Archive for February 2012

Mary Black Covers
Dionne Warwick, John Sebastian, Nanci Griffith, Bob Dylan & more

February 26th, 2012 — 12:44 pm

Though her emergence dates back to the mid-seventies, Dublin singer Mary Black doesn’t write much of her own material; instead, her work is firmly grounded in the rich Irish tradition of folk discovery and interpretation. Her dozen solo albums include both new songs written by songwriting partner-in-crime Noel Brazil and traditional folksongs from the vast annals of the British Isles, but the bulk of their tracks are comprised of pliant, plaintive takes on songs from the catalogs of contemporary singer-songwriters from both sides of the pond.

Black’s history reads as a typical who’s who of Irish vocalists: born of a musical clan, she began performing traditional Celtic songs alongside siblings and parents at the age of eight, and was touring Europe with a tradfolk band by the time she turned twenty. Seven years later, in 1982, she recorded and released her self-titled debut as a solo artist, which went gold in the UK; subsequent albums, such as No Frontiers, which spent fifty-six weeks in the Irish Top 30, brought her platinum sales, sold-out tours, recognition as Entertainer of the Year and five separate years of “Best Female Artist” nods from the Irish Recorded Music Association, and the cover of Billboard magazine, where her talent and stature was compared to that of Enya and Sinead O’Connor.

But as with many artists of her caliber and genre, collaboration remained an important component of Black’s work. Even as her solo work took off, she would join vocal group De Dannan; later, her work with sister Frances Black, Maura O’Connell, Dolores Keane, and others on best-selling compilation album A Women’s Heart both acknowledged and cemented her place among the rarified heights of her chosen niche. Her work with the late Brazil, whose name appears in the credits of virtually every one of her albums, was often among her best. More recent duets with Emmylou Harris, Janis Ian, Joan Baez, and Steve Martin only cemented her stature among an aging international fan base. And as the commercial and critical rejection of grungy 1997 one-shot Larry Kline-produced pop album Shine made clear, just as Black has made her mark through the songs of others, she owes much of her success to producer Declan Sinnott’s layered, rich support throughout her career.

Though she has recorded but three albums in the past decade (2003 live album Mary Black Live, 2005 studio album Full Tide, and 2011 release Stories From The Steeples), all of which finally begin to show a bit of age’s shivery whisper creeping into her vocals, Black’s voice remains a benchmark for purity in the industry, and her interpretative prowess a standard for multiple generations. Her 2006 version of Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love anticipates Adele’s infamous cover so thoroughly, it’s hard to imagine that Adele didn’t use it as a model. And though Irish vocalist folk is not my personal favorite folk genre, it’s equally hard to resist the pure vocal beauty and tender, flowing production which characterizes her takes on well-chosen songs from a predominantly male folk musician’s playbook. Here’s a chronology of favorites from a long career worth celebration.

1 comment » | Mary Black

(Re)Covered, vol. XXII: more covers of and from
Daniel Johnston, The Smiths, Stephen Foster, Chris Thile & more!

February 22nd, 2012 — 08:36 pm

It’s been a long haul these last couple of weeks, with new projects and courses to teach at work, and budget season fast approaching at the local school committee table. School vacation was cancelled, and the skies and ground remain dry as a bone despite the calendrical claim of New England February, leaving us grey and wan in the pale light of almost-winter above the equatorial line. And here at home, the stress is sky-high, thanks to an unfortunate incident at the beginning of the month that turned us into a single-car family struggling to make ends and family meet.

It’s times like these when the heart turns to echoes of the past to find evidence of meaning, lest we drown in the drudgery of the day-to-day. So join me as we attempt to spruce up our souls with yet another edition of our popular (Re)Covered series, featuring new and newly-discovered songs that revealed themselves just a little too late to make it into the original posts where they rightfully belonged.

We covered Hard Times Come Again No More in an end-of-year Single Song Sunday a few years ago, naming the mid-nineteenth century Stephen Foster tune – which admonishes the affluent to pause and remember the hard times, that they might be more inclined to support those whose lives are full of sorrow and pain, hunger and need – a perfect companion to the precarious blessing of a good year gone by.

Alas, the world is no less needy now than it was back in December 2009; indeed, since then, the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken up the cry, redefining the lines between those who would and those who can. And so, as with so many well-covered standards which resonate with the injustices of the ages, several strong contenders for the throne have emerged to add to our once-upon-a-time. Here’s two: an unusually rich and melodic Irish transformation from Voice of Ages, an incredible new album from The Chieftains which is notable for its amazing list of special guests (The Decemberists, Bon Iver, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Civil Wars, The Low Anthem, Punch Brothers, and more), and a dark, ragged stunner from the equally-amazing yet sadly overlooked 2011 tradcovers album Dark River, which finds Slaid Cleaves, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, and other familiar and new faces from the Austin, TX branch of the contemporary dustbowl folkworld taking on the Civil War-era songbook.

Speaking of Single Song Sundays: Last January’s feature on what is perhaps the best-known work from impish, self-destructive manic-depressive lo-fi genius Daniel Johnston was predominantly populated by covers which retained the fragile, destructive nature of the original performance even as they expanded the sonic potential of what is, ultimately, one of the best and last words in self-solace in the world of music. Not so with Seattle, WA indiefolk-slash-popsters Hey Marseilles, who turned the track into a drunken gypsy indiefolk waltz, high in energy and rich with muted mariachi rhythms and orchestral strings, for the 2010 Starbucks Sweetheart sampler, and then re-released it free on Valentine’s Day 2012. (Thanks to Adam, who previously brought us the Gundersen Family, for the pass-along.)

