cliff Eberhardt, Laura Cortese, The Boston Folkscene

Late December, 2011: A Last Minute Christmas Companion

December 24th, 2011 — 11:35 am

It’s still rainy and cool here in rural New England – a disappointment for anyone hoping for a traditional white Christmas. But I’ve still got the holiday spirit, and if today’s inbox is any indication, so do the artists who we love.

The late-December holiday release is a new phenomenon, historically speaking. But it’s not unexpected: where once, artists recorded and released music for the holidays months in advance, the better to ensure that the word and song could spread through critic and culture in time to find us and claim our hearts, new media – YouTube, Soundcloud, the Bandcamp release and the email or Facebook prompt to find them – have sparked a new potential for flash-fast attention.

Which is to say: for the first time in memory, the instantaneous distribution of music and other media has become the norm, making the last-minute holiday release a common element of the season. And so we’re ending our week with a short set of brand new streaming delights to take you the rest of the way through the holidays. All were released in the short weeks since we first shared our annual Christmas features; all are worth your precious time, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Enjoy them now, and remember the creative forces behind them when they come to your town in the months and years to come.

The Poison Oaks: If We Make It Through December
(orig. Merle Haggard)

Anne-Marie Sanderson: Walking In The Air (from “The Snowman”) [via]

Hillary Grist: Angels We Have Heard On High

Tim Gearan and Jesse Dee: Winter Wonderland

Town Hall: The Christmas Song

Matt Ryd: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Wheeler Street: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Melissa Ferrick: Jingle Bells

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift 12-song set of favorite 2011 Holiday Covers otherwise unblogged, including several of the above covers in downloadable mp3 form.

Thanks, folks. May your holiday season bring peace, joy, and gladness. And may your days be merry and bright.

1 comment » | Holiday Coverfolk

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Part 2: The Singles
(b-sides, deep cuts, YouTube one-offs, & more one-shot coverage)

December 21st, 2011 — 11:51 am

As we noted over the weekend in The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Part 1: Tribute Albums and Cover Collections, it’s been a good year for full-album coverage. Overall, though, despite the fact that, in terms of sheer mass, covers from tributes overwhelm singletons in my collection, what I’ve found this year is that a significant majority of the songs that lingered, and demanded overplay, came from a mixed bag of borderline genre albums and single shot coverfolk tracks, via the usual sources, from YouTube, Soundcloud, studio appearances, website and bandcamp singles, and more.

Perhaps it is unsurprising to find so much of our favorite coverage of the year outside the album-length folk covers collections. After all, our mandate here at Cover Lay Down is artist-centric; we consider ourselves folkbloggers first and foremost. The point of our biweekly forays into the folkworld is to introduce you to the best of the singer-songwriter, roots, americana, bluegrass, and contemporary folk rock and folkpop canon; coverage is, in the end, a vehicle, to provide an entry into the craft and appreciation of those artists through the comfort zone of familiar song. And artists, knowing this, are increasingly prone to cover a song or two along the way, granting both a sense of their sound and an exposition of their influence.

We eschew ranking for single songs; you’ll not find hierarchies here. But “best of” lists do guide the gift-giving, and I’m not so humble as to enjoy the challenge of creating the perfect mix of coverfolk, circa 2011. And so, this year, we’re offering a two-part compromise: the short, mostly tongue-in-cheek “Best Of” which appeared on Sunday…and here, today, the piece de resistance: a 25-song set of our favorite and most-played tracks from this year’s coverfolk singletons, web-only releases, and off-genre albums, designed to be played in order for maximum emotional impact.

Like so many of the songs we posted in part one of this dual reluctance, every one of them gives me chills. Taken together, subjective though they are, they offer a challenge to 2012 and beyond.

So download the full set, or pick and choose among the singletons. Hit the links beside each track to learn more about these amazing artists, and their output, and their journeys.

May the coming year bring us more joy through shared culture and communion. And may this humble offering grace your ears and raise your spirit, for now and for years to come.

The Year’s Best Singles: A 2011 Coverfolk Mix [Zip!]

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’ end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift EP-length set of favorite 2011 Holiday Covers otherwise unblogged.

Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.

