Archive for January 2012

Single Song Sunday: If I Needed You
(18 solo, duo, & full band transformations of a Townes Van Zandt classic)

January 28th, 2012 — 05:19 pm

Apocryphally, If I Needed You came to Townes Van Zandt wholesale, in a dream, wherein he envisioned himself a famous folksinger, and the song as his biggest hit. When he awoke, he wrote the song down, changing but one line in transcription, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, Townes did indeed become famous, though partially posthumously, and surely not on the same scale as he envisioned in his nocturnal emissions. But as I’ve noted several times in these virtual pages, I discovered the work of the haunted cowboy troubadour late in life. As such, though it has been around for decades, this well-covered classic came to me first as a gift from Boston-based singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson, who brought it to our 2009 house concert, in graceful recognition that her host was a coverfan and coverblogger.

Since then, the song has haunted me. Its apparitions include a recent live (albeit sadly unrecorded) house concert performance by Connecticut State Troubadour Chuck E. Costa’s newest duo project The Sea The Sea that folded the song into one of Costa’s originals, a found take from an Antje Duvekot live album featuring 2011 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist Showcase winner Chris O’Brien, several amazing studio versions from the likes of Carrie Rodriguez & Ben Kyle, Jennifer Parker, and others, and a video from a Robby Hecht and Liz Longley concert posted on YouTube just this month. And, taken together, these visitations remind me of why we bring multiple takes on the same song to the table, in our ongoing mission to understand just how much diverse beauty can be wrung from simple lyrics and melody.

That the versions I have encountered include both duets and solo takes is both atypical of coverage writ large and, in this case, unsurprising. For much like in the case of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which was comprehensively and permanently redefined by Jeff Buckley, a definitive cover early in the song’s history has created two divergent paths of versioning, bifurcating our resultant coverage collection into two primary camps: those that cover the rough, solo Townes original, and those that take on the sweet harmonies which Don Williams and Emmylou Harris brought to their definitive 1981 Country duet.

Especially interesting is the effect that this split path has on the song’s meaning. For while the lyrics and melody – three simple chords, eminently singable – speak to a simple message of love asked for and gratefully given, in the original form, so long as we accept “the lady” of the penultimate verse as a sort of embodiment of love itself, and the second verse as a bedroom metaphor for how deeply and closely this love can manifest, there is room for the audience to see themselves as the subject of the song, the “other” to the narrator’s “I”.

The duet form of the song changes this. Where the solo take is universal, the duet clarifies and personifies the object, turning the love into something both more intimate and less inclusive, making it harder to broaden the message to the listening group, closing the gap between singers even as it closes us off from direct address. Gone is the plaintive, confessional ache, given freely and universally, projected outward, which typifies versions from solo singer-songwriters such as Hutchinson, country crooner Lyle Lovett, Georgia-based fiddler Jennifer Parker, ambient Vancouver-based folk artist Lance Odegard, surprisingly adept Britfolk artist Christina Kulukundis, clear-voiced UK acoustic blues picker Dave Sutherland, Townes contemporary Guy Clark, and others, even as they make the song their own. Instead, we find Robby Hecht and Jill Andrews turning into each other from the start, Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle trading lush emotion, Alex Brumel and Janel Elizabeth warm and contemporary, Duvekot and O’Brien hushed and sparse in their duality.

And so the delivery becomes the key to this song’s meaning, in the end. And while full-band efforts, instrumentals, or full-blown genre transformations can transcend this duality – see, for example, the folk rock whisper of Dashboard Confessional’s three-part Americana, the bluegrass twang and borrowed Harris/Williams vocal trade-offs of Kasey Chambers family project The Dead Ringer Band, Enzo Garcia’s gentle banjo instrumental, Doc and Merle Watson’s madcap vinyl fingerpick, and the multiple vocal and instrumental layers down-home country stringband Swiftwater brings to their own rich take – only Swedish singer-songwriter Christian Kjellvander, by pulling the female harmonies far, far back, manages to straddle the two most typical forms of the song.

But put the versions together, and the breadth of our need, and its manifestations, become clear. Everybody hurts, sometimes; whether through invitation, participant-observation, or direct address, folk songs such as this speak to our heart’s ache, and calm us by channeling the storms of emotion that unite us in humanity. May the song serve, in every incidence, as balm and confirmation: that it is more than merely enough to ask, to stand, to give solace and shared sunrise, to receive it in turn. Indeed, it is all we have, and all we need.

Thanks to generous support and donations from readers like you, this ad-free, artist-centric folk blog celebrates artists and songs through coverage on the web every Sunday and Wednesday or thereabouts, with bonus tracks and feature previews posted on our companion site, the Cover Lay Down Facebook page, throughout the week. Got a suggestion for a song or version we missed? Leave a comment below!

3 comments » | Single Song Sunday, Townes van Zandt

Covered In Folk: Warren Zevon
(Jill Sobule, Shawn Colvin, Adam Duritz, David Lindley & more!)