One of the things I love about being a blogger is that artists I never would have heard of otherwise send me stuff. Some of it is quite good, too. This month’s case in point comes via email from Marin of French slowcore duo The Missing Season, who sent along this vocally-layered indiefolk cover of The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out alongside notice of the band’s third homemade LP The Last Summer, a wonderfully haunting pay-what-you-will download which he describes as “a very slow album, both very synthetic and acoustic.” The phrases cover the cover, too, both aptly and in the best possible way; the cover, in turn, anticipates the studio work, which is winning me over all over again as I type this. And if you like their sound, too, know you’re not alone: the cover, which is available free on Bandcamp, was among the winning songs of a 2009 contest presided over by Geoff Travis, boss of Rough Trade Records, home of The Smiths themselves.

And speaking of The Smiths, whose covered-in-folk songbook we took on back in December of last year: I’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to post another few covers from the short-lived UK band, ever since they came to me via various sources in the weeks just after our original post, and it looks like the time is nigh. Owen’s Girlfriend In A Coma is gently playful, and I’m not sure how I missed it the first time around; Sandy at Slowcoustic adeptly encapsulates Pickering Pick’s version of the song as “sombre aching alongside…ambient acoustics”; fans of Jeff Buckley’s dreamiest electrofolk will find Piers Faccini’s live, slow, solo electric guitar and vocal take right up their alley.

Devon over at Hearth Music unearthed this older tradfolk cover from Pharis & Jason Romero just yesterday via Facebook, and I couldn’t resist keeping it moving forward, both because the sound is utterly stunning, and because the setting is perfect for the flowing banjo and guitar which carry us through. You may recall the Horsefly, BC-based banjo-builders and old-timey aficionados from several sets here on these pages last year: first in March, when we celebrated several Jason & Pharis cover videos passed along by a fan, and subsequently via our feature on Hearth Music itself, who sent us their debut-as-a-duo album in August; we liked it enough to name it one of our top mostly-covers albums of 2011 in our year’s end best-of feature, and if this one track alone doesn’t show why, you’d better head back into the archives for a second look.

  • Pharis & Jason Romero: Wild Bill Jones (trad.)

Finally, though I know the bluegrass has been a bit thick on the ground for the past week or so here, thanks to our recent trip to the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival for the sixth year in a row, I just keep coming back to a triplet of powerful videos from Michael Daves and Chris Thile recorded last month in honor of Daves’ five year run at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC. Regular readers may remember our joy at discovering Daves’ high tenor yawp and high-energy guitar at last year’s festival; his 2011 album with Thile was a true joy to hear, easily making The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album in our end-of-year review, and I’m pleased as punch to be able to help spread the word about their ongoing collaboration.

And speaking of punch, and as a Chris Thile-related bonus, I’m also tacking on the Punch Brothers’ recording of Kid A, off the post-grass quintet’s brand new album Who’s Feeling Young Now? Paste magazine calls it an “eerily faithful interpretation of Radiohead’s electronic masterpiece”; I’m inclined to agree.

  • Michael Daves & Chris Thile: Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms (trad.)

Hey, you! Looking for more coverfolk in your daily existence? Don’t forget to “like” our Facebook page for microblogged videos and streams from far and wide – this week’s posts include an Iron Maiden song transformed into a beautiful “traditional english ballad” with bouzouki and voice, a frenetic polkafolk take on Bon Jovi, a stripped down Stevie Wonder song, and a cover of The Swell Season’s Falling Slowly with tight harmonies and beautifully light instrumentation from Cover Lay Down faves Edie Carey and Girlyman taped live on tour just this week!

2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Michael Daves, The Smiths

Covered In Folk: Bill Monroe
(covers from folk rock to revival, acoustic jazz, and indiefolk)

February 19th, 2012 — 09:44 pm

Musical visionary Bill Monroe, who got his start alongside brothers Charlie and Birch in the depths of the great depression, and subsequently performed as a solo act and bandleader for over sixty years until his death in 1996, was not just the father of the music we call bluegrass; he was its most prolific writer and disseminator. As composer and arranger, he created or recreated hundreds of songs; as progenitor, he found, groomed, and composed and performed alongside 161 Blue Grass Boys in a half century before sending them back out into the world to spread the gospel.

According to interviews with the living members of that vast group, like an Old Master, his was the inspiration and vision, and – more often than not – the copyright went to him like a signature’s flourish. Between 200 and 250 songs, most written in those heady formative years before the folk revival truly took off, are attributable to him in whole or in part. And much as Dylan would later combine original craftsmanship with songs scavenged from the traditional folk songbook, Monroe’s work as an adapter of song reintroduced dozens of titles into the popular canon, giving these newly transformed tunes life through recordings and a ceaseless life of touring and performance.

But whether they were Bill’s songs to begin with or merely bore his mark is not the point. Monroe served as a sort of lynchpin or nexus of protomusicology, pulling traditional fiddle tunes, back porch country, fieldhand and jump blues, the gospel hymnal, and old A.P. Carter folksongs into one broad, consistent genre, and then pouring hundreds of originals into the mix to stabilize it. In the process, through careful development of both a style and a form, with well-defined instrumentation and performance standards, and the consistent perspective of the God-fearing working man, he created bluegrass, the genre he came to define.