4 comments » | Best of 2011, Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Part 1:
Tribute Albums and Covers Collections

December 18th, 2011 — 12:08 pm

It’s coming on 2012, and all around us, bloggers tout their 2011 taste, jostling to be the best and first match for your own preferences, inviting debate over position in the ranks. And so, as we do every year as the calendar comes to a close, we struggle with the conceit of The Year In Review, surveying a year’s worth of posts, writing a never-ending series of half-hearted drafts, flinching every time we approach the task, yet feeling guilt every time we put it down.

My reluctance to pass judgement isn’t a cop-out. I’m a relatively fickle listener – my bias against live recordings, and their accompanying recording quality, is a constant thread here – but I’m also the sort of collector who takes more delight in discovery than digs. Our focus on the breadth of music often leans harder towards artist evolution than the next big thing because that’s the honest expression of how I think and hear. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes. And how does one compare the sublime to the sentimental? The transformation to the faithful revisioning? The sparse to the layered? Coverage comes in as many flavors and subtypes, and each one can be done well.

And so, as a general policy, I avow the critical lens; our mandate, as we see it, is to tout and expose. While others rank and score, we celebrate and share that which we love as we find it, believing that if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. In that sense, the entirety of our year’s blogging is itself our recommendations list. To winnow it down feels, on the one hand, like a dismissal of that joy we found in any of it when we found it.

And yet there is method in the madness of the recovery of the recent in the name of hierarchical organization. Just considering a Best Of post provides a useful and productive opportunity to revisit the archives. And as I noted in November in a casual roundup of the year’s Tributes and Cover Compilations, a generous and precious handful of coverfolk EPs and covers albums have emerged this year; to come back to them before they fade from the memory has its uses, too.

More significantly, while I abhor the very idea of ranking songs, album-length collections seem easier to rate. Hitting the mark singly, in three minutes or so of song, is itself a hard standard; providing a rich, nuanced journey through multiple tracks without stumbling is nigh impossible. Self-selection becomes the primary criteria, then: in those very rare cases where an entire album of covers comes to us as a success, the end result is well worth repeating at year’s end. And here, the successes are so few and far between, we can count on our fingers the albums which deserve not just our respect, but our awe and appreciation, and our last dollars.

So before we get to the year’s best one-off covers playlist later in the week, here’s a quick rundown of some favorite all-covers albums and EPs from 2011, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking. Those looking for folk music through coverage should stay on the line, as we’ll follow it with a compendium of “best” single-shot tracks from the year; those looking for gift-giving recommendations for coverlovers, however, are heavily encouraged to consider this a shopping list with its own soundtrack.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists): Fast Folk Jack Hardy Tribute

Though we celebrate those cross-genre releases which contain folk and acoustic interpretations in the mix throughout the year, as a folkblog, we celebrate most those tributes which are quintessentially folk, and nothing else. As such, many amazing tributes, from Herohill’s Gordon Lightfoot spectacular to Sufjan Stevens indie tribute Seven Swans Revisited, and from this month’s American Laundromat Smiths tribute and last month’s Minnesota artists’ tribute to Vic Chesnutt to this Spring’s Alt-Country tribute to the Rolling Stones, are unfortunately ineligible for our official recognition, despite strong folk tracks aplenty, and high recommendations for broad-minded coverlovers.

Of these, Seven Swans and the Smiths tribute, surprisingly enough, are perhaps the folkiest, and the most consistent; we’ll have tunes from their majesty in our midweek “Best Coverfolk Songs of 2011″ entry, to be sure. I still have high hopes for two-disc Guy Clark tribute This One’s For Him, which may or may not have actually dropped at this point; it’s was supposedly coming in November, but it’s already out of print at Amazon, and I can’t find a digital version anywhere; please let me know if you’ve found a copy.

But if we had to pick just one – a desert island disc – from this year’s crop, and if we have to stick to folk alone, we’d select an album that technically hasn’t even been released yet: the Jack Hardy two-disc tribute, recorded for ultimate release through the Smithsonian’s Fast Folk catalog but leaked by its producer and engineer Mark Dann on a limited basis as a way to get the music out to those fans who truly appreciated the songwriting genius and often-cranky leadership of Hardy, who led folk sessions in his NYC apartment for decades, and founded Fast Folk itself, sparking the Greenwich Village revival of the eighties which so defines today’s greying folkscene. Where other albums pitch and wane against a measure of interpretive grace, here, any imperfections are part and parcel of the album’s success, in fitting tribute to a folksinger who measured songcraft almost exclusively by its authenticity and storyline, not its sound.