January 24th, 2012 — 07:00 pm

Happy Birthday to Warren Zevon, whose graveled voice I never truly appreciated until his final album was released just before his death in 2003. Known for his pithy, sardonic wit in song and social commentary – enjoy every sandwich, his oft-quoted insight on dying which would later become the title for the first of two posthumous tribute albums, is a terse encapsulation of that observational mastery which shines through his back catalog – the man who released just twelve studio albums in 35 years was nonetheless a respected mainstay of the rock circuit, celebrated by his peers and critics alike, even though all but two of those albums never rose above the top 20 in Billboard sales charts.

Like many artists who poured their body and soul into the industry, Zevon had his demons. The measured success of 1978 album Excitable Boy was followed by a descent into drug abuse and alcoholism, several failed relationships, and, eventually, the loss of his major label support after his ability to produce more hits turned out to be unreliable. The resultant stripped-back sound he brought on tour through much of the nineties was as much a function of his inability to pay for a full band as it was an attempt to strip bare the songs he had written. His posthumous Grammys were merited, for sure: The Wind is a potent album, and a contemporary folk gem. But it’s hard to argue that his path was clear, or his talent always evident, in every note, or indeed every album.

Still, Zevon was a storyteller of the first order, and stories told well make for powerful folk narrative: Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, for example, is a murder ballad plain and simple, modern in language but timeless in melody and sentiment, and Naomi Bedford’s recent version of the song evokes its traditional structure and trope quite well; Mohammed’s Radio is political but childlike in its observations, as cryptic and direct as a Dylan opus, and The Matthew Show’s slow folk rock is apt. His work in collaboration with Jackson Browne, who co-wrote Shawn Colvin hit cover Tenderness On The Block, is legendary and worthy of its acclaim. And his existential pop hit Werewolves of London, though more often covered as a sort of gleefully crashing bar band encore – and here given the live polka treatment by The Garbonzos – is actually quite a potent commentary on the trappings of fame and fortune.

Sure, most of the coverage one can find comes from the same two or three albums which represented the peak of his career, even if it comes in diverse measures, from the avant electro-folk echoes of Ivory Library to Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz’ country ballad Carmelita, from Freddie White coming on like the Irish Greg Brown in a low, mellow take on Accidentally Like A Martyr to the oddly gentle slide guitar occasional Zevon co-conspirator David Lindley brings to violent oddity Play It All Night Long. But it’s his late-career singles, the tender, wistful Don’t Let Us Get Sick and the sparse couplets and plaintive repeated refrain of Keep Me In Your Heart For A While, written when he was already dying of cancer, that catch in my heart. It takes a true adept to look death in the face and head into the studio. That such tenderness resulted is a stunning testament to Warren Zevon’s life and craft.

9 comments » | Covered in Folk, Warren Zevon

SoundCloud Saturday: Streaming coverfolk from
Frazey Ford, Brian Vander Ark, Bon Iver & The Chieftains, and more!

January 21st, 2012 — 02:48 pm

Winter has finally arrived in mid-New England, dropping just enough snow on the ground to keep us inside while the kids head out for sledding and snowplay. And so we spend a mellow Saturday at home by the pellet stove, coffee in hand and slippers on our feet, letting soft music serve as the soundtrack for our lives. Why not listen in with us?

The Chieftains ft. Bon Iver: Down In The Willow Garden (trad.)

The list of featured collaborators on upcoming 50th anniversary Chieftains album Voice Of Ages makes it the most anticipated album of the year for hipster folkies. Bon Iver turns his familiar shush and whisper to Irish murder balladry to get us started; you can also hear an amazing Irish-influenced original from The Civil Wars at The Chieftains’ Facebook page. Look forward to the Punch Brothers, Low Anthem, Carolina Chocolate Drops and more to come as the mid-February release date approaches.

Frazey Ford: Lovers In A Dangerous Time (orig. Bruce Cockburn)

The recent solo output from Be Good Tanyas founder Frazey Ford is fast finding itself among my most-listened-to tracklists. Here, she totally transforms a Cockburn classic into slow, syrupy Americana blues; if you like what you hear, head over to the Cover Lay Down Facebook page and scroll down for a YouTube Dylan cover posted earlier this month

Message To Bears: Wolves (orig. Phosphorescent)

I’ve already posted this over at Facebook, too, making it a repost, of sorts. And it’s nothing new, though it was Slowcoustic’s recent feature which brought it to my attention. But the stillness and quiet here are an apt reflection of the quiet snow outside, and the beauty of the whitewash world. Stream the new album from Message To Bears for more delicate indiefolk soundscapes from composer and multi-instrumentalist Jerome Alexander.

Brian Vander Ark: Children’s Crusade (orig. Sting)

Brian Vander Ark: Maybe I’m Amazed (orig. Paul McCartney)

Singer-songwriter Brian Vander Ark is far better known as the frontman of The Verve Pipe; unsurprisingly, his 2011 solo album Magazine is highly produced, albeit good stuff if you like radiopop. But his solo acoustic take on one of my favorite obscure Sting songs, released yesterday via his Twitter account, is soulful and polished, a perfect example of the unplugged subgenre at its best, and an apt opening act in his new commitment to social media as a driving force behind his solo career. Combine it with his live version of Paul McCartney classic Maybe I’m Amazed, and you’ve got a harbinger of some great work to come.