And as a vocalist and harmonizer, an innovative mandolin player, and a powerful, influential bandleader, he also laid the groundwork for rock-and-roll with his introduction of staccato rhythms and bass under fast melodic chorus-and-verse – an influence acknowledged in his posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

So if we were to find a few songs of his beyond the bluegrass genre pool, it would not be such a surprise. After all, Elvis made his mark on Blue Moon of Kentucky as the b-side to his very first Sun records single. And even as it was the folk revivalists who sustained Monroe’s career during the sixties, arguably, it was that beat which Monroe brought to the music which ultimately found its way into Elvis’ hips – and to the roots and folk revivalists from there.

That said: though both are essentially different, folk and bluegrass have their overlap. Taking on the songs of Bill Monroe without hitting the core of bluegrass itself is somewhat of a fake-out – bluegrass itself is a hybridized genre at heart; contemporary folk artists of all stripes like a good turn to the grassy side, and often have the banjos in their arsenal to prove it.

And, as we’ve noted above, the tendency towards song reclamation which Monroe undertook has a tendency to muddy the waters of authorship. We’ll see some songs previously marked as traditional here, as seen in a number of Monroe tributes which mix traditional country and appalachian songs with those which bear his name, from Ricky Skaggs and Friends’ Big Mon (2000), which features Bruce Hornsby taking lead on Darlin’ Corey on a piano-jazz opening track, to Del McCoury’s fine 2011 tribute Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe, which pretends only to play off of Del’s own memory of the man and the songs he came to own.

Musically, too, we could go broad here, and none would fault us. But Monroe’s legacy is vast indeed, and any folkstream movement which would have his songbook turn out past the boundaries of Bluegrass itself honors both the man himself and his formative influence on music beyond genre definition. So although it was tempting to sneak in a Sam Bush cover below, we’ll stick to a reasonable attempt at a narrow focus that is consistent with our core mission here at Cover Lay Down: a set of bands and solo musicians who self-identify primarily as folk or roots artists, rather than bluegrass artists, playing some of the songs which bear Monroe’s name as composer in the annals of BMI copyright.

From Ry Cooder‘s raucous roots and The Clumsy Lovers‘ high-energy cajunized folk rock to David Schnaufer‘s delicate dulcimer instrumentals; from June Bugg‘s early folk revivalism to The Wayfaring Strangers‘ acoustic lounge jazz take on Hank Williams co-write I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome; from the lo-fi indiefolk of The Diamond Family Archive to genre-crossing banjo, string, and guitar-driven takes from Cover Lay Down favorites Red Molly, Crooked Still, and the Jones Street Boys, the appalachian string music of Darol Anger, and the old-timey fiddlework of Mark O’Connor and Sadie Compton, this is Bill Monroe like you’ve never heard him before. But the evidence is clear, regardless: Bill Monroe’s influence on the modern map of popular music is rivaled by none, and matched by few, indeed.

Remember, folks: Cover Lay Down is ad-free and reader-supported in order to encourage all who visit to pursue the path of art patronage first and foremost, that the folkways may continue to flourish in our generation and beyond. Looking to follow the threads back to the source? Click on artist names above!

1 comment » | Bill Monroe, Covered in Folk

Covergrass, Redux:
The Joe Val Bluegrass Fest, Feb 17-19, 2012

February 16th, 2012 — 08:03 pm

Once again, we’re off to spend the weekend at the always amazing Joe Val Bluegrass Festival out at the Sheraton in Framingham, MA. This year’s lineup is stellar as always, with young sensation Sierra Hull, Steve Martin touring and recording companions the Steep Canyon Rangers, new Boston-based all-girl quintet Della Mae, long-time fave the Clare Lynch Band, and special guest spots from banjo master Bill Keith and folk singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards holding down a powerhouse three days of music.

We’ve covered most of these artists before, so instead of fishing for some new angle, in honor of our sixth consecutive year at the fest, I’m reviving our 2008 post on the topic, along with a much expanded set of covergrass to whet your whistle for the days ahead. Read on for some favorite covers from Joe Val mainstage performers past and present – and then pack up your mando, banjo, fiddle, dobro, guitar or bass and head on over to Joe Val!

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

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

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

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

An interlude: by most popular definitions, bluegrass isn’t folk music. Where modern singer-songwriter folk teeters on the edge of pop, rock, and blues, with the major exception of crossover artists Crooked Still and Allison Krauss and Union Station, today’s bluegrass bands find radioplay on the country end of the dial, if at all. And though there are certainly plenty of crossover alt-country and Americana musicians out there who are welcome at both bluegrass and folk festivals, most music festivals tend to be firmly either/or.

But as I’ve noted previously, folk and bluegrass have much in common. Both stem from the same early American folk tree; both depend heavily on the acoustic guitar; both use traditional forms of rhyme, verse structure, trope and storytelling in their lyrics and song structure. Wikipedia lists bluegrass as a form of country music, it’s true, but it also refers to it as a form of American roots music, or Americana – the category which encompasses the “folk” forms of American music.

Which is to say: we’re bluegrass fans here at Cover Lay Down. And though owning up to this has probably already lost me some hardcore folkies over the months since we started, I make no apologies for the bluegrass among the folk. The acoustic nature of the two forms, and their shared roots in African-American blues, British folk ballads, and appalachian music, makes for a clear commonality, even if the sounds are clearly different.

One significant distinction between bluegrass and modern folk music is the vastly different ways in which the two forms approach harmony. Where folk music performance tends to prioritize the singer-songwriter, both as vocalist and instrumentalist, the best bluegrass is about balance – between instruments, and among voices. The bluegrass sound is thus typified by close harmonies that span the range from high male tenor to bass, and a wide range of acoustic stringed instruments – typically bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle – which echo that vocal range, and, through alternating-beat use of bass and percussive high-stringed chords, provide an equally rich, full sound.