Second place honors go to Rounder Records’ Nod to Bob 2, which has an overwhelming number of especially strong tracks alongside some also-rans, and which I kept on rotation in the car for a record-breaking three months running, thanks in no small part to the stunning live take on What Good Am I from The Pines which kicks off the album.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist): Thea Gilmore, John Wesley Harding

Kris Delmhorst’s Cars tribute, Thea Gilmore’s Dylan tribute, Laura Cantrell’s swinging countryfolk tribute to Kitty Wells – as I’ve said before, it was a great year for artists playing full-length tribute to their favorite artist or album, a sub-category which is often so challenging to take on that most years produce but one or two albums of its ilk, good or bad. But though Delmhorst’s softer, more poignant cuts have remained in my ears, and Cantrell’s own tribute, while excellent, runs too close to country for my tastes, for full-album merit, nothing beats Gilmore’s Dylan: the set runs broad, but consistent and sweet even in its hardest folkrock moments.

The Year’s Best Tribute EP: Eef Barzelay, Black Tin Rocket / Clem Snide’s Journey (tie)

Eef Barzelay’s Black Tin Rocket was barely a blip on the radar when it first came out – there’s almost nothing about it on the blogs, and it’s not like the Transmissionary Six, whose songs the Clem Snide founder takes on in this 6-song EP, are a household name. But the longer I listen to this album, the more I find myself drowning in the lyrics and ragged, heartfelt solo interpretations. And in the end, the power of coverage is laid bare twofold through this small release, with just voice and guitar digging deep into the psyche, providing an entry into the work of the obscure duo. And so Barzelay ties with himself, urging a two-fer purchase alongside his Journey covers album. Most notable runner-up in this category: Ralph McTell’s Dylan tribute EP, which is a perfect meld of the quintessential McTell circa Streets of London and six well-chosen cuts from, you know, the best-known songbook in all of folkdom.

The Year’s Best Covers Album: Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, One

Plenty of contenders in this category this year. But as noted last month, top honors here go to Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, whose otherwise unnoted and unreviewed January 2011 digital-only release One hits the covers album trifecta: perfectly raw and delicate interpretations, stunningly successful selection of pop originals, and a heartwrenchingly poignant backstory.

Close seconds go to Marissa Nadler’s aching dreampop-slash-britfolk Covers II, Sara Lov’s I Already Love You, which we’ve come back to several times recently for its Smiths covers, the folkpop debut from 16 year old indie sensation Birdy (who gets major bonus points for releasing a self-titled covers album as a debut), and Reid Jamieson’s wonderful, gentle tribute to the songs of 1969, recorded and released in March in honor of his wife’s birthday. Other runners up include Duncan Sheik’s Covers album, which ran poppy but contains some real gems, June Tabor and Oysterband’s mostly-traditional second collaboration Ragged Kingdom, which hit late and off the radar but deserves our awe and support, and Eef Barzelay’s Fan Chosen Covers album, generated as a side-effect of his 2011 Journey covers kickstarter project (and now up to 20 tracks).

The Year’s Best Covers EP: Chamberlin, Cabin Covers

I had a handful of favorites here, including Chris Smither’s late-year rock ‘n roll tribute, and the Watson Twins’ Night Covers. But Chamberlin’s Cabin Covers EP, a surprise contender from Cover Me’s well-curated Best of 2011 lists, has caught my heart for a last-minute win. The album, which runs ragged and indie and beautifully reflective of its isolated, flood-torn rural recording session setting, totally passed me by before now, but it’s out of the gate like a racehorse, a hipster’s folk album with warm yet delicate covers of Vampire Weekend, Foster The People’s Pumped Up Kicks, and more, and all proceeds go to support VT communities affected by Hurricane Irene. We almost had a late entry with the brand-new Okkervil River covers EP, too; ultimately, it went too alt-country to be truly eligible, but it’s still well worth mention.