Jessica Leanne Middleton: Bring Me Down (orig. Miranda Lambert)

Jessica Leanne Middleton: More Like Her (orig. Miranda Lambert)

Lest we forget that SoundCloud isn’t just a vehicle for the pros, budding Texas-based “singing siren” Jessica Leanne Middleton brings us a pair of beautiful, intimate, aching Miranda Lambert covers that would sound equally at home on folk radio or an in-studio County Music Channel session. Here’s hoping someone picks her up and gives her the full Mindy Smith treatment sometime soon.

Maya Laner: Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love (orig. The Ronettes)

Raining Jane: Love Is a Battlefield (orig. Pat Benatar)

Finally, Cover Me already posted this pair of tunes, but I can’t resist passing them along anyway. Berkeley-based Maya Laner’s layered uke-driven take on mid-century classic is cute and dreamy, pushing us to pursue more from her acoustic folkrock band Local Hero; Raining Jane belies their LA roots, combining Celtic elements with folkpop greatness for a solid, enjoyable take on a well-known Pat Benatar wailer.

Comment » | Bon Iver, Frazey Ford, Soundcloud Saturday, The Chieftains

The evolving sounds of Tim and Nikki Bluhm and Jim Moray

January 19th, 2012 — 09:44 am

A two-fer today, folks: a British artist and a California couple matched in their versatility and the breadth of their journeys, similar in the way they pull on and play against the older sounds of their respective regions, yet quite different in their influences and output. Let the featurettes begin!

Tim and Nikki Bluhm are a busy pair: she’s a solo artist with an incredible second album on the market; he plays backup for her in five-piece country rock band Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers, and is the guitar-playing cornerstone of longstanding California cult rock-and-soul jamband Mother Hips. The two share front-line duties in West Coast collective Brokedown in Bakersfield, too, channeling the Bakersfield country rock sound through a hybrid acoustic-electric bar-band approach that just plain smokes.

But strip away all the production, the drummer, keys, and bass, and the essential musical prowess of the Bluhms is laid bare. Their harmony work on Nikki’s recent solo release Driftwood is stunning, highly recommended for those willing to take a chance on some serious CMT-caliber county and 70′s era rock. And their recent EP Duets, which came out towards the end of 2011, is Americana pure and simple, clear as a bell, sparse and tender with just voices and guitar, easily able to hold a candle to the work of Graham and Emmylou, Carter and Cash, Joni and James, and other singing country couples that came before them. Beautiful stuff, folks. Get the whole thing before you move on.

For bonus fun, as we noted on our facebook page earlier this week, Tim, Nikki, and the rest of the Gramblers have a habit of recording covers in the van between gigs. I’ve included a pair of favorites below – those following our Facebook page will recognize their delightful Buddy Holly cover – but follow the YouTube trail for a whole mess more, including some utterly adorable, sweet and intimate takes on everyone from the Allman Brothers, James Taylor, and The Grateful Dead to Bobby McFerrin, Whitney Houston, and Funkadelic.

Why is UK folk experimentalist Jim Moray on the radar? Because last week, a fan sent me the Fleetwood Mac cover from Moray’s brand new album Skulk, and I was smitten immediately by the juxtaposition of epic echoes and driving banjo, and the beautiful, unresolved tension these two bare elements create. It was tough to round up details with Wikipedia down, but from what I could tell, the thirty-something British folk singer is a big name across the pond, well respected by his peers and his homeland critics, who has won major awards and placed high on the UK folk festival circuit for his prolific output and prodigious sound over the past decade. And for moment there, I began to wonder why I hadn’t heard his work before.

That the name didn’t really ring a bell is likely both a comment on how challenging it is for British folk musicians to break into the American soundscape, where the word folk isn’t always applied to the heavier, more produced sound that Moray sometimes favors in his other role as a producer for both his own work and for bands such as Oysterband. But it also likely a function of Moray’s own musical journey in his single decade as a recording artist, one typified by an almost impatient willingness to experiment with various sounds from one record to the next, from the electronic soundscapes of his early work to his self-titled mid-millennial orchestral album to more recent explorations of world music instrumentation and – oddly – a folk/dubstep collaboration as grimy as it sounds.

Once I made the connection between the name and his earlier sonic incarnations, of course, it turned out I had a couple of bonus tracks lurking in the archives: an XTC cover which reminds us strongly of the modern neotrad British folkscene lightly hybridized with indiepop and a New Orleans Jazz coda, a haunting trad-to-electrofolk mashup of Early One Morning from his bedroom-recorded 2003 full-length debut, and an oddly ragged barrelhouse cover of Drive My Car that I dug up on Rubber Folk, a 2005 British Beatles tribute that has never failed to please. Taking them as a set shows just how much this new track, with its crystal clear production and hollow, sparse-yet-frenetic soundscape, represents a new direction for Moray, a still-evolving musician who – while well-known in his native England – deserves as much international attention as we can spark, and then some.

