Archive for April 2012

(Re)Covered, vol XXV: New coverage from
Rose Cousins, Ryan Adams, the Stringdusters, Rani Arbo & more!

April 29th, 2012 — 02:41 pm

We’ve got an unusually large post today, both to acknowledge a growing backlog of recent projects from familiar, beloved folk artists, and to make up for our recent vacation-driven absence from these pages. Read on for an unheard-of 20-track (Re)Covered set, focused around a plethora of new releases and recordings from singer-songwriters and bands previously featured on the Cover Lay Down radar screen…

I’ve known of Halifax-based singer-songwriter Rose Cousins for years, though almost exclusively through her rich and ongoing collaboration with a number of local artists; indeed, over the past four years, we’ve heard her on these pages in duet and group work with Laura Cortese, Rose Polenzani, Sean Staples, and Edie Carey, but never managed to find an excuse to tout the work she produces in her own name.

Now our wait is over, with our highest praise for Rose’s newest solo album We Have Made A Spark, her third full-length. The eminently listenable album is a powerful collection of catchy, well-produced folk pop, a diverse and stirring set that ranges from angst-ridden slide-and-banjo driven countryfolk (The Darkness) to rich, wistful piano balladry (One Way, All The Time It Takes To Wait) that provides a potent intro to her catalog, and it benefits greatly from her collaborative tendencies, with layered guest harmonies and instrumental spots from a huge swatch of predominantly Boston-based artists, including the abovementioned favorites, plus Ana Egge, Amy Correia, Duke Levine, Charlie Rose, producer/bassist Zach Hickman, and more familiar names. And her take on Bruce Springsteen, the sole cover on an otherwise-strong collection of pensive, literate original works, is a stunning piece of modern Americana, performed as a duet with CLD fave Mark Erelli – the perfect beginning to our omnibus playlist today.

We’ve’ve been following award-winning young newgrass group The Infamous Stringdusters since their impromptu mainstage set at the 2006 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival blew us away; since then, they’ve returned to these pages several times, with takes on U2, John Mayer, and more pop and rock coverage in spades, even as their sound drifts towards a more worldly combination of genres designed to broaden their appeal with the jamband and country pop sets. Their newest album Silver Sky is no exception to this trend, with a funky, horn-driven, festival-ready take on Police hit Walking On The Moon that retains the reggae beat of the original, but adds layers of fiddle and mandolin for a piece that rivals the best of Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, and other forefathers on the edge of bluegrass, jam, folk, and rock. Check out our archives and Silver Sky for more, or check them out on tour as they promote the album, but don’t miss them if you have the chance.

After appearing on these virtual pages several times, local heroes Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem – a family-friendly “agnostic gospel” band that grew out of the ashes of one-time bluegrass quartet Salamander Crossing around the turn of the century – are at it again with Some Bright Morning, released just this past week on local standby Signature Sounds, and I’m pleased to report that it’s another wonderful album that runs tender-to-tempest in its survey of the range of modern acoustic folkband production. Covers abound here, too, with a punchy moonlight jazzfolk take on I’ll Fly Away, a tense dustbowl version of East Virginia Blues, and a jangly, jumpin’ old-time swing take on Springsteen’s Reason To Believe just the tip of the iceberg; there’s also a number of well-written originals, including two reworkings of songs previously recorded by group members – a folk hymn setting of Tennyson’s Crossing The Bar, and a darkly mysterious take on old Salamander Crossing tune Fire In The Sky – to remind us of the potent musicianship and mature craft the quartet brings to their artistry.

Long-time readers may recall that Hannah Read first came to our attention as a founding member of chamberfolk experimentalists the Folk Arts Quartet; since then, the Berklee-trained, Scottish-bred singer and fiddler has mostly appeared on our radar via her work with other Berklee alums and attendees who trend towards bluegrass and old-timey work. But her newest EP Wrapped In Lace represents a major shift towards the dark, rich sonic landscapes of indie popfolk types Regina Spector, Ingrid Michaelson, Adele, and even Imogen Heap, with a generous helping of both the sparse folk experimentalism of UK darlings The Unthanks and smooth Diana Krall jazz in the mix to boot. The result is quite beautiful, a pure, sweet voice floated on top of a thoroughly produced, potent hybridization of british folk, cool jazz, and chill coffehouse sadcore that leaves us aching for more.