Bluegrass gets a bad rap in the world of covers — all those anonymous session musicians cutting albums of Phish and Nine Inch Nails and Led Zeppelin covers just to pay the rent doesn’t help. But bluegrass music is much more than country music’s poor country cousin. The covers you’ll find featured in today’s post are the real deal, performed with love and respect. Even if you’re not usually the bluegrass type, I highly recommend giving them a try.

To those unschooled in the history of bluegrass music, the Framingham, MA, Sheraton might seem an especially odd choice for the International Bluegrass Music Association‘s 2006 Event of the Year. But the popular stereotype which casts bluegrass music as a form of southern music belies a rich and long-standing tradition of New England bluegrass. And remembering that Scots-Irish dance tunes and English ballads are but one of several primary influences on the bluegrass form does help one come to terms with the fact that the Sheraton is built like a giant Irish castle, and thus looks more like a venue for a jousting tournament than a site for a bluegrass festival.

Once you get over the strange dissonance between the snow-capped castle turrets outside and the sound of a thousand banjos, basses, high tenors and mandolins inside, The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is a great gig. Incredibly, festival sponsor the Boston Bluegrass Association manages to successfully reproduce the feel of a great outdoor festival indoors in the dead of winter. The atmosphere is infectiously fun, from the ubiquitous hallway jam sessions to the ballroom mainstage to the conference rooms stuffed with product demos and instrumental workshops.

And the musical talent is out of this world. The Joe Val Festival, which celebrates the life of seminal 1960′s New England bluegrass mandolin player Joe Val, attracts a significant share of IBMA award winners, both old and new. As such, it’s a good way to whet one’s appetite for the cornucopia of summer festivals which pepper New England in the warmer months. And it’s a great vehicle for us to consider the place of bluegrass in the spectrum of American folk forms.

Today, we feature a select set of covers from the artists I’ve been lucky enough to see at Joe Val in the past six years. Together, they explore the surprisingly vast potential of the bluegrass sound, running the gamut from country singer-songwriter to gospel, from old-school to new school. It was a genuine pleasure to see them all, and it’s a genuine pleasure to share their work with you.

As always, all album and artist links lead directly to band and artist websites, where albums can be purchased, tours can be charted, and fan appetites can be whetted. And if you live in New England, you might also be interested in knowing that the Boston Bluegrass Union, which sponsors the Joe Val Festival, puts on great shows throughout the year.

1 comment » | bluegrass, Festival Coverfolk

Peter Mulvey Covers “The Good Stuff”
(Radiohead, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jolie Holland, U2 & more!)

February 12th, 2012 — 07:22 pm

Peter Mulvey was one of the very first artists we wrote about here at Cover Lay Down, way back in October of 2007; at the time, we claimed that Mulvey has the versatility of the true cover artist, and the knack of bringing new meaning to a wide breadth of song, citing both his 2002 covers album Ten Thousand Mornings, recorded live in the Davis Square subway station just outside of Boston, and his collaborative work with lo-fi coverfolk supergroup Redbird as ample evidence.

Since then, we’ve come back to Mulvey’s work multiple times, both as a solo artist and a collaborator. His whimsical, ragged takes on songs originally written and performed by Dar Williams, Paul Simon, U2, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and others have helped illuminate the works of these songwriters, and lent a sense of whimsy to features on Oceanfolk, Winterfolk, Show Tunes covers, and more. And, in 2009, in order to acknowledge the impending release of Letters From a Flying Machine, we revisited our original post, adding the lone cover from that album – a delightful take on Ira and George Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay – as justification for our continued celebration.

As we noted in our first look at the artist, Mulvey’s voice falls towards the Tom Waits and Dylan camps, full of feeling but hardly pure; fans tend to cite his songwriting and his guitarplay, which range from spoken word and acoustic swingjazz to contemporary folk and Americana, rather than his strained, whispery, sandpapery voice, when explaining their affection for the Milwaukee-based, Boston-and-Dublin bred singer-songwriter who has produced 16 albums in his career, and toured the country five times by bike. And certainly, Mulvey and Goodrich celebrate their collaborative fretwork, with the powerful all-instrumental album Nine Days Wonder, released last year, standing as an apt culmination of their partnership.

But there’s something to be said for the power of song wrung from a broken instrument, and as a vocalist, Mulvey is a master of making the most of every note. As a member of Redbird, which also includes Mulvey’s constant sideman and collaborator David “Goody” Goodrich and coffeehouse folkstars (and eventual married couple) Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault, he lends a rough edge to harmonies, expanding the sonic experience, grounding the work in emotional grit. And, as a solo cover artist, whether in his earliest live recordings as a more traditional singer-songwriter or his most recent roots and jazz transformations, the spare voice recasts lyrics powerfully.

At the end of March, Mulvey’s third major covers-oriented project will come to fruition with the release of The Good Stuff, recorded last summer at the Signature Sounds studio just a few miles down the road from where our own blog is based. The plan was to make a rustic yet living album of standards, with rootsy instrumentation courtesy of Goodrich and others, and a long list of possible songs to winnow down to a single album, based primarily on the songs’ ability to come across as both timeless and lasting.

And although we’ve promised not to offer or stream any of the new tracks until early March, having just received our preview copy of the album this week, we’re thrilled to announce that the project succeeds in spades, due to a potent combination of acoustic genre play, nuanced craftsmanship, and that healthy double-dollop of whimsy and respect which have become the hallmark of Mulvey’s work.