But Skulk is also a dozen albums in one: utterly, sprawlingly gorgeous, with softer folk ballads in aching voice, pop sensibility in sunnier sultry cuts, and jazz elements in hidden corners – Kate Rusby and Sandy Denny in one turn, Nickel Creek in another, Imogen Heap and James Blunt in the next. So stream it. Get it. You’re welcome.

1 comment » | Jim Moray, Tim & Nikki Bluhm

Jimmy LaFave covers:
Dylan, Guthrie, Townes, Springsteen, Joe Ely & more!

January 15th, 2012 — 11:41 am

Texas-born, Oklahoma bred singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave is a regular on the Northeast festival circuit; I’ve managed to catch his act many times in the last two decades, on main stages and side sets, and I’ve never failed to be impressed. But that first time was a revelation, serving as a potent introduction to the crossover country/folk Red Dirt subgenre, and – more significantly – to the historically-grounded poetry and achingly vivid performance of a folk artist who remains one of the most respected songwriters and interpreters in his field.

LaFave isn’t a melodic performer: that inimitable voice is broken and pained, and that’s part of its charm and its power. Though his work includes several hard-driving, full-band albums that, stylistically, mix rock, folk, rockabilly, and country, in his most potent output he tends towards the countryfolk ballad, wringing emotion like water from every line through a unique combination of inflection, strum pulse, and nuance, even when covering songs that are predominantly metered or rock-rhythmic in the original.

But unlike many singer-songwriters who regularly incorporate other artists’ songs into their sets, LaFave’s coverage is narrowly defined, predominantly focused upon a small set of influential artists who, like him, address pain and loneliness through simple melody, wailing vocals, and stark, poetic dustbowl lyricism. In many ways, this makes him a sort of performing ethnomusicologist, one whose study of Dylan, Guthrie, and other early, seminal members of the folk revival and their influence is a natural extension of his own work. To steep in his original songcraft is to steep in the history of a region and its cultural influence; to listen to LaFave’s coverage in this context lends credence to and layers new potential onto how we understand his own songwriting.

LaFave lives this connection to history thoroughly, wearing his influences proudly, including covers on almost every album, and throughout his sets. Indeed, his coverage of Dylan is legendary: LaFave includes a Dylan song on almost every album, and released a full dozen on the powerful two-disc set Trail in 1999; I posted a six-song set of these back in the summer of 2010, claiming “the man covers Dylan better than anybody”, and after a year thick with Dylan coverage, I stand by that assessment.

Over a three-decade career, he’s taken on a range of artists, too, from Donovan to Freddie King, from Springsteen to Big Bill Broonzy. But LaFave claims Woody Guthrie as his musical hero, and, indeed, it is his deep work in and among the songs and songwriters of the Guthrie tradition, guiding the Guthrie legacy, which is perhaps most significant to understanding his particular craft. He has performed at every single Woody Guthrie Folk Festival since its inaugural in 1998 and now belongs to its board of directors, founded and produced the 2003 nation tour of tribute show Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway with fellow Red Dirt folk musicians such as Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and Kevin Welch, and no less than Nora Guthrie, daughter and guiding star behind the continued legacy of Woody, asked him to speak and perform at the ceremony inducting Woody into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

This approach to coverage and to artistic connection is more intimate, more substantive, and arguably more genuine than the pop coverage we often feature here on this blog. It is worthy of respect, and of celebration, both for the music it generates in him, and for the way in which it ties LaFave to the larger folkstream, making his own work a continuation of the legacies of others, a guiding star for his peers in the modern movement, and a defining legacy in its own right. Here, take a listen to the result – just the tip of a huge iceberg of coverage, and a body of work that includes over a dozen albums of merit – and I think you’ll hear that Jimmy LaFave, more than most, represents the pinnacle of what Cover Lay Down promises.

PS: want more coverfolk throughout your week, including bonus finds and previews of upcoming features? Why not subscribe to our facebook page?

5 comments » | Bob Dylan, Jimmy LaFave, Woody Guthrie

YouTube Thursday: Noah & Abby Gundersen
cover CSNY, Feist, and Dylan with family & friends, and steal my heart

January 12th, 2012 — 10:38 pm

You know how sometimes something wonderful and new just falls out of the ether into your consciousness, and changes your life?

Ever had it happen twice in a 24 hour period?

I didn’t go looking for Noah and Abby Gundersen; they simply showed up on the radar unannounced, first in an omnibus post over at Songs For The Day, which led me to a heavenly, almost-a capella four-part take on Helplessly Hoping recorded, gloriously, in a freaking cathedral, and then tonight, alongside a few familiar and beloved faces (David Bazan! William Fitzsimmons!), in this passalong from Kirsten via Chad.