Each song here is its own landscape, and every one is rich with nuance and beauty. The EP’s single cover – a take on a Richard Farina composition which helped bring fame and fortune to Sandy Denny, Pete Seeger, and others since it’s origin in the early days of the folk revival – is quite possibly the sparsest on the disc, without the pulsing beats that drive the other tracks, but it’s worth sharing, not hardly for its cavernous, crackling, tense atmosphere, and the thick harmonies and chords that pierce the heart. And yes, that’s Sugar Hill records recording artist Sarah Jarosz on backing vocals – a bonus, indeed!

Conversely, though it’s been a while since we heard from her, Kristin Andreassen – a clogger, multi-instrumentalist, and tradfolk revivalist whom we touted as a central member of the new folk community way back in the summer of 2008 – continues to be a bit of an underground mover and shaker among her peers. Her new collaborative project Jumping Through Hoops – whose debut release Rockin’ To The Fiddle, a delightfully fun set of old-timey fiddle tunes and other tradfolk for the family, was released at the end of December – is nominally a co-bill with child psychologist and fiddler Kari Groff, but it features a star-studded cast from the Brooklyn-based Americana scene, with Kari and Kristin joined by Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still, Jefferson Hamer, and others for a powerhouse set that runs from jumper to lullaby – a journey that may well turn out to have been a missed contender for 2011 kidfolk album of the year. That’s Kristen’s voice on lead on the first track below, and founding Punch Brothers and Infamous Stringdusters member Chris Eldridge on lead on the second.

Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Reid Jamieson is one of our favorite Canadian artists here on Cover Lay Down, both because of his constant coverage, and because of the gentle, lighthearted approach the 2012 Lennon Award Winner brings to all of his performances. Previously, we’ve featured his interpretations of everything from Elvis and Hank Williams to the Sesame Street theme song, from the sounds of 1969 to his smooth, suave version of the Canadian National Anthem; his most recent web-based single release, a take on Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On recorded in honor of the 3D rerelease of major mass-market film The Titanic, is truly transformative, proving that even Dion’s particularly treacly pop can be reworked as a viable folk song in the hands of a true master.

Speaking of Canadian folk artists: our January 2010 feature on Woodpigeon represented one of our earliest forays into the experimental end of lo-fi indiefolk; since then, we’ve returned but once to the “ersatz karass based around the guitar, voice, and songwriting of Mark Andrew Hamilton”, though that earlier, often fragile fringefolk still reverberates, and they still post the occasional cover on their blog, as per the Velvet Underground bonus track below. But The Bard of Montreal, a new mostly-folk 25-track tribute to Leonard Cohen from the good folks at Herohill, is all Canadian, and all good; in addition to Woodpigeon’s whispery, retro, straight-out-of-a-Wes-Anderson-film take on an oft-covered Cohen classic, the collection is notable for Andrew Vincent’s broken slack-string version of Bird On A Wire, a weirdly endearing autoharp- and drumkit-driven So Long Marianne from The Strumbellas, a jangly banjo and fiddle Closing Time from Old Man Luedecke, and more coverage from Kathryn Calder, Tyler Butler, et. al. Plus: like previous Herohill cover albums, the whole damn thing is free, making it easy to pick and choose among the scattered gems.