As in Ten Thousand Mornings, Mulvey’s definition of “standards” ranges wide indeed, taking us from Duke Ellington to Tom Waits to Jolie Holland in the span of a single album. But where in that earlier project it was the environment which made for a vibrant, unified experience, with the echoes in the brick and tile underground and the screech and shuss of trains and passersby lending an air of realism, here, even as they mutate and transform to match the sense and sensibility of the set, it is the voice and guitar alone which create cohesion, with each carefully chosen setting providing new insight into a well-chosen classic song.

The result is practically miraculous: a diverse set, simultaneously ancient and utterly new, which calls us to a myriad of authentic folk and jazz forms, with the music as adept a carrier of the century as the songbook. His Mood Indigo and High Noon combine bouncy fiddlefolk with a minor key swing, coating a deceptively gentle delivery in dramatic tension; his Thelonious Monk instrumental is just ragged enough; his take on Willie Nelson’s Are You Sure? is a gleeful acoustic country duet, gentle and wry; his take on Tom Waits’ Green Grass is low and hollow, a death’s dirge that rises into the night; his cover of Holland’s Old Fashioned Morphine is a bluesy Waits-esque interpretation, a drink and drug-addled hallucination; his Everybody Knows is a deep, funky samba that wails into electric smoke. If, as Mulvey notes, these are the songs “that will be firmly ensconced in the firmament when half a century blows all the rest of the chaff away”, then there’s a good chance that his will be the versions which we hear in our heads.

As noted above, we’ve been asked not to spill the beans on the newest coverage from Mulvey. But here’s a build-up of older coverage from the man himself, both with and without friends – to reinforce your appreciation for a fine artist and interpreter, and to whet your whistle for the March 28th release of The Good Stuff.

  • Peter Mulvey: Hard Time Come Again No More (pub. Stephen Foster)

    (from Glencree, 1999)

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Hayward Williams covers Tom Waits’ Long Way Home w/ Peter Mulvey and Brianna Lane on guitar and harmony vocals

Comment » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Peter Mulvey

‘Tube Thursday: New Video Cover Projects
take on the Guy Clark, Grateful Dead, and Leonard Cohen songbooks

February 9th, 2012 — 08:24 pm

It’s not the newest trend in the webiverse. See, for example, Hangin’ Out On E Street, the Bruce Springsteen-solicited covers project we noted way back in February of 2009, or The Stand Ins project, which had Bon Iver, The New Pornographers, David Vandervelde, and other indie names taking on the tracks from Okkervil River album The Stand Ins as it was released in 2008.

But the songwriter-specific video covers project concept seems to be peaking, with several major collections in process as we speak. Today, we present our favorite submissions from three new multi-artist coverage sets, granting us new glimpses into the songbooks of Guy Clark, The Grateful Dead, and Leonard Cohen…plus a few bonus vids we’ve had kicking around from another project with a very different focus, indeed.

The modern trend towards the slow, track-by-track leak of impending albums as distributed blog-by-blog exclusives intersects with the video cover project conceit in Old Ideas With New Friends, designed to raise awareness of Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen’s newest album, among a broad set of younger listeners by connecting his older songbook to the new, predominantly indie inheritors of his dark narrative style. You gotta admire the conceit of coverage as album promotion – it worked for Peter Gabriel and Okkervil River, after all – and though the central genre connection here is broad alternative and hipster indie, not folk, after only five installments, the inevitable crossover has produced some fine versions, with more to come from Old 97s’ Rhett Miller and The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman, among others.

As a dubious bonus, of sorts, the project’s use of Vimeo’s precise sharing and embedding parameters show exactly how artists and labels can regain full control of the viral spread of media content without having to rely on broad-ranging, baby-with-the-bathwater law like SOPA or PIPA. Which is to say: you really must hear John Darnielle of The Mountain Goat’s sweet solo piano-driven cover of The Smokey Life, but you’ll have to head over to either Consequences of Sound or Vimeo to do it, as blog-embedding for the track is currently limited to that one major blog which managed to garner exclusive contract for first release. Luckily, after a similar short-lived period of exclusivity, the others in the project so far have now been made available to all of us. Here’s two that fit our mold.

Brandford Cox: Seems So Long Ago, Nancy (orig. Leonard Cohen)

Greg Dulli: Paper Thin Hotel (orig. Leonard Cohen)

As of the turn of the year, the official Grateful Dead page hosts The Dead Covers Project, a growing set of ‘tube-shared fan coverage – I’d use the term officially sanctioned, if it were not for the fact that, for a band which practically made its name through supporting the bootleg as a viable and supported mechanism of fan participation, the term seems fundamentally meaningless. The page will be featuring a new fan-made video every day in February, spreading the love…but in the end, like YouTube writ large, the project’s corporate underbelly hides a viable way to turn amateur status into gold: five of the videos will be “chosen” in March, and their artists’ profiles featured on the Dead’s online properties, and in the 2012 edition of the Grateful Dead Almanac, thus garnering VIP access to one of the largest music communities standing today.

Unlike other notables in today’s set, the Dead Covers project is truly amateur-oriented, with voting pushing fan favorites to the top of the home page; Dead fans being attuned to nuance in performance, the top of the list is quite good indeed, though the average Dead fan’s willingness to allow ragged recording quality after years of tape trading seems to favor interpretation over sound caliber. Still, a bit of digging after skimming the top of the list reveals hidden gems that linger, too. Here’s five favorites from the newest part of the vault.

