Category: Tyler Ramsey

The Denison Witmer Covers Project, Part 5: Denison covers Band of Horses’ Is There A Ghost

October 10th, 2008 — 01:30 pm

Our partnership with Philadelphia singer-songwriter Denison Witmer bears more wonderful fruit today: Denison has sent along a cover of Is There A Ghost, the lead track from Band of Horses release Cease to Begin and, according to Rolling Stone, one of the 100 Best Songs of 2007, and I’m happy to report that this newest coversong is already stuck in my head.

Denison’s take on Is There A Ghost is a strong addition to a growing collection of solo acoustic covers, all of which can be heard below. But where the other recordings in Denison’s cover series have generally been immersive, establishing a tone and inhabiting it, the highly repetitive lyrics of the song here work against such a singular approach. The language of the original is in its delivery, most especially the chilly echoing shoegaze atmosphere, and the way it downshifts into its long, driving, anthemic peak just before the song’s midpoint.

Denison’s take on the song is powerfully atmospheric, too. But given his deliberate, stripped-down approach to covers, this is a very different atmosphere. The cover starts ragged, lo-fi and low key, as if just awakened; it is very much of a set with the earlier songs he has recorded for this project, though warmer and lusher in tone from the very first moment. Instead of being split in two, it coalesces slowly over the first verse, the sound becoming first richer, then building energy over the last few measures before fading away.

By taking on a subtle, acoustic reflection of the original’s pacing and energy, starting farther back, and working within a much more focused range of emotional build, Denison creates a wonderful warmth without losing the tension which makes this song work in the first place. In the end, we are left with a perfect fragment, a short, almost tender study in exhausted hope and acceptance. If the point here is to get us excited about the impending album, it’s working.

[Update: as of June 2009, all files from the Denison Witmer Covers Project are available here]

Previously on the Denison Witmer Covers Project:

New Denison Witmer album Carry the Weight drops on November 11th; the first single, Beautiful Boys and Girls, is already available in digital form.

Since we’re on the subject, how about a few bonus tracks and linkbacks? This Grizzly Bear cover is about as folk as Band of Horses gets, but it’s worth the listen. And finding both Denison and new Band of Horses second guitarist Tyler Ramsey covering the same song was too perfect to miss:

  • Band of Horses cover Grizzly Bear’s Plans
  • Denison Witmer does a gorgeously ringing, pensive cover of Jackson Browne/Nico hit These Days on his 2003 covers album Recovered…
  • …and Tyler Ramsey does a languid alt-folk These Days, too.

We’ll be back next weekend with another installment of the Denison Witmer Covers Project. Coming up Sunday: our Covered in Kidfolk series triumphantly returns with a set of songs about movement.

1,136 comments » | Band of Horses, Denison Witmer, Tyler Ramsey

Single Song Sunday: Jackson Browne / Nico, These Days

May 25th, 2008 — 11:52 am

Like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which was transformed in the popular imagination by Jeff Buckley’s haunting version of John Cale’s cover, there is a plurality of high-profile, popularly dominant sources for These Days, Jackson Browne’s melancholy yet ultimately optimistic tribute to the general malaise and lonesome depression that characterizes the soul after a long relationship has come to an inevitable end. But where in the case of Halellujah the versions which rose to obscure the original were recorded long afterward, in the case of These Days, Nico’s version was recorded first, in 1967, with Browne on acoustic guitar and Velvet Underground chums Cale and Reed on everything else — making Jackson Browne’s 1973 version a dubious original, despite real popularity in and out of his fan base.

As such, cover versions of These Days tend to fall into two camps: those that cover Nico, and those that cover Jackson Browne. The former seem more popular among a certain indiefolk crowd, especially after her version lent hipster cred to the soundtrack for The Royal Tannenbaums, calling us back to it’s fragile, anxious, somewhat spacey sound; you can hear the secondhand influence of Nico in more recent covers from fringefolkers Kathryn Williams, St. Vincent, and Mates of State. Meanwhile, fellow seventies icons Gregg Allman and Kate Wolf clearly have Browne’s slow, simple poetics and clear, open-hearted delivery in mind; so, a generation later, do relative newcomers Denison Witmer, Fountains of Wayne, and Tyler Ramsey.

But as others have pointed out long before me, the bifurcated trunk of the musical tree that is These Days versions is relevant to an evolution of song not only because of the curious history, but because the choices made in each version affect the meaning of the song. And here we are not just talking musical interpretation, either: Nico’s version is lyrically different as well as musicially distinct, and the lost second-person subject of the penultimate line, the focus on belief (I don’t think I’ll risk another) over feeling (It’s so hard to risk another), changes the narrator into someone more narcissistic, less historied, and — some believe — less believable overall.

From a coverblog perspective, then, sourcing each cover becomes merely an exercise in lyrical attention. And though a few seem to be applying Nico’s lyric to Browne’s tone, as in Johnny Darrell‘s country cover; most, such as the aforementioned, go whole hog for one side or the other. Only a very few more recent covers arguably attempt to transcend both — most notably Barbara Manning’s acoustic electronica, and Brandon Seyferth’s comprehensively lo-fi musical rewrite.

But this is not to say that Nico’s version, and subsequent covers of it, are less viable as song: the delicate lyrical interpretation and breathless tension compensates, making tone serve where subject had before. Or is it afterwards? Either way, here’s the two prototypes — Nico’s, and a rare 1971 live recording from Browne, with his take on the song still raw and tentatively performed, plus his more familiar, more poignant 2005 live version, for diversity’s sake; the 1973 produced version is easily available — along with a hefty set of choice Single Song Sunday coversong from the usual wide assortment of folk, presented in no particular order, the better to appreciate each cover for what it is.

Enjoy, as always. Feel free to mention your favorite cover in the comments, or send it along via email if it’s not already here. And if you like what you hear, follow links above and below for websites and artist-preferred-source album-purchasing.

We’ll be back Wednesday, possibly with that subgenre coverfolk post I alluded to a few weeks ago. Also coming soon: more old songs from new artists, a bit of bluegrass, and a look at this year’s New England folk festivals. In the meantime, stay sane, and don’t forget to enter our Sarah McLachlan contest!

986 comments » | Barbara Manning, Brandon Seyferth, Denison Witmer, Fountains of Wayne, Gregg Allman, Jackson Browne, Kate Wolf, Kathryn Williams, Mates of State, Nico, Single Song Sunday, St. Vincent, Tyler Ramsey