Bonus track:

The monthly Twitter-driven coverage from Verve Pipe founder Brian Vander Ark, who we featured just a few months ago, continues to impress, with the recent release of REM cover Sweetness Follows and U2 cover All I Want on his SoundCloud page a potent reminder that modern folk is as much about production choices as it is about core lyrical and melodic sensibility. Which is to say: pop singer-songwriter + pop song + stripped down sensibility = folk session, and we shouldn’t be surprised, even – perhaps especially – if the tinkling bells and pulsing piano and harmonies here echo Peter Gabriel’s stillest, most achingly beautiful landscapes. And the etherial harmonies of Vander Ark spouse Lux Land, a potent singer-songwriter in her own right, speak for themselves.

Philly singer-songwriter and Cover Lay Down partner-in-coverage Denison Witmer recently provided the best quote ever for our ongoing mandate alongside a week-long free release of his 2003 take on The Band classic It Makes No Difference after Levon Helm’s passage earlier this month. The track is now back on sale, and worth it; the quote, which will soon find its way to our masthead, is perfect: “As artists, we cover one another not because we think we can do a better job than the original version, but to pay respect to those who make music that touches us dearly.”

Denison – whose 2008 five-track bedroom covers collection still lives exclusively here in our archives – also recorded a crystal-clear take on Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds in an April 5 Daytrotter session. The recording is sweet and delicate as always, and utterly respectful to boot, though of course we’re proud to have been the first to share his earlier take on the song way back in April of 2011…and happy to report that fatherhood seems to suit Witmer’s pensive, deeply spiritual outlook well, indeed.

If it’s been a while since we returned to the work of Ryan Adams – and if we’ve never truly featured his folkier side or his songbook in coverage, an error of omission which is long overdue – it’s because the chameleonesque artist has been in a much more experimental, rock-oriented mode of performance for much of the past decade. But Adams’ recent iTunes session is a true celebration of the same pensive, more acoustic side he’s been touring with these past few months, stripping down a set of songs from his back catalog marvelously. His Sweet Carolina is more delicate than ever with soft guitar and harmonica; his take on old Whiskeytown tune Houses On The Hill reopens the song like an old bottle of wine, finding it a private, bluesy dustbowl ballad. And his cover of Bob Mould’s Black Sheets of Rain – the sole non-original in the EP’s octet – is hushed and dark, a true tonal transposition from a man who understands both the value of bombast and its absence.

Unless you’ve been living under a cone of silence, you already know that once-featured, once-revisited African American String Band Carolina Chocolate Drops hit the ground this winter with a new release and a major change in personnel: gone is high-energy co-founder Justin Robinson, here to stay is beatboxer Adam Matta and new multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins. The result, an appropriately titled mixed bag called Leaving Eden, underutilizes all members (Matta appears on just a small handful of tracks), leaving us hoping for a second round with more cohesiveness. But the album also continues the band’s journey aptly, bringing forth a broad tracklist of songs from spare to jubilant that channel the traditions of appalachia, turning the folk of the slavefields and the holler (and their modern equivalents) into songs at once ancient and timeless. And though the set is somewhat ragged as it yaws from slave hollers and fiddle tunes to melodic folk narratives, some of the selections here are quite stunning, with these sparse yet vastly different covers of North Carolinian songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s title track and South African guitarist Hannes Coetzee’s instrumental Mahalla serving as an apt exhibit A and B.

Bonus Track:

Finally, we come full circle and then some today with recently-featured local hero Mark Erelli, and his newly recorded version of Band classic Ophelia, which he played as an encore at an utterly incredible, high-energy house concert last night co-hosted by yours truly. The version below was put up at his blog just a few days ago, along with a fantastic piece about Levon Helm and “The Band’s all-encompassing influence on modern American rock n’ roll”; those left wanting more are reminded to “like” both Mark’s webpage, where he posts new writing and a free (often quite rare) mp3 for download every month, and our Cover Lay Down Facebook page, where I’ll be posting a live Bill Morrissey cover and a few other traditional tracks from last night’s show in the next day or so.