The Year’s Best Covers Rerelease/Reissue: Various Artists, They Will Have Their Way: The Songs of Tim and Neil Finn

A new category, as covers albums don’t generally get reissued (and digital distribution makes moot the conceit of issuance as incidence, anyway). But I just can’t resist the two-CD set They Will Have Their Way, which combines two previously-released single-gender Tim and Neil Finn tribute albums into one double-length set in honor of this year’s mixed-bag downunder tribute tour. The all-female and all-male Australian singer-songwriter tributes, originally from 2005 and 2010, remain available separately, but the combined power of these two albums is more than doubled, cementing the strong songwriting legacy of the Brothers Finn, who made their name in Split Enz and Crowded House.

The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album: Laura Viers, Tumble Bee

In a year where the kindie movement has continued to turn towards both original compositions and a harder edge, Laura Viers’ tradfolk kindie record Tumble Bee is a hands-down winner here, mostly because the other choices yaw past the line between folk and other genres. Of those, the Tom T. Hall tribute remains worth your time if your kids and family like a good sunny acoustic country set.

The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers EP: Maiden Radio, Lullabies

Kids EPs are rare, indeed. But we’d create a new category just for Julia Purcell, Cheyenne Marie Mize, and Joan Shelley, the Louisville ladies of Maiden Radio, a harmonizing folk trio whose 2011 8-track Lullabies is gentle and sweet enough for kids in dreamland and for moms and dads after bedtime, too. Recorded for the young daughter of one of their own, released on Daniel Martin Moore’s new label Ol Kentuck, its traditional folk songs snuggle up against the timelessness of tracks like Gillian Welch’s Dear Someone, each one a tiny two-minute gem. Not bad for a sophomore effort.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album: Chris Thile and Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open

Laura Viers almost won this category, too – after all, as Grammy sweeps tell us, there’s nothing restricting a cross-over album from taking first honors in any and all of the arenas it covers. But Sleep With One Eye Open, the amazing bluegrass standards album from Michael Daves and Chris Thile, which we blogged about after Daves mentioned it early in the game at the Joe Val festival in February, edges it out by a nose. Second place goes to Daniel Martin Moore’s dreamfolk In The Cool Of The Day, which covers the gospel spiritual canon in lullaby mode, and exquisitely so. And if it’s older, unsourced tradfolk you prefer, then there’s the dark horse candidate: the organic, delightfully homespun duo album from Thomas Fox, which we featured back in summer – an album recorded as soundtrack for a local theater production of Our Town, and named after the Thornton Wilder play itself. Gentle, endearingly ragged americana, gritty and mild.

The Year’s Best Mostly-Covers Album: Red Molly / Pharis and Jason Romero / Nell Robinson (3-way tie)

A number of artists released albums this year which feature coverage heavily, yet sprinkle originals liberally in the mix. Red Molly’s newest, for example, runs roughly 50% each way; Molly Vintner original tearjerker Hold It All is easily the most potent song in the set, but overall, their covers of Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, Buddy and Julie Miller, Mark Erelli, and a few traditional appalachian tunes are the album’s centerpiece and strength. A Passing Glimpse, the debut album from married banjomakers and tradfolk duo Pharis and Jason Romero, may include a number of originals, but they sound just as ancient – and come across just as stunningly sparse and tender – as the tradfolk and gospel covers which give the album its potency, and the players their credibility. Similarly, Nell Robinson’s On The Brooklyn Road paints the past and present in perfect sepia tones, though it has less coverage still. We’ll call this one a three way tie, with runner-up honors to Spuyten Duyvil’s rootsy crowd-driven New Amsterdam, and save Nell’s best track for our upcoming “Best Songs” feature.

Want a GREAT set of music from 2011? Download our entire set as a zip file:

And stay tuned later this week for Part 2 of our series, in which we compile a host of the year’s best singletons and b-sides from the worlds of YouTube, Soundcloud, album cuts, and more!

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’ end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift EP-length set of favorite 2011 Holiday Covers otherwise unblogged.

Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.

1 comment » | (Re)Covered, Compilations & Tribute Albums

Triple ‘Tube Tuesday: ortoPilot
covers Oasis, Massive Attack, & Hope, with 22 more to come by Christmas!