A little delving turned up a spotty half-decade of delicate indiefolk flirtations from the young pair, who have been playing together since he was 15 and she was 12, with and without siblings and other friends, under various names, in the Pacific Northwest. Of these, I’m loving some of the more recent YouTube videos out there, most especially the sparse and acoustic stuff. But I’m utterly floored by both last year’s Family, and by 2009 release Saints and Liars – two EPs built upon Noah’s songwriting, but which also feature Abby on violin and sibling vox – and plan to spend the next few days steeping in them, reveling in the intimate echoes of Fleet Foxes, Ryan Adams, and more which emanate from my speakers like overheard angels.

Check out the whole Cathedral series, and both EPs, to fall in love for yourself. But first, watch and listen in to the wholly stunning videos that made me so sure these were the voices who would be haunting my days and nights for the coming months, warming my heart in this finally snow-capped winter.

The Gundersen Family: Helplessly Hoping (orig. CSNY)

David Bazan, Chris Carrabba, William Fitzimmons, Noah & Abby Gundersen:
I Shall Be Released
(orig. Bob Dylan)

Noah & Abby Gundersen: Let It Die (orig. Feist)

Abby & Noah Gundersen: How My Heart Behaves (orig. Feist)

PS: want more coverfolk throughout your week, including bonus finds and previews of upcoming features? Why not subscribe to our facebook page…where recent posts include a delicate, sparse cover of David Rawling’s Bells of Harlem by Lisa Hannigan and James Vincent McMorrow, Frazey Ford of the Be Good Tanyas covering Dylan, Bryan John Appleby covering Paul Simon on the most recent Fuel/Friends Chapel Session, and a link to a full two-hour concert of Bill Morrissey covers from Mark Erelli, John Gorka, Anais Mitchell, Cliff Eberhardt, and more!

1 comment » | Noah and Abby Gundersen, YouTube

Mailbox Mayhem, 2012: January releases
from Charlie Parr & John Statz, plus new Steely Dan and Dylan tributes!

January 9th, 2012 — 04:06 pm

The January release holds a special place in the ebb and flow of artistry; though it runs the real risk of being forgotten by the time it comes to make our year’s end lists, it also finds the market just gearing up again after a spate of holiday absence and Christmas releases. Thanks to tip-offs and promos from the usual sources, our fresh eyes have spotted three albums – each one due to drop this month, all well worth watching for – plus a few bonuses on the event horizon. As always, read and click for the good stuff.

Five albums in, John Statz is still a relative newcomer to the field, and we seemed to have missed his most recent full-band disc, a rockin’ alt-country collection from 2010 aptly titled Ghost Town. But his newest album Old Fashioned represents a shift in sensibility for the itinerant singer-songwriter, from his earlier, grittier solo work to a richly produced dustbowl Americana, one that comes with all the right recommendations, from production house to distributor to studio session musicians. And if we’re eager to spread the word, it’s because this album is the best thing we’ve heard so far this year: thick with the ringing tones of the American heartland, graceful in execution and delivery, and perfectly, exquisitely folk, in the same vein as generations of wandering troubadours before him.

The Frightened Rabbit cover below is a Cover Lay Down exclusive, the title cut and sole non-original from this upcoming Yer Bird release, which starts accepting preorders tomorrow; though we’ve been asked to stick to streaming only, like the album itself, the song is such great and yearningly heartfelt singer-songwriter Americana, we just couldn’t resist sharing it the moment permissions came through the wires. Bonus points to John for the successful Kickstarter campaign which funded the recording and mixing, for the warm, gorgeously layered production provided by session sideman extraordinaire Bo Ramsey, whose previous projects with Lucinda Williams and Greg and Pieta Brown have already captured our hearts, and for Pieta’s harmonies throughout the record. (NB: Pieta’s new release Mercury, which hit in the waning hours of 2011, makes a great companion to Old Fashioned.)

  • John Statz: Old Old Fashioned (orig. Frightened Rabbit)

    (from Old Fashioned, 2012)

I loved Charlie Parr’s piece on last year’s Vic Chesnutt tribute, and found plenty to like about Eastmont Syrup, an EP-sized collaboration with The Black Twig Pickers released with little fanfare and less recognition in the midst of 2011. And so I am thrilled to discover Keep Your Hands On The Plow, his impending album of traditional gospel classics, recorded at home with wife Emily, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, and Four Mile Portage, a Duluth-based string trio.

Despite the relatively large list of sidemen, the songs here are sparse and heartfelt, with the right balance of ragged gospel blues harmonies and well-crafted hill-and-holler fiddle and fingerpicking bound to tempt those who find their heart in the modern neo-trad work of Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Low Anthem while still touching a nerve in lovers of the Louvin Brothers, Dave Van Ronk, Leo Kottke, and more. And though it ranges from haunting to bouncy and upbeat – East Virginia Blues, especially, is awash in eerie layers that compliment Parr’s torn voice; Blessed Be Thy Name opens with perfectly gentle two-part bluegrass harmony, catching my heart full-bore – the album as a whole is consistent and strong, sure to go a long way towards continuing to bring the acoustic singer-songwriter and song interpreter the recognition he deserves after a decade on the circuit.

Aching to hear Miley Cyrus take on You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go? How about aging rockstar Bryan Ferry tackling Bob Dylan’s Dream?

