Category: Rickie Lee Jones

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2012
Part 1: Rickie Lee Jones, Rory Block, and a trio of metal voices

September 21st, 2012 — 05:37 pm

It was a relatively sparse Summer for tribute albums and cover collections, but we did miss a few during our long hiatus – and Fall has been bringing in a rich harvest, too. In honor of what we’ve fondly called the coverlover’s bread and butter, over our next few posts, we explore a host of new and impending albums for the covers connoisseur, with our usual mix of all-folk albums, hybrid genre sets, and singleton acoustic tracks from multi-genre collections sure to please all listeners – starting today, with a trio of totally folk cover-and-tribute albums from artists generally associated with other genres.

After five decades on the road and in the studio, multi-genre living legend Rickie Lee Jones has taken a number of turns in and out of the folk canon in her long and storied career, producing plenty of folkpop alongside full albums of radiopop, R&B and Jazz standards and crooners along the way. But where too many artists of her age and influence have turned to the maudlin and trite in their old age – see, for example, James Taylor’s dreadfully shallow post-millennial cover albums – Jones’ newest work sets her alongside Johnny Cash and his final quartet of albums, painting her aptly as a vibrant, deliberate artist to keep watching even as she continues to reinvent herself.

Even if you’re a fan already, you’ve never heard anything like The Devil You Know, Jones’ brand new full-album tribute to her contemporaries and influences, a hugely powerful collection quite sparingly produced by fellow Grammy winner Ben Harper. The all-but-one-original covers album is a stunner from start to finish: quiet, broken, dark, and truly folk in every way, consistent and rich with slippery, sultry notes of blues and jazz. Try the broken wail of Comfort You, the slow, low buzz of Sympathy for the Devil, the dustbowl blues slide of Reason To Believe, the dreamy beauty of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. And then consider that the entire album goes on like this, and buy two copies – one for yourself, and one for a friend – because this is Rickie Lee like a blazing comet, with a promise of more genius and genre-stretching to come even as she reaches an age and stature that could have easily excused a well-deserved turn at easy listening.

Equally torn, yet from way on the other side of the origin spectrum, is Scott “Wino” Weinrich, Scott Kelly, & Steve Von Till’s Songs of Townes Van Zandt, released this summer to little fanfare or recognition. The ragged, growling set from three seminal underground metal voices gone sparsely acoustic, a three-way split CD which features the trio trading off solo takes, rings of Robitussin lethargy dreams – neither the sound nor the sentiment that typical fans of Kelly and Von Till, Oakland-based artists who have long made their names as members of doom-and-gloom post-metal band Neurosis, and Weinrich, who is better known for his iconic work in the same doom scene, might expect, and a likely cause of its lack of attention from those both outside and in the world of alt-metal upon its release in July.

But this is truly a singer-songwriter’s anti-folk album, even if it wasn’t marketed as one. And if not all the tracks on this album are equally to my taste, as is often the case with nominally collaborative albums which actually turn out to have been created using the pastiche method, those used to hearing the tormented troubadour covered by the melodic and the past-their-prime folk set will quite appreciate their consistent sentiment, which truly illuminates, showing just how suited the slow speeds, low tones and surly, ragged style of metal-gone-folk are to Townes’ songbook. In my book, that makes the work quite a success overall – and worth our consideration here.

In her long and celebrated career, Mississippi Delta Country Blues singer/songwriter and guitarist Rory Block has drifted back and forth across the folk and blues lines, just like the country blues form itself: we’ve featured her work before in our thematic sets, and these days, the multiple W.C. Handy Award winner is just as likely to be found at blues festivals as folk fests, even as the folk festival scene implodes into indie, rock, blues, R&B, and roots. But I remember her mid-career works fondly from my childhood, where I found them a staple of my father’s folk collection, and I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis, which popped up in May, is just as fresh and raw as those early works, making it an apt addition to any folk collection.

I Belong To The Band is the third in a series of recent tribute albums to the elder masters of the form, and as with previous tributes to Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell, it’s tempting to treat the album as a one-take throwaway – stylistically, Block hews closely to what she knows best, and surely, after all these years, she can pump out this sort of loose, wailing work in her sleep (assuming that she sleeps with a slide guitarist and a few gospel singers at her bedside, that is). But with equal parts Christian celebration and bleak despair, the vibrancy and tenderness comes through eminently all the same, showing an artist still in her prime paying adept tribute to those who forged the way. For novices and collectors alike, then, and highly recommended for both.

Enjoying the ride? Then stay tuned this week and next for our continued short series on recent cover compilations and tribute albums, with feature posts on mostly-covers EPs and LPs, multi-artist multi-genre tribute albums, and more to come!

3 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Rickie Lee Jones, Rory Block

Covered in Folk: Jimi Hendrix (Rickie Lee Jones, Fiona Apple, The Corrs, Emmylou Harris, 6 more!)