December 13th, 2011 — 12:16 pm

After five years of streamed video coverage, three original albums, and eight LPs of downloadable covertunes, this year’s Advent Calendar from well-known YouTube coverfount ortoPilot (aka Manchester-based multi-instrumentalist Matt Hutchison) is a thing of joy and wonder: 25 coversongs, released one a day until Christmas, and though many of them come pop-polished and high-concept, already I’ve fallen in love.

ortoPilot’s folkier, stripped-down covers, represented here by takes on Tracy Chapman and Oasis, are delicate, yet bluesy. His Cure cover is a lightly electronic folkrocker, his Coldplay cover is quietly fluid and dynamic; self-comparisons to John Mayer are apt. But his incredible acoustic poptake on Who Am I To Say, a song he discovered “back in the MySpace days”, owes more to Marc Cohn, underscoring our whole existence as a folkblog. And his Massive Attack cover, endearingly framed within a gifted animation from equally pseudonymous ladyfriend AcidPeach, falls neatly between the throbbing synthpulse of the original House, MD theme and the fragile, atmospheric indiefolk cover from Jose Gonzalez that was all over the blogs an eon ago, taking the best from each, and leaving beauty in its wake.

Check out three favorites from this year’s calendar below, then head over to ortoPilot’s YouTube project page to catch up on the first 12 days of Christmas, and to subscribe to daily updates as the countdown continues.

ortoPilot: Don’t Go Away (orig. Oasis)

otroPilot: Teardrop (orig. Massive Attack)

ortoPilot: Who Am I To Say (orig. Hope)

Comment » | ortoPilot, YouTube

New Artists, Winter Songs:
Seasonal Sentiment, Covered in Folk

December 12th, 2011 — 06:06 pm

Winter comes early in New England. We hoard pellets for the stove, sandbagging the porch against the coming months; we watch our breath before us as we pack it in, and smile, and huddle into our coats. The crate of winter sweaters and scarves takes its ceremonial place by the door, ready for travelers duty-bound to brave the frozen world. Frost covers the windshield when we wake, and makes the brown-gold grass crunch and twinkle in the light of a bright full moon.

Though the solstice doesn’t arrive until late next week, and though the yard is still covered in leaves and fallen branches from the unseasonal snowfall folks ’round these parts called the Octopalypse, the barometer doesn’t lie: somehow, the songs of winter have become embedded in our cultural Holiday playlists. We hear them in the mall, speaking of December; we find them on compilations galore, nestled up against the Santa songs and wassails, the remade hymns and covered canon.

And yet isolating these songs from their conventional companions reveals a clear sentiment of the season, crisp in imagery and cohesive in theme. Their common narrative premise – that winter kills, and so drives us inside, making the threshold harder to cross, causing the heat of hearth to envelop and tempt us – goes miles, indeed, towards unifying us even in our isolation. That their tone is broad is due entirely to how we set ourselves against the duality of cold world, warm home: out or in, frozen or alive, alone or beloved.

So while I prepare our very first annual Cover Lay Down Best Of The Year roundup, here’s a short feature on some recently recorded songs of the season which have nothing at all to do with Christmas, and everything to do with the falling snow, the chilling wind, and the intimacies and the seclusions our withdrawal from the cold world brings. May they keep you warm, as they keep us, always.

    I had a request for this one after last Winter’s Snowsongs post, and I can see why: this one-take is warm with ukelele and Sophie Madeleine‘s well-tuned warble, and easily representative of the tone and timbre of her late 2009 Sidetrack Sessions release.

    Though we’d been watching her since her 2008 covers of Beck and Arcade Fire hit the ground running, two Smiths covers in one year puts Sara Lov permanently on our radar this year. This delicate treatment of proto-nufolk matriarch Vasti Bunyan’s sad, slow winter song, found on this year’s all-covers album I Already Love You, is part and parcel of the greatness.

    Sherry Austin is known for her coverage of fellow West Coast folk legacy Kate Wolf; we posted another pair of Kate Wolf covers from this late-blooming mother-turned-singer-songwriter back in 2010. This take on Winter Comes On Slow, from 2010 album Love Still Remains, is an original, though according to Sherry, it even fooled Kate’s husband, so I suppose I can be excused from making the same mistake when I first posted it. Regardless: I love the way it drags its sentiment down and out like a Greg Brown ballad, pulling slow beauty from the interplay of guitar, voice, and sole, soaring fiddle, and have decided to keep it in the mix.