1 comment » | (Re)Covered

Caribbean Coverfolk:
Pop, Reggae, Jazz & Folk Songs of the West Indies

April 19th, 2012 — 12:12 pm

As noted yesterday, we’re in Puerto Rico for an extended vacation, lazily hopping around the eastern side of the island in fits and starts. Old San Juan was my kind of town, and the perfect port of entry: just touristy enough, with authentic architecture and blue cobblestone streets, fine funky coffeeshops, and the most beautiful green labyrinth of a hotel, with resident parrots and a view of the sea over La Perla off the balcony. But two days in the city was more than enough, and now we’re in a stunningly spacious rental home in Ceiba, with plans for horseback riding, a rainforest hike, a moonless night walk through the bioluminescent lagoons, and plenty of lazy hours by the pool before we head to the resort for a long pampered weekend.

There’s still a serious lack of Puerto Rican folksinger coverage out there, and I’m not finding much in the way of acoustic Ricky Martin or Jose Feliciano tunes. But the larger Caribbean region is well known in song as both a vacation destination and as a poverty-stricken place of origin and return for the larger folk community – a paired set of polar tropes sadly common to destinations such as ours. Here’s a short coda to end our voyage, written high in las montanas on a breezy deck overlooking the beachside resorts of sleepy Ceiba and Fajardo, green islands ringed with white beaches and even whiter foam, and beyond them all, an expanse of blue ocean that stretches to the horizon.

  • Jack Johnson: A Pirate Looks At Forty (orig. Jimmy Buffett)

    (from iTunes Originals series, 2004)

2 comments » | Vacation Coverfolk

Vacation Coverfolk: Where We’re Going To
(Postcards from the past, songs from the present)

April 18th, 2012 — 12:55 pm

Sunday, April 15
Dear Reader,

Traditionally, when yours truly takes off for other climes, I leave behind a feature set or two of place-relevant coverage. But we’re off to San Juan in the morning for a long school break in the sun, with a spring in our step and an island-hopping itinerary on our mind. And unusually, there’s not much in the way of coverfolk from Puerto Rico to be found in the aether.

So here’s a few tracks about going places, pre-posted as a letter to the future for your midweek enjoyment. We’ll return in a week, shaking the sand from our shoes with a set of great new music from recent releases.

4 comments » | Theme Posts, Uncategorized, Vacation Coverfolk

Covered In Folk: The Bee Gees
(Feist, Shawn Colvin, Ray LaMontagne, Chumbawumba, & 12 more!)

April 15th, 2012 — 12:50 pm

Our thoughts and prayers go out this weekend to 62 year old Australian-born pop superstar Robin Gibb, founding member and long-time lead singer of disco trailblazers the Bee Gees, who is reportedly fighting for his life in a London hospital after a long struggle with cancer. In his honor, we’re recovering a June 2008 feature which mines my origin as an audiophile and pays tribute to the seminal work of the Bee Gees through an expanded set of folk-tuned coverage.

Gibb and his brothers may have spent their careers on the far end of the musical spectrum from the folk explosion that preceded and paralleled their rise to fame, but their cultural cachet and influence is undeniable. Robin’s vibrato will forever echo in our ears. May his pain be short, and his legacy last forever.

Bee Gees Gold was the first record I ever bought.

It was a used copy, already ragged; I remember the frayed cardboard at the edges when I opened up the album. I picked it up from some older kid at our elementary school swap meet. It cost a quarter, I think.

And to be honest, I have no memory of listening to it.

What I remember is the thrill of ownership. I grew up in a house full of grown-up records, but they weren’t mine, and I wasn’t really ready for folk and blues, country and soul. Like any suburban child of post-hippie parents, I had been given a small collection of great, authentic kidsong albums, but those were my parent’s choices, and already behind me. The Bee Gees greatest hits were the first music I could hear on the radio, and then play again as many times as I wanted. Whether I played it or not wasn’t the point. Buying it, taking it home, pulling against the slight vacuum that held it inside its sleeve, making a place for it on the shelf: it was a revelation, like discovering the key that unlocked the universe.