Yeah, me neither.

New Dylan tribute album Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International is as unwieldy as its name: too big to work as a set, too broad to appeal to any single listener. Trust me, there is no reason why anyone should want to hear sleazy popstar Ke$ha cover Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, especially when she refers to her performance as “a suicide note to the love of my life and to my former life”; putting her version right up against the same song from the Kronos Quartet as a two-part finale to disc three of the 80-song compendium is mere sonic trickery, suggesting that this album is more about trying to market to everyone than it is about trying to create a listenable package.

But living in a digital world means never having to lift the needle. And of the 4 CDs involved here, there’s at least an album’s worth of great newly-recorded folk-and-then-some tracks, from Taj Mahal to Thea Gilmore, from Joan Baez to The Gaslight Anthem, from Jackson Browne’s take on Love Minus Zero to the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ amazing cover of relative obscurity Political World. Brett Dennen’s high tenor rasp seems perfect for You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, and the first and last discs, especially, show some promise, with strong coverage from Dierks Bentley, Michael Franti, Mark Knopfler, Billy Bragg, Zee Avi, We Are Augustine, and Lucinda Williams in the mix. Here’s hoping the producers allow single-song download via the usual sources when the whole thing drops in digital and physical form on January 24th; if not, the $25 price is almost worth it even if you’re going to be throwing away half the tracks. In the meanwhile, here’s three favorites that appear in slightly different form in the collection.

Still to come in January: A new five-song Martin Sexton EP, also due on the 24th, will contain a bouncy jamfolk cover of Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth; the cover isn’t available yet, though the amazon snippet is tantalizing, but you can see & hear the title track on YouTube, and it’s decidedly a contemporary folk piece, with just enough twang to suit. Why an EP, you ask? “These songs are relevant today and I didn’t want to wait to release a full-length album,” Sexton explains in his press release. “And in a down economy, we’re getting new music to people for the price of a soy latte.”

And due on the 31st, at least according to Direct Current’s always-comprehensive release calendar: a delicate, jazz-ballad-y, sparsely done pianopop album of Steely Dan covers from two Swedish singers recorded six years ago but finally getting the US rerelease it deserves. Seriously. Called Fire In The Hole: Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Tornqvist Sing Steely Dan, the collection – originally self-released in 2006, now coming out through Zip Records – is a bit syrupy in spots, but sure to please fans of Tori Amos, Sara Barielles, Norah Jones, and other mistresses of the form. This relatively ancient video take on Rose Darling from an ’06 TV appearance is delightful pianofolk, speaking well of the whole shebang; the mp3s are from the album.

7 comments » | Bob Dylan, Charlie Parr, Compilations & Tribute Albums, John Statz

All Folked Up: Rihanna
(10 unplugged covers from YouTube and beyond)

January 7th, 2012 — 03:10 pm

It was inevitable, I suppose. When we started this blog way back in 2007, Rihanna was just another rising star in the pop world, a Barbadian teenage beauty queen with a sweet backstory and her first multichart number one single just starting to get coverage.

But ignoring the 23 year old superstar gets harder every year. Her continued work as a performer of hits, and as a collaborator with other rap and pop stars of no small stature, is readily admired by fans for its power, and for the confidence she brings to the table. And in the modern world, a critical mass of fans brings transformation. Somewhere out there, there’s a whole pop coverage subculture of amateurs and wannabe social media stars, armed with solo piano or guitar and voice, and though Rihanna isn’t their queen, her many chart-toppers are on their bucket lists.

The thing is, I like Rihanna’s songs. Signature song Umbrella, which was originally written for Britney Spears, caught me before it was covered to begin with; that several of the covers I have heard since are equally as beautiful is no condemnation of the source. She may be merely an interpreter of the lyrics and music she performs, but her hits have staying power.

And those hits just keep coming, with 42 singles in a short six album career proving ample fodder for coverage, and constant radioplay keeping her songs in the air, ready to be plucked and reshaped. This past year, alone, saw a neverending stream of rising stars take on her songs, including close to a dozen new standout covers both in and beyond the YouTube realm of amateur production – of newer tracks such as We Found Love, which is already enjoying initial coverage after a November 2011 release, and of still-standing classics Umbrella, Rude Boy, and others.

Yeah, not all of these are worth our time. This sort of R&B-tinged pop invites melodramatic interpretation; many of the covers today are truly acoustic pop, like mid-set cuts from a mid-nineties MTV unplugged session, and I turned down multiples of each in the same vein in my search for coverage this week. HelenaMaria, Tyler Ward, and Jake Coco and Corey Gray, especially, turn in takes on this end of the sound spectrum; all are good, if glossy, and if not folk in the purest sense, have their own acoustic beauty to be discovered.

But there’s also diversity in the mix here. Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro’s weary-voiced Umbrella segues into John West’s aching cello-and-voice cover exquisitely; from there, Mechanical Bride startles with indie bells and piano atmosphere that encase the song in ice. Ypsilanti singer-songwriter Nathan K. turns beats into slow, ragged handclaps for a haunting acoustic We Found Love. Gomez lead singer Ben Ottewell finds loneliness and hope in a driving gender-bent solo take on Only Girl (In The World), a compliment to the longing and urgency in Ellie Goulding’s orchestral in-studio take on the same.