Amal Bouhabib & Jeff Malinowski: Cassidy (orig. Grateful Dead)

Lauren Crow: Been All Around This World (orig. Grateful Dead)

JanelleVibes: Wharf Rat (orig. Grateful Dead)

Birdhouse: Here Comes Sunshine (orig. Grateful Dead)

Rob & Tom Wolfson: Deep Elem Blues (orig. Grateful Dead)

Townes Van Zandt contemporary and Red House Records recording artist Guy Clark’s been getting a heap of late-career recognition lately, thanks to This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, a two-disc set that finished January near the top of several major Country and Pop charts. But twelve-track companion piece Don’t Let the Sunshine Fool Ya: The Sin City Sings the Songs of Guy Clark over at Country-slash-Americana blog Turnstyled, Junkpiled is equally delightful, and a bit closer to the Americana and folk lines, thanks to a dozen LA musical acts that came together to pay tribute to the man and his music on streetcorners, stages, and studios, and in their living rooms.

We posted The Far West’s slow, boozy contribution to the project last week, claiming that its classic Gram Parsons vibe made it perfect for the No Depression crowd; it still remains a favorite. But these solo takes from Wic Coleman and Jackson Tanner are equally great in their own way, with a bit more of the dusty troubadour vibe which made Clark so vibrant in concert, for those of us lucky enough to have seen him perform in bare-bones form. And the full collection bears further note: if you like your folk on the country line, and you’re willing to accept a few tracks with the drums-and-bass so typical of barroom country among the more delicate, raw works, take a gander at every video over at the project page.

Jackson Tanner: Queenie’s Song (orig. Guy Clark)

Wic Coleman: She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (orig. Guy Clark)

In other cover project news: it’s not new, and it’s not focused around a single artist; its videos are not solicited, but sought out, and then filmed in a consistently intimate black and white style that has us zooming in on artists in their home environs as each one speaks into the camera, contextualizing our experience, before picking up their instrument and amazing us with raw beauty. But the continued great works from The Voice Project – a non-profit that uses its ongoing coverage chains to raise awareness for displaced women in Uganda – just keep on coming, and if you’re not a subscriber to their email blasts, thus ensuring that you don’t miss a single new video, you should be. Check out two fave vids from the project below, and then head on over to The Voice Project to browse, subscribe, donate, and fall in love.

Cillie Barnes: Million Dollar Bill (orig. Dawes)

Ben Sollee: Real Life (orig. Joan As Police Woman)

Looking for more video and streaming coverage throughout the week, including previews and bonuses from the blog and beyond? Don’t forget to check out and “like” the Cover Lay Down Facebook page!

Comment » | Grateful Dead, Guy Clark, Leonard Cohen, YouTube

Making Peace With The Wild Things:
A Prayer For My Students

February 5th, 2012 — 07:09 pm

Student grades are due tomorrow, but we went to church anyway – we had to sing, and anyway, after two years of semi-regular practice as a Unitarian Universalist, I have come to a place in my life where I find peace and solace in shared practice which starts and ends with love and service, togetherness and open-ended truths, and a shared commitment to social justice.

Much of this is due to the particulars of our chosen worship setting. The UU church which we attend is in transition, with an interim minister who has my undying respect; wise, and gentle, with a knack for bringing new texts and ideas to the table, presenting them clearly and coherently, and then braiding them together to reveal the thing which we needed most of the world in that moment.

I experience her sermons as a kind of miracle of the mind, that binds my soul and body, and answers my unspoken need. Even when I am distracted by my own thoughts, her bright, intelligent prompting provides an avenue for me to come to myself with new eyes, and with a renewed determination to accept that which has been lurking in my heart and mind.

And in this case, a sermon on blessings and failures, and how we so often fail to allow ourselves to experience the joys and sadness they should bring us, has brought me back to my students.

The students I teach are ill-prepared for success. They are the product of a city that is stacked against them, a community that is in too much of a hurry to address the deep foundation issues which would support true progress, a system that is under too much pressure to make it look like things are working. They come to my ninth grade classroom with fifth grade reading skills, without the stamina to be learners for more than a few minutes per class day, with anger against me for enforcing the most basic rules, and an image of the classroom as a competitive space, where they win if they can overwhelm the lesson, or if they can sleep successfully, and thus avoid confronting their unpreparedness.

They also come, if indeed they come at all – one in five students is absent on a given day – with long histories of pitting themselves against the world, which make them almost unteachable for most of the semester, until and if we can delay the curriculum long enough to get into their hearts. Most of them are incapable of experiencing joy or sadness at all, let alone the empathy we assume is prerequisite for understanding a text. Instead, they experience only despair and bitterness, disappointment and pride – emotions they cannot acknowledge, to themselves or others, lest they appear weak, and lose the only game they know.

A few of them manage to survive and move forward, and a tiny, tiny percentage aim to thrive. But these are the minority: just 25% of students in the city where I teach even graduate from high school within four years, and it’s not hard to see why. Last week, a boy in one of my classes taunted a girl into attacking him; in the aftermath, his lack of ownership in instigating the fight was both frustrating and expected, but it was his comment that “It wasn’t a fight; she’s a girl” that reminded me just how unprepared these almost-men and almost-women are to accept even the basic conditions that we believe are necessary to help them move forward.

We do what we can for them, and sometimes more than we can afford, in an environment where each student gets just two minutes of my individual attention, if that, per day. In tiny slices of time we struggle to push our way in, to learn who they are as individuals, to identify the gaps between where they are and where the curriculum assumes they are, and construct a pathway for them that bridges their particular chasm.