April 9th, 2008 — 02:59 am

Big news in the folkworld yesterday as Bob Dylan received a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize folks for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” In response, For the Sake of the Song turns up a set of stellar live Dylan rarities, and claims Dylan’s recognition as a big win for rock and roll, but we know better — that description has folk written all over it, doesn’t it? Kudos, Bob.

This would be the perfect moment for a set of Dylan covers…if we hadn’t already featured singer-songwriter Angel Snow‘s deep thoughts on Dylan’s “profound impact” and “poetic power” this past Sunday, along with her great take on Meet Me in the Morning. Rather than try to top that admittedly premature but no less effective tribute, today, we offer a compromise: a feature on the musician who took a Dylan song and turned it into the seminal soundtrack of every Vietnam movie ever made. Ladies and Gentlemen: the songs of Jimi Hendrix.

Like so many of our Covered in Folk subjects, Jimi Hendrix isn’t folk, but he has a kind of folk credibility that makes him a natural choice for popular cover songs. Woodstock, the drug culture, the sixties — if that electric wail and trippy, funky, post-blues sensibility wasn’t at the very heart of his sound, we’d be remiss not to claim this cultural icon as one of our own.

But the challenge of covering Jimi Hendrix, of course, is that while plenty of Jimi Hendrix songs have lyrics, most don’t have that many words to play with. Take Voodoo Child, which uses a dozen words or so to proclaim repeatedly that the singer/narrator is standing next to a mountain, and is a voodoo child, and still manages to remain seared in our brains. Or the few short lines of hallucination poetics that is Little Wing, so trivial to the song’s success that while Sting’s cover is too maudlin to share here, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s instrumental cover comes across as masterful and complete. It’s telling, in fact, that many of the best Hendrix covers out there are by blues musicians, as in many ways, Hendrix lyrics are like the words in the blues — they might offer some context, but it’s not the words we look to when we struggle to find ourselves in the blues experience.

It’s not that Hendrix songs are meaningless. And it’s not that his lyrics are useless, really. It’s that with a few exceptions, Jimi speaks with his guitar, and uses his voice, even the lyrics themselves, as another instrument, a factor to set the stage, so that the technique and raw emotion of the strings might more effectively convey the subtleties of emotion that the song is intended to “mean”.

As such, a Hendrix song offers several avenues of ownership for a covering performer. It can, for example, be an opportunity to feature the production — to shape a sound that in toto compensates for the lack of a prodigy at the center. Many artists who perform on or just over the pop edge of the folkworld have done just that. The heavy worldbeat production makes Voodoo Child a pop song in the hands of Beninise singer Angelique Kidjo, but the bounce and cry of the vocals call to the original. Though Cassandra Wilson‘s cover of The Wind Cries Mary is languid by comparison, it, too, shares a jangly acoustic jazzpop sensibility and an honest delivery which make it authentic, as if played on a jazz bar stage after the audience had gone home, and the mics had been turned off.

Other related genre covers focus on the instrumentation itself, reminding us that Hendrix was a guitarist first, and a band member and singer only afterwards. The Corrs bring a more traditional folk rock sensibility to their live cover of Little Wing that could pass for a mellow version of the original, were it not for the pipes and fiddle. Bluegrass dobro wizard Jerry Douglas may sing the words to Hey Joe, but as with Hendrix himself, it’s the instrument who is the real star here. And if Memphis blues/rock prodigy (and sometimes rapper) Eric Gales sounds little like Hendrix when he sings through his guitar, it is only because here, too, the heavy drums and lyric only lend support to what is ultimately a guitarist’s song, played b a guitarist of extraordinary talent.

If few true “folk” musicians and singer-songwriters take on Hendrix, it is because so few of his songs leave room to build on lyrical meaning. Because of this, to me, the most daring and often the most interesting Jimi Hendrix covers are the ones where the emotional emphasis is shifted to the voice. Emmylou Harris covers everybody, but I think her cover of May This Be Loved is among her more successful attempts, and surprisingly so, in part because of how effective her aging yet still etherial voice applies itself to the sparse, repetitive lyrics — though the very heavy wash of sound in the production, which features what seems to be an electric guitar played back in reverse throughout, provides an effective, moody underscore.

Similarly, though Alison Brown‘s Angel is a true ensemble piece, with rich harmony vocals and a full acoustic band from banjo and guitar to bass and piano, Beth Nielsen Chapman‘s warbly, honest lead vocals beat Fiona Apple‘s earnest attempt to bring the blues to her voice, which almost works, if both voice and production didn’t teeter on the edge of channeling Cher and Aaron Neville. And most effective of all, the nuanced, impish delivery Rickie Lee Jones brings to Up From the Skies recenters the song on the lyric without losing a whit of the hopeful, playful emotional tone of the original.

A mixed bag today, then: a few stellar covers, and a couple of flawed gems worth celebrating nonetheless. Heavy on the fringes of the folkword, too, with worldpop, cool jazz, and plenty of blues and bluegrass to choose from. Perhaps, in the end, this is the more honest tribute to a man like Hendrix, who — for all his wizardry — was a musician for whom experiment and experience, not perfection, were the ultimate goal.