The experience of buying Bee Gees Gold, plus the rapid-fire acquisition of a used copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black, and a few records released that year — Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, Toto IV, Michael Jackson’s Thriller — would spark a lifetime of collecting and audiophilia. A quarter century later, my closets are full of long-dormant vinyl; the attic is stuffed with milk crate collections, and archived jewel cases. I download far more than I should, and digitize everything I can. My digital collection passed the 25000 song mark just this morning.

My students have always been amazed at the sheer amount of music on my iPod. But true audiophiles know that there’s an awful lot of great music out there, and what if you have a hankering for something and you don’t have it, ready to call up in the database? I live in a world of shuffle and playlists, theme and artist retrospectives, and new albums and discoveries. I cannot drive without a soundtrack; I look forward to mowing the lawn, in part, because it means an hour of meditative activity with headphones on. I build my summer around folk festivals. I spend almost every evening writing about music in one way or another, here and at collaborative blog Star Maker Machine. Listening, collecting, owning, sharing and enjoying music have become fully intertwined.

But though my tastes have turned towards the acoustic and the authentic over the years, you never forget your first.

In tribute to the record that started it all, today we present some of my favorite folk and folk-tinged Bee Gees covers. Most are recent indie-folk — as we’ve mentioned previously in our Covered in Folk series, the tendency for artists to bring the songs of their childhood cultures into their own repertoires means that a whole new set of indiefolks in my age group have recently begun adding Bee Gees songs to their performance canon. And a few are tongue-in-cheek; it’s hard to be earnest about something which will forever be associated with sequined bell-bottoms and high-pitched discopop harmony.

But under the glitz and glitter, there’s a surprising power here. Turns out the Brothers Gibb actually knew how to write songs with meaning, after all. Not a bad choice, for a nine year old kid suddenly opened to a world of possibility.

5 comments » | Bee Gees, Covered in Folk, reposts

Let My People Go: Songs of The Exodus
(Musical Metaphors of Power, Privilege, and Oppression)

April 7th, 2012 — 11:13 am

Before we were slaves in Egypt, we were Joseph’s brothers and their wives, working at the right hand of a seemingly benevolent pharaoh. But as more modern freedom movements have reminded us over and over again, trust in institutions is a trust misplaced, for power shared unilaterally is power that can be withheld. 400 years and a dozen generations, and we find ourselves both enslaved and feared for our potential power as usurpers.

And yet. Without Pharaoh’s breeding program, we would not have become a people. Without the pressure of death which brought Moses to the reeds and rushes, we would not have returned to Pharaoh’s right hand, where we could be heard. Without the madness, God would not have come to us, enflamed enough to convince a reluctant, stuttering prophet to raise his staff, and lead the people of Israel into the desert, and the great unknown of an uncertain future.

It took oppression and slavery to make a people of Israel; darkness is a forge unparalleled in our hearts. No wonder there is so much hope in the modern retellings of this story – hope, and compassion for those who continue to perpetuate the enslavement of others merely by choosing not to recognize their own privilege as a base condition for cultural imbalance. No wonder the figures of Moses, Pharaoh, Joseph, Joshua, and the Israelites have become metaphors for their own roles in the story – as flawed leader, scapegoat oppressor, untrusting and meek oppressed; as brave General, as prideful and arrogant prophet.

We tell their stories from every perspective, for they are all us. May we learn, once again, from their zeal, and their mistakes. May we continue to work for the day when all peoples can be free – from each other, and from their own fears.

Looking for more biblical songs? Head over to collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine, where we’re just finishing up a full week of themed posts on the subject!

1 comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Theme Posts

Damien Jurado Covers:
Springsteen, Nick Drake, Ronnie Dio, A.P. Carter, & more!