But half a bridge is no better than none, and it may be worse, given that it contains so much false hope. In the end, it is our lot to hold them responsible for their actions, lest we become part of the machine that lies to them, and tells them that they are ready. It hurts to fail so many, but it would hurt more to pass them along without merit or ability, to undermine their next classes, to perpetuate the lie that a good heart, however buried and patinaed, is evidence of success.

And so many fail. Despite unanswered parent phone calls and teacher conferences full of hopelessness, long unattended after school sessions offered, a hundred new attempts at kind words and coaxing, over half of the 80 final grades I will enter into the database before the sun rises tomorrow are F’s. Of the remainder, another half are within the D range, marking their recipients as desperately unprepared academically but willing to struggle just enough to produce something that hints of promise, though probability says that not one of these 20-or-so students will pass sufficient classes this year to move on, leaving them stuck in the eternal-seeming limbo that is another ninth grade year.

Only four of my students from last term earned an A of any sort. Only six earned B’s. And of those, there are still one or two who only bothered and blossomed in my class, or perhaps one other – they liked me, but in a manner untranslatable to other teachers’ style.

How did we get from sermon to city? These things are related, somehow, though they are hard to untangle. But today, in church, as the minister read a section from Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, I was reminded that my students do not know what we taught them then, if indeed we taught them at all.

And although the time for sharing had passed, suddenly, in the middle of the sermon, I wanted to say a prayer for my students.

I wanted to light a candle for my beloved failures, curled up against the world so tightly that, like fists, all they can do is destroy.

I wanted to cry, and ask forgiveness; to say that I really did do everything there is to do, and let the feelings simply be, in the community I trust, even as I despair in the peace of my beloved wild things, who tear at me until the bell rings, and the clock runs out, and it is too late.

I wanted to, but I didn’t.

I offer it here, instead.

12 comments » | Theme Posts

New Artists, Old Songs, Vol. XXIV: Digging deeper into
The Far West, Robby Hecht, Gregory Paul, Adna, Josienne Clarke & more!

February 2nd, 2012 — 12:07 am

When we started our New Artists, Old Songs series back in 2008, the goal was to feature otherwise-unknown artists who were just starting to hit the proverbial radar. And though we still try to balance ourselves between the new and the longstanding – knowing that introduction of the new and reframing of the familiar better serve us all if grounded in the depths of history, concerned that the temptation to tip into the world of mere promo passalong could trap us yet – since then, we’ve returned to the premise numerous times, cautiously optimistic about that which is worth celebrating, determined to ply the first coverage of artist on the cusp as an entry point into their original work and craft.

By all accounts, the approach works. To take one singular example, just three years after we pulled her live Bob Dylan cover from the mailbag and introduced her to the world atop our very first New Artists, Old Songs feature, Angel Snow has become both a Nashville sensation and a songwriter to the stars, with three original compositions featured on Alison Krauss’ most recent album.

I note this, though, because in recent weeks, we’ve started an experiment, sharing our ongoing pursuit of the new and now throughout the week via smaller-scale tidbits on a Cover Lay Down Facebook page; indeed, many of the artists you’ll hear below have already been tasted there. And if I was late to the social media networking game, it was for honest reasons: the intention was to expand our coverage and reach, but I worried that such small-scale blasts would obscure and trivialize that which we work so hard to select, share, and celebrate.

Which is to say: though it confounds the conceit that our New Artist, Old Songs series only features artists not otherwise heard, we’ll keep the Facebook page going, for the nonce – it’s fun, and the fact that it has served as fodder and anticipator for this very feature suggests that it is working, even if only 150 of you have “liked” the page thus far. But we’re also using today’s entry to make a commitment to the continued need to feature the emerging artist at his or her inception. Because the slow population climb over in the breakneck zone of social media has revealed an important truth: blogging is not dead. Micro-media are fickle; it takes more than 140 characters to tout and truly celebrate, to expand and explain. And where those who blog the popular too often aim merely to pass along today’s hot potato, our goal is not to crest the wave, but to support at the foundation.

And so, today, we bring forth an expanded set of shorties, pulled from recent Facebook posts, blogs, mailbag, and beyond. Because, as the slow but steady success of Angel Snow and so many others have shown us, the longevity and permanence that a blog can bring matter greatly, in the end. And while words in the blue-and-white slipstream fade fast from our consciousness, the depth and commitment we offer here on these virtual pages is where our heart lies.

It’s hard to avoid the inevitable comparisons to Sandy Denny and June Tabor when talking about new UK folk revivalist Josienne Clarke. But all British accent and penchant for tradfolk tropes aside, there’s something stunningly modern in the crystal-clear production she trends towards, and utterly ancient in the delicate stringwork she favors as accompaniment to her sweet, achingly controlled soprano vocals and recorders. The result is a perfect balance of both classical voice-and-guitar folk and traditional balladry, in many ways more reminiscent of John Renbourne’s quieter, more pensive work than anything. And the music is everything we might want in a folk album: delicate, crisp, subtle and nuanced, and beautiful in every tiny moment, from each full-throated opening note to a thousand lingering fades and falls.

For all that, Clarke has released but two formal albums: 2010 debut One Light Is Gone, and The Seas Are Deep, a “pay what you want” Bandcamp collection of well-loved folk songs recorded by and with multi-instrumentalist Ben Walker, and featuring apt assistance from Red Clay Halo cellist Jo Silverston on four of the nine album tracks. Walker’s production and mixing are exquisite; their take on Silver Dagger, especially, has been making the rounds of the folkblogs, even going so far as to bring songs:illinois out of semi-hiatus in mid-January. For comparison’s sake, check out mastered versions of John Riley and Black Is The Color below, fully sprung from the brand new collaboration, and then stick around for Josienne’s covers of Nick Drake, Jackson C. Frank, and Richard Thompson.