In every case, stripped of their beats, with the melodic lines thinned and the lyrics forced forward, it becomes clear how sparse these songs truly are. Repetitive elements designed for a catchy bounce become an emotional trope, a call-out, an outlet; melodies written for dancefloor chant-along dip and soar with nuance. There’s heart here, thanks to the backdrop songwriters of the Def Jam corridors, the young, hopeful songstress who brought them to us, and the artists who fulfill the potential of these songs in their living rooms and studios. We are reminded, once again: folk is where you find it, in the end.

A tip o’ the cap to Cover Me, who first found and shared several of the newer songs posted above.

PS: want more coverfolk throughout your week, including bonus finds and previews of upcoming features? Why not subscribe to our facebook page…where there’s currently a classical cover of Rude Boy, and a new five-person single-guitar Gotya cover, just starting to make the rounds!

5 comments » | all folked up, Rihanna

Other Voices, Other Rooms: 5 Folkblogs to Follow in 2012
(w/ folk covers of Queen, Elvis Costello, Strand of Oaks and more!)

January 4th, 2012 — 11:13 am

As I wrote just over a year ago in a 2-part feature on How To Be A Coverblogger [Pt. 1 / Pt. 2], keeping a coverblog requires a touch of obsession, an itch to live the writing life, and a willingness to keep a keen eye on a select handful of trusted sources.

But though we watch the other coverbloggers carefully throughout the year, we are folkies first and foremost here at Cover Lay Down. And – as we noted atop our year’s end mix – some of the best coverage comes under the coverblog radar, available only to labelwatchers with a penchant for exploration of new songs both for their own sake, and in hope of finding a buried take on someone else’s song in the mix, which can be used here to help promote and spread the word about artists and their work.

There’s a tiny handful of name-brand folkblogs out there – Songs: Illinois, most notably, features in the linklists of many of the biggest music blogs, and Craig’s recommendations, though increasingly sparse, remain solid; Direct Current is a bit more glossy (and much more comprehensive), but it tends to hit all the right high points for major releases in the mass market. And indiefolk and Americana, especially, find their way into the mix at many music blogs which focus on alternative and indie rock and pop, but are willing to cross genre lines to feature a new generation of folk-oriented bands and singer-songwriters, from all-girl music blog Wears The Trousers to NPR fave go-to girl Heather of I Am Fuel, You Are Friends.

But huge branches of the folk tree are less well represented, or even ignored, in these venues. Finding this work depends on an ability to track the folkworld as closely as we can. And the decidedly regional nature of most folk music, combined with a high radar threshold for work in this niche (as an example, note how classical, rock, country and pop radio stations pepper the dial, but folk music is generally limited to a single radio program or two in a given market), leaves us looking to smaller labels and folkbloggers to keep us up to date on new developments, acts, and albums.

We featured two new finds in this arena this past August, in fact. Publicity house and blog Hearth Music remains a favorite source of all things folk, roots, and Americana in the Pacific Northwest after major kudos in our original feature. And insightful, well-written Aussie blog Timber & Steel continues to impress with their ongoing exploration of the same range of sounds from the land downunder, where summer reigns even as the snow finally begins to fall here in the northern hemisphere; we’ve recovered their findings several times here on the blog, and are eagerly following their new features on a flood of summer festival finds as we speak.

Today, in a kick-off to the new year, we bring you a quick survey of a few other sources – specifically, five more select blogs which I have come to consider proven outlets for the best new folk music. Bookmark them all, and/or add them to your feedreader; check out their own sidebar linklists for further reading, too. And if you, too, have a favorite folkblog you’d like to recommend, drop a note in the comments, so all can share.

All things Irish blog 2 U I Bestow‘s native ground is rich with the folk tradition, and his celebration of it is notoriously comprehensive. As such, though host Peter Nagle goes rock, too, there’s plenty to love here, and I often find new coverage through the artists and albums he touts – for example, we noted a new covers album from Irish singer-songwriter Mundy, whose song from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack gives 2 U I Bestow its name, back in our April 2011 Tribute and Cover Compilations week series, thanks to early notice from the blog.

Peter’s Top 20 Albums of 2011 included this amazing take on traditional tune Rain & Snow, introducing me to the work of the sister trio The Henry Girls; the back-and-forth between delicate harp-driven tradfolk verses and fiddle-led folkrock chorus speak to a strong grounding in the various traditions of modern folk and roots music, and their newest album, December Moon, proves it, offering a surprisingly diverse set that catches the heart and echoes in the ears. Like 2 U I Bestow, The Henry Girls take on all corners of the modern folk ouvure, from cheery uke-driven indiefolk ditties to etherial tradfolk instrumentals and sea shanties, from warm harmony-driven tracks to contemporary americana balladry, with aplomb and respect; the delightfully playful Watching The Detectives – Elvis Costello, done as gypsy poprock with a theatrical flourish – is an exceptional delight.