April 3rd, 2012 — 12:37 pm

Seattle indie singer-songwriter Damien Jurado is an experimentalist at heart, a literate musician who built his career on a cult following, early collaborative work as an indie rock band member with high school compatriot David Bazan, and a set of early self-released, cassette-only lo-fi experimental recordings featuring found sounds, neo-punk sensibilities, and carefully constructed, heartbreakingly elegant deconstructions of tonality and narrative images. And though more recent albums, such as 2010 masterwork Saint Bartlett and aptly celebrated new 2012 release Maraquopa, feature rich harmonic elements and hollow, crystalline atmospheres mixed with the rhythmic and sonic nuances of majestic indiefolk and other, older eras, each is its own revelation, proving the validity and viability of his continued journey.

Consequently, it is unsurprising to find that Jurado’s work as a body defies easy genre categorization. His albums have yawed from rock production to a more typically hushed and/or produced indiefolk; he has toured with full band and as a guitar-wielding solo artist; though his early major label works were on Sub Pop, the same label which brought us the Seattle grunge invasion, his move to Secretly Canadian in 2003 speaks to the more fragile elements of his work.

But though he follows in the creative-yet-idiosyncratic footsteps of Lou Reed, Neil Young, and Randy Newman, like those forefathers, there is folk in Jurado’s approach to song. In live performance and in numerous deep album cuts, he trends towards the bleak and dreamy, letting sounds emerge into the atmosphere as if channeled from the heart and hands; such tracks echo Nick Drake, or Beck’s folkier side, both in the way they haunt the ears, and in their slow, hoarse, slightly echoed vocals. Whispery and raw, nuanced and powerful, Jurado’s work is easily compared to that of Bonnie Prince Billy & Bon Iver, in that it sports the same gentle, airy vocal strain, albeit more sparse, and often more melodic. And though Jurado’s power is eminently his own, with an undertow of the heart’s darkness in almost everything he releases, there is also something of Dylan and Springsteen’s more modern journeys in his own canon, with album tracks that strip the sound down to a guitar strum and a slow musing narrative paired with heavier rockers, and plain first-person language that hides universal truths throughout.

Many tout Jurado’s songwriting, which for the vast majority of his career featured fictions clothed with rich and often heavy-hearted characters in the throes of despair, as one of the cornerstones of his success as an artist – not for nothing has the man been referred to as the Raymond Carver of the indie world.

But isolating the songwriting from his performance through a focus on coverage lays bare several strands of the craft which the singer-songwriter depends on for his potent impact. Unafraid to take on the songbooks of others in the intimacy and immediacy of his own recording spaces despite a stated reluctance to perform covers in live sessions – see, for example, Other People’s Songs, his 2010 all-covers recording session with Richard Swift – alongside a run of over a dozen original albums and numerous EPs in fifteen years as a solo artist, through these rarities and one-offs Jurado has nonetheless built a second, parallel set of songs which speak equally to his ability to transform and channel the world.

As with his original fictions, the source material here is vast and varied. So are the songs, which range from soft and fragile to majestically symphonic. Yet the collection is gorgeous and true, from the broken delicacy of his Ronnie James Dio tribute to Jurado’s Randy Newman-esque take on traditional hymn Just A Closer Walk With Thee. Listen with me as Damien Jurado makes each song his own, revealing the unified and disparate influences of the American songbook as the entwined folkways they truly are, proving his worth as an interpreter of us.

Bonus Tracks: Damien Jurado’s songwriting seems to strike as strong a chord with his indiefolk peers as it does with his growing and increasingly committed fan base. The lead-up to Jurado’s masterful February 2012 release Mariqosa, in fact, featured four of his Seattle indiefolk peers taking on his songs in tribute, hosted and solicited by The Seattle Times, and still available as a downloadable set via Mediafire. Here’s a few favorites as bonus tracks for today’s feature, the better to explore the songwriting side of the artist’s oeuvre.

Looking for even more? Head over to the Cover Lay Down Facebook page for a six-pack of bonus video coverage from today’s feature, including Kim Janssen, Evan Way, and Sallyxchaos covering the Jurado songbook, and three amazing cover rarities from a 2010 session in the Netherlands which find Damien Jurado taking on tracks from Keith Green, Larry Norman, and Little Wings!

2 comments » | Damien Jurado