    Cited as “destined to become a Christmas classic” when it first emerged, Laura Marling’s graceful tribute to her native England is well-treated in the hands of Ontario-bred singer-songwriter Hilary Lynd, who needs no apologies, though claims she had a cold when she recorded it.

    Audrey Assad’s original languid piano ballad becomes tender and anything but mild in the hands of amateur singer-songwriter Erica Danielle Keene, who gets bonus points for recording this one under the bight glow of last year’s Christmas tree.

    Tom Meny’s recent cover of this almost equally new song was soulful, and otherwise-unknown soundcloud amateur Avril Crotty‘s take on the song is as fragile as ice. But if you, too, miss the duet harmonies of the original, young youtube amateur denizens Dawn & Marra are ready to come to the rescue (though you have to start at the one minute mark if you want to skip the girlybabble).

NEW: Download our entire Winter Songs set as a zip file!

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

7 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Taking On The New Christmas Canon
New holiday songs, covered in folk

December 8th, 2011 — 11:51 pm

The Christmas canon falls easily into several clusters of songtype: the wassail and traditional Euro-melody, the hymn and the poetic setting, the early 20th century crooner, the TV special soundtrack. Each, in its way, is a marker of a historical era; string them together, and you’ve got a cultural timeline of sorts, representing the common threads of the tree and the snow, family and friends, Jesus and Santa, exposing – along the way – the ways in which our perspective has changed over time.

But genre and soungsource have blurred and expanded over the last half-century, thanks to the advent and spread of reliable recording technology and the resulting crossbreed of musical styles. And so a new type has emerged, as artists from throughout the popular genre map take on the spirit of the season, resulting in more than a few modern retellings of the many faceted Christmas holiday, with more emerging each year.

From prototypical songs such as Joni Mitchell’s River and John Lennon’s anti-war celebration, to The Weepies’ All That I Want and The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles, such popular songs reset the twinned themes of darkness and light in our own commercial culture, offering Christmas as context for the joys and sorrows, the potential and pain, of that universal condition we call being human. And though many of these new songs fade fast into Christmas past, a growing canon of modern Christmas music emerges, with its own tropes, its own motifs, its own universality, grounded in the trappings of the real lives we live.

The dates on these songs range broadly: reach back far enough, and you’ll find these in the mall, I suppose. But somehow, the old familiar carols play more frequently; the new canon is young and far between, and smothered by the more common trend of classic reinvention ad infinitum which so carries modern coverage of this particular season. Our inevitable look at the season’s crop of holiday music trends towards albums of mostly older, unsourced material; we call ‘em covers, but there’s a difference between the cover and the traditional take that we often ignore here; most significantly, there’s no original to test the versions against, only other versions, and that difference shades subtly how we listen and appreciate.

And so we turn to true holiday covers – not the same-old histo- and popculture, but the tender exploration of a new song in tribute to a strong, recent original which so drives our mandate the rest of the year here at Cover Lay Down. Irreverence has its place in this set, of course – for evidence, one need only check out Robert Earl Keen’s fond look at a redneck holiday celebration on Merry Christmas To The Family or the Spinal Tap or Sufjan covers below, or at collablog Star Maker Machine, which this week has been featuring a set of offbeat holiday music, to find originals which fit this theme. But covers cement the relevance of all songs, and successful folk reproduction trends towards the sensitive, the real, and the raw as much as it does the wry and the weathered.

So set your tree up to the oldies and the goodies, and then come back to this collection – a set of very late 20th and early 21st century holiday songs, all versions of songs originally released in the last quarter century or so, and just waiting for the moment when you’re ready to live in the Christmas present.

Download a zip file of our entire New Holiday Canon!