By changing up the rhythm of the melodic line into something more singer-songwritery, but keeping the fiddle and banjo that so traditionally lead these bluegrass and gospel standards, Upstate NY native (and Seattle transplant) singer-songwriter and experimentalist Gregory Paul‘s “old time noir” takes on Rain & Snow, Wayfaring Stranger, Little Sadie, O Death, and other traditional songs utterly transform our aural templates for the songs themselves, justifying our continued insistence that the parts of the cultural songbook which predate copyright have plenty of life in ‘em yet, and providing a powerful model for how to move the classic folkforms respectfully but firmly into the 21st century. The resultant tracks are mystical and freeing, hypnotic and haunting, challenging our preconceptions while thrilling the senses; as with other covers but moreso, they also lead us to Paul’s substantive set of original works, which tender the same tenor and tropes, ridding us of our preconceptions about what folk is and should be, even as they echo of the modern indiefolk and neo-trad movements. Found via Hearth Music, who missed it last year, too.

We actually featured both Robby Hecht and Alex Brumel and Janel Elizabeth over the weekend here in these pages, as both had covered Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You; I had heard of Robby a bit before, since he’s been touring with Cover Lay Down faves Red Molly; Alex and Janel, who come from diverse backgrounds – he the singer-songwriter tradition, her a jazz singer’s past – fell out of the ether in the midst of the usual all-nighter that generally frames the winnowing process as I struggle to find the best and most diverse set for our Single Song Sundays.

But further pursuit of both artists in the subsequent days has revealed depths worth plumbing. Hecht’s more recent originals run from truly tender ballads to full-bore Americana folk – his original lost-love song A Reckoning Of Us is absolutely amazing, and should be played for anyone who thinks they’ve heard it all before – but his early YouTube covers are honest and warm, delightful and potent, the singer-songwriter’s heart and confidence showing through in what is ordinarily an amateur’s medium, despite low-tech, late-night videography and recording quality; as I noted on Facebook, his soft coverage of Patrick Swayze’s one and only hit single from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack is surely the best take on the song ever, bar none, even if the recording quality is ragged and a bit too low. And Brumel and Elizabeth’s Falling Slowly cover truly showcases their voices without drowning them, the low guitar more than just strumming, but carrying the undertow weight of the song, proving the worth of both their collaboration, and of the individual talents involved. Keep an eye on both artists for more as their careers continue to grow.

I found Duncan Stagg through a random SoundCloud search for the word “cover”, which brought me five interpretations of modern popular indiefolk artists and a small set of original works. His coverage tells us what his influences are, really – two decent albeit formulaic Iron & Wine songs, a beautiful version of fingerpicking instrumental master Andy McKee’s For My Father, a warbly take on Angus and Julia Stone’s The Devil’s Tears, and this wonderful Bon Iver cover – but it’s his pinched, deliberately strained rock and roll tenor, reminiscent of Green Day lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong more than anything, that so startles me, especially when coupled with ringing guitar, lush bedroom production elements, and what appears to be overdubbed harmonies.

It took me forever to figure out that I had actually heard of Stagg before this – he’s the Bristol student whose YouTube Deer Tick cover so struck the band, they invited him on stage at the End Of The Road festival in 2010 to play along with them. But beyond that single anecdote, as with other artists we’ve featured in the past in our New Artists series, there’s very little else about Stagg himself out there – a google search reveals no such artist, the SoundCloud page itself contains nary a link; it’s possible that he’s now performing as part of a grungy pop trio calling themselves Silver Wings, but it’s hard to tell. For now, at least, the music will have to speak for itself.

I hate to copy and paste from the Facebook page itself, but in this case, I think I got it right the first time – and the repetition is especially apt here, given the topic, and the way it pushes us to consider the pace and postures of the Internet age. And so I repeat myself, by noting again that turn-around time on coverage these days is pretty fast; youth finds its way forwards faster, too. Here, with evidence of how the cycle works, is brand new 17-year old Swedish folk sensation Adna, newly signed to Despotz Records and just about to release her first single via YouTube sometime this week, who found enough time in the studio during that same session to cover one of the newest singles from equally young, equally scandinavian First Ait Kit, who made their own initial splash with a cover of Fleet Foxes on YouTube in 2008, and are now wowing the blogs with their own major label album.

  • Adna: The Lion’s Roar (orig. First Aid Kit)

And finally, this just in: those who like their folk rootsy and countrified will be happy to learn that relatively new five-piece Southern California band The Far West, which formed in 2010 from the ashes of a myriad of other groups that just weren’t hitting the mark, just this minute sent me two amazing covers: a Guy Clark song recorded for Don’t Let The Sunshine Fool Ya: The Sin City Sings The Songs of Guy Clark, a brand new tribute set just being compiled over at Americana source-and-a-half Turnpiled, Junkstyled, and a wonderfully hazy, oozingly Parsons-esque country Americana waltz transformation of Roxy Music’s More Than This that quite literally blew my socks off when it hit the inbox.

Good thing I checked for last-minute entries just before I hit the publish button for today’s feature. The talent’s there in spades, but timing is still everything, guys – so here’s hoping a little extra luck keeps the momentum going. The No Depression crowd is going to LOVE this.

  • The Far West: That Old Time Feeling (orig. Guy Clark)

2 comments » | Duncan Stagg, Gregory Paul, Josienne Clarke, New Artists Old Songs, Robby Hecht, The Far West