I’ve cited Slowcoustic here plenty of times before, even featuring a guest post from it’s host two summers ago, and for excellent reason: Sandy’s tastes run towards fragile acoustic downtempo soundscapes, and his handle on the folkscene, especially the obscure Canadian and Midwestern branches of the new and delicate indiefolk stuff too broken and quiet to pop the hipster indieblog bubble, remains impeccable. And, like many on our list today, Sandy’s work goes beyond mere blogging: his fledgling label Yer Bird is a solid source of new music, a natural extension of the blog, and we’re expecting to have some exciting news about the label’s newest impending release in the next week or so to prove it.

What I like most about Slowcoustic is that it is a constant source of stuff I had no idea existed, and fall in love with instantly. In 2011 alone, Sandy has brought us Hezekiah Jones, Samantha Crain, Conrad Plymouth, new otherwise-unreleased work from 2010 find Caleb Coy, and, most recently, Lotte Kestner, who we then just had to celebrate in a full-fledged post at the end of the year. And his most listened to songs of 2011 list is a work of honest beauty, one that tipped me off to a heretofore unknown Neil Young cover from a live Jeffrey Foucault session in my neck of the woods (and which was also picked up over the summer by Common Folk Music, a two-party source of exuberance and taste which comes almost as highly recommended, and is equally solid for news of new folk music releases, if not as plentiful with the coverage or downloadable tracks).

Like many bloggers and blogwatchers, I discovered For Folk’s Sake through their incredible Christmas compilations; regular readers will find the name familiar, though they may not have realized it was a project solicited by a website, rather than a label or collaborative. But their sporadically-produced podcasts are a stellar outlet for capturing the mood of the new indiefolk scene that has come to typify the mainstage at Newport Folk Festival. And the UK-based blog itself is a solid source for the hipster side of folk and Americana music, with prominent placement of Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, AA Bondy, Emmy The Great, and other names from that branch of the movement, and a willingness to include singer-songwriters more typically connected to the coffeehouse crowd, such as Devon Sproule and Anais Mitchell.

In short, without For Folk’s Sake, I’d never have found the haunting folk balladry of The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, a mixed-bag late-December split-bill tribute album from UK folksters The Unthanks (who DiVinyl guestblogged about, in their early incarnation as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, way back in July of 2008), recorded live in a chapel in December of 2010, in a concert session that was named a Gig of the Year by tastemaking UK print publication The Independent. And I’d have to sift through much more elseblog chaff to get to the best of today’s indiefolk singer-songwriters and bands.

The Wheel’s Still In Spin takes it’s name from Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, but it isn’t truly a folkblog; it yaws broad and trends pithy, but its voracious weekly focus on recommended new releases is about as comprehensive as it gets, putting it in a “skim regularly” category. And though author Darin’s cross-genre tastes range all the way from Josh Ritter, Vandaveer, and Vetiver to Thievery Corporation, Kurt Vile, and the occasional punk act, he’s bluntly honest and unapologetic about what he likes and why, and I tend to agree with the majority of his vast and varied assessments.

Case in point: though many blogs mentioned the The Wooden Birds this year, and though Cover Me did take note of the Jackson Browne bonus track added to the mix in mid-December, The Wheel was the only one I follow regularly that remembered the band’s sparsely hypnotic, pop-ish yet acoustically-driven March 2010 release Two Matchsticks in their voluminous year’s end recaps and “best of” listings. Here; the songs speak for themselves.

Finally, a man who is a blogger by extension only: like many older folkwatchers and media mavens, Ron Olesko’s primary output remains print and radio; much of his online work on Twitter and at Ron Olesko’s Folk Music Notebook merely points to his columns in Sing Out Magazine, to guest spots for his own work, and to the weekly playlists of his long-standing folk radio show Traditions; these outlets, and his placement as chair of the selection committee for the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance yearly showcases, speak loudly to his prominence in the world of folk. But though sometimes sparse, Ron’s news from the folkworld is an invaluable addition to a folkwatcher’s habits.

The old-school rules here: both the elder statemen of the singer-songwriter world and newer acts which carry the folk revival forward yet hew closely to its traditions, such as Cover Lay Down favorites Red Molly and Joe Crookston, find their way to Olesko’s attention. But subscribing to his twitter feed is worth it: it brought me to his 12 Favorite Folk CDs of 2011, and though it, John McCutcheon’s Woody Guthrie tribute (which we originally dismissed as a bit too measured, but which has grown on us), Crookston’s newest album Darkling & The Bluebird Jubilee, and The Once, a post-millennial Newfoundland trio that trends towards the varied sounds of their native folk influences, whose gentle, earnest Queen cover is utterly perfect to ring in the new year, and whose previous work includes sweet originals, equally delightful takes on Leonard Cohen, Amelia Curran, and more obscure Canadian contemporaries, and upbeat tunes from Canadian and UK traditions.

5 comments » | Elseblog, Joe Crookston, John McCutcheon, John Statz, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, The Henry Girls, The Once, The Wooden Birds