Though most tracks on today’s list came from compilation albums, the Hendrix estate doesn’t really need our cash. On the other hand, today’s artists really do deserve your support. As always, clicking on artist names in the post above takes you directly to artist websites for purchase and, in most cases, further tuneage.

Looking for today’s bonus tracks? How about a few versions of that Dylan cover? If you missed it a couple of weeks ago, head on over to last week’s Audiography guest post to hear a pair of covers of All Along the Watchtower from Canadian Celtic rockers The Paperboys and old-school American folk rockers Brewer & Shipley, who you may remember as the guys who originally recorded “One Toke Over The Line”.

666 comments » | Alison Brown, Angelique Kidjo, Cassandra Wilson, Fiona Apple, Jerry Douglas, Jimi Hendrix, Rickie Lee Jones, The Corrs

Covered in Folk: Donovan (Richard Thompson, Rickie Lee Jones, Lindsay Buckingham, etc.)

February 22nd, 2008 — 12:39 pm

It’s been suggested that this will be the year of the British band at blogfave musicfest SXSW. Ironically, however, last year’s SXSW featured a pair of sets by a seminal member of the original British Invasion, and hardly anyone seemed to notice, or remember. So while others prep for the indiefest, I thought it was high time to take a look back at a man who is so underrated in the US that none of the current generation of folk-rockers seem to bother listening to him, despite obvious musical similarities between today’s indiepop and his better-known tunes. Ladies and gentlemen, the songs of Donovan.

When sixties folk-rocker Donovan appeared at the 1981 Amnesty International benefit The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball alongside Sting, Bob Geldoff, John Cleese, and other famous musicians and comedians known for their commitment to the cause, his contemporaries Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were immediately recognized and applauded by the audience. But although Donovan’s songs were given their due, he himself was not so well recognized. Instead, as he took the stage, one audience member bellowed “I thought you were dead!” Donovan’s response? “Not yet!”

Wikipedia goes on to suggest that the warm reception which followed this exchange “proves” that one-time flower child Donovan was still popular, despite the “anti-sixties” sentiment that existed at the time. More than anything, what the initial exchange says to me is that even as early as 1981, some folks had no idea that Donovan was anything more than a long-gone fragment of the past.

There’s a lot more to Donovan Leitch than Mellow Yellow. He’s an uncredited cowriter of the Beatles song Yellow Submarine. Friend of Dylan; father of actress Ione Skye, best known as Lloyd Dobler’s girlfriend in Say Anything. A man who remains committed to Transcendental Meditation, long after most folks packed it away with their macramé and love beads; who is, in fact, starting a TM university devoted to world peace and something called “the universal field” with the support of filmmaker David Lynch.

Okay, that last bit is a bit much. But the main point stands: though most folks remember Donovan for his celebration of hippie drug culture through his lifestyle and his lyrics, once upon a time, Donovan was a singer-songwriter who stood for peace, and was celebrated for his anti-war songs. He gets credit, even today, from others of his generation, who still play his songs in concert, and put them on their late-in-life releases. And in my opinion, he deserves it.

But unlike many of our other Covered In Folk feature artists, despite a minor renaissance in the coversongs of grungerockers Hole and the Butthole Surfers, and a mediocre 1992 grunge/indieband tribute album Islands of Circles, Donovan’s abilities as a songsmith seem to have been forgotten by today’s up-and-coming artists, especially the American folk community.

How the mighty have fallen. Today, Donovan still records, and tours Europe and his native London. He has true indiefolk cred, with a myspace and no major label support. He remains a musician constantly trying to recapture the magic. But while so many of his fellow sixties icons successfully reinvent themselves for modern audiences, in America, with the exception of a small but significant fan base, most folks still think Donovan is dead.

A challenge, then, to the new generation of American singer-songwriters. If – as today’s covers demonstrate – Donovan’s songs resonate so well on shows like Crossing Jordan and Party of Five, then there’s clearly still an audience for these lyrics and tunes. And certainly, now more than ever, the world needs songs of peace. Why not try one on, to see how it feels? Here’s some of Donovan’s peers to show you how it’s done, with bonus covers by Donovan both then and now to remind you of his talent.

Today’s bonus coversongs feature Donovan’s 1965 anti-Vietnam anthem The War Drags On, which many have heard but few realize is a cover of fellow sixties folkster Mick Softley. Those who think of Donovan as hippierock will be surprised; this is true acoustic singer-songwriter folk, worth trying if you’ve never really listened. Plus a few more recent interpretations recorded in the last decade, just to prove Donovan’s still got the chops: a cut from the two-disk Pete Seeger tribute Where Have All The Flowers Gone, a nice version of traditional folksong The Cuckoo from Beat Café, Donovan’s underrated 2004 return to beatnik jazzfolk, and a “cover” of a Dylan Thomas poem from that same album.

1,023 comments » | Donovan, Joan Baez, Lindsey Buckingham, Pete Seeger, Richard Thompson, Rickie Lee Jones, The Bobs