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

All Folked Up: The Smiths
(With an exclusive track from new tribute Please, Please, Please)

December 3rd, 2011 — 02:31 pm

Flashback, 1987: I’m a freshman in high school, just finding my way into the dark underbelly of underground music thanks to the burgeoning alternative college radio scene in and around the Boston area and a younger brother whose musical tastes blossomed early. I hadn’t really noticed UK band The Smiths during middle school, but when Girlfriend in a Coma hit the airwaves, it touched me deeply, and I purchased the album from which it came, hardly aware that it would be their last, that the band was already disintegrating from the stress between an exhausted and increasingly alcoholic Marr and a series of agressive acts from the dismissive, inflexible Morrissey. And then, as I noted in a single-song set and analysis posted elseblog way back in 2007, I played the song incessantly for weeks on end, finding it a perfect outlet for my own adolescent relationship angst.

Though they only released 4 full-length studio albums in a startlingly short six year career, British alt-rockers The Smiths are rightly recognized today as seminal, groundbreaking players in the evolution of both the independent music scene and modern music writ large, thanks to the sensitive post-punk sensibility of songwriting team Morrissey and Johnny Marr, and an unprecedented number of non-album singles, b-sides, and compilations. Their ability to channel the tensions of the age, and the trapped feelings of loneliness in a culture on the brink, spoke clearly and deeply to a generation; long after their break-up, their songs continued to do so on radio, and on my turntable.

Over the last decade or so, in recognition of their influence and their brooding way with the emotional core of the darkest side of the soul, the works of The Smiths, and of Morrissey’s solo career, have found their way into the hands of a number of luminaries, from Joshua Radin and Billy Bragg to Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. And now, with the 25th anniversaries of their most influential albums Strangeaways, Here We Come (1986) and The Queen is Dead (1987) looming large, their influence has been recognized with not one, but two separate tribute albums. The first of these, The Queen is 25, a free-to-download mixed Greek artist tribute from fellow coverblog The Cover Lovers, is a mixed bag: mostly electro/indie stuff, and not really my style. But the second, Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths, is a two-CD set from American Laundromat Records, who have a strong reputation for great indiefolk coverage – and having just received my pre-release in the mail this morning, I’m thrilled to announce that it’s stunningly successful, a genuine miracle.

As a handful of previously-released Smiths-as-folk covers has already aptly demonstrated, transforming those mournful, angst-ridden vocals and the urgency of those synthbeats and bass into folkier, sparser, and/or acoustic numbers is less difficult than their placement in the canon would imply. At heart, Morrissey was a crooner and cultural critic, a predecessor of the dark emo camps, whose personal struggles with the world found life in deeply personal narrative performance. As such, though it focuses its attention on alienation, the Smiths songbook is chock full of open imagery, and couched in eminently singable melodies that are eminently open to flexible interpretation.

And here, on the newest collection, we find magic indeed: tiny, sweet, hushed takes on Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want and Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me from William Fitzsimmons and Canadian girl duo Dala, respectively; a soaringly slow alt-country ballad interpretation of There Is Light That Never Goes Out from Trespassers William; beautifully hollow, haunting piano balladry from Greg Laswell, Joy Zipper, and Sixpence None The Richer; gypsy folkpop coverage from the aptly-named Girl in a Coma; light grunge from Tanya Donelly and Dylan at the Movies, and much, much more. As with previous covers collections and tributes to the Neil Young, The Cure, lullabies, and more, American Laundromat has solicited a powerhouse set of artists from the indie and indiefolk worlds and given them license to find their own hearts in the music of their influences – and the resulting record is a tight diamond of consistency that elevates both performers and songwriters, a gem absolutely worth your time and patronage, whether you, too, were an early fan, a latecomer like me, or simply a culturally-aware radio listener who recognizes the majority of the songs from the low end of the dial.

So here’s an exclusive track from Sara Lov off the newest tribute to cross the desk – a wonderfully melodic, contemporary folk production posted with permission from the kind folks at American Laundromat – and a full set of Smiths covers from the last decade or so to match it. Like Please, Please, Please: A Tribute to The Smiths, our own collection ranges from angered to tender, revealing the broad range of the original songs, and of the universal emotion they express so adeptly. But taken as a set, they speak to the recesses of the soul in ways which remind us that, while bands come and go, we are privileged to live in an age where we can own the recording and reintepretation of song, the better to channel our emotion, and share the human condition – a folk conceit, to be sure, and one which keeps us coming back week after week. The Queen may be dead, but with tributes like these, the legacy of the Smiths is stronger than ever.

6 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Morrissey, The Smiths, Tribute Albums

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