Category: Beck

A Question of Coverage:
The Beck Song Reader As Fan-Performed Art

January 1st, 2013 — 10:56 am

Beck has always been a musician on the edge: his earlier works range from full folk and anti-folk albums (2002 release Sea Change; his debut Golden Feelings) to surrealistic hip hop alt-pop (Odelay); the five albums taken on by Record Club, his ongoing collaborative foray into one-day full album coverage of other artists, are sparse and odd, with both Yanni and the Velvet Underground in the mix, but always interesting. Our once-upon-time 2007 feature on his coverage shows but a part of this range, noting that, in covering the songs of others, Beck tends towards “funereal alt-folk” – full-bore ragged folk blues and morphine folkhymns – letting the glitchy songs that ride the line between pop and electronica stand on their own merit as whole-cloth compositions.

But in a world where a band recently released their album on polymer casings that could be filled with water and frozen to create a functional ice record that degrades while you play it, playing with form is a legitimate response to the challenges of making the musical object, beyond and as compared to the easily-downloadable song, a thing of both value and beauty. So when Beck released his most recent “album” as sheet music, via the hipster-lit mag-and-more McSweeney’s, hardly anyone blinked.

But then people started playing the 20 songs in that musical collection, and recording them. And in considering these tracks as fodder for our ongoing exploration here at Cover Lay Down, I realized that in creating a work of art in potential – that is, by releasing his album as something which by definition exists both as its own artwork, and as a template designed to be played out and interpreted in order to be fully experienced – Beck presents the world of coverage with an existential crisis.

Can it be a cover if there is no original? Technically, no. By definition, covers take on songs which have been heard; it is the creative interpretation of that hearing experience which we celebrate herein as inherent in the folkways. We acknowledge the primacy of the original recording by digging deep into the history of the songs we cover where needed, in order to cite and therefore see how history has adapted a song (see, most recently, our exploration of You Are My Sunshine).

But in those cases, the first recording almost always influences the subsequent cover – almost by definition, modern coverage involves interpretation as a reactive process to the performance of another.

Beck’s new release confounds that premise. It is both anachronistic (sheet music), and a new medium (a set of sheet music meant to be understood as an album). But what it isn’t is an original recording – the prerequisite for coverage. It is a blueprint, not a performance; for now, at least, what it prompts is more properly crowdsource than coversongs. Indeed, it comes with the assurance that the author himself has never recorded his own version of his songs.

Yet in less that three weeks, dozens of recordings of the songs in Beck’s Song Reader have been produced and published – notably, something which would have been impossible to imagine in the Tin Pan Alley heyday. And, uniquely, these recordings are all interpretations of that sheet music, not other peoples’ versions or recordings. With such rapid-fire response, we are faced with a novelty: few or none of the earliest versions of this song can be counted as a “cover”, as we must assume that no “original” has yet influenced subsequent recordings…and yet, as coverbloggers, the idea of versions seems square inside our search parameters.

Whether any of these is a cover, or how and when any of these recordings begin to count as covers, is left as a brain-teaser, a thought experiment of coverage. But the diversity that has resulted / is resulting from this grand experiment is astounding – it is, as the LA Times puts it, “a thrilling bounty of recordings from a variety of musicians”.

And so, today, we feature eight of our favorite covers versions of The Wolf Is On The Hill, from sweet and sultry to rowdy and raw – just a tip of a fast-growing iceberg of sound calved by one of the great musical geniuses of his generation.

If you’d like to hear more, Portland Cello Project, whose beautiful work with Jolie Holland heads off our mixed-media set below, has recorded the whole album, and the Beck Song Reader fansite is amassing quite a collection. Oh, and Peter Mulvey’s take on Last Night You Were A Dream, as heard on NPR, which also commissioned the Winterpills and Studio 360 covers below? Perfect.

  • Winterpills: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Song Preservation Society: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Studio 360: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Caleb McCoach: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Juston Stens and The Get Real Gang: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Jesse Noll: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Tom McLaughlin and Mike Midden: The Wolf Is On The Hill

Don’t forget to check out our two-part series on The Best Coverfolk of 2012!

Comment » | Beck

(Re)Covered XI: More covers of and from
Beck, The Kinks, Wilco, and a Contest Week wrap-up

July 5th, 2009 — 04:15 pm

Our popular (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover songs that dropped through the cracks too late to make it into the posts where they belonged, generally provides an opportunity to check in on previously featured artists, songs and themes. Today, I’ve also included an omnibus reminder to enter our Contest Week contests before entries close on Monday at midnight.

But first, thanks to other blogs, artists and label notices, fan submissions, and other agents of serendipitous universe, here’s the scoop on some new songs, new takes, and new discoveries.

We made a case for Beck-as-folksinger way back in the early weeks of Cover Lay Down; as I suggested at the time, the stripped-down, almost funereal acoustic side of the popular genre-pushing artist is closer to his heart and history than most popular music fans realize.

Since then, Beck has continued to ride the line between hiccuping electronic pop and the more pensive works which have wormed their way into the heart of grungefolk audiophiles everywhere, though it’s hard to justify his most recent compilation appearance, a beat-heavy, fuzzed out rock cover of Dylan’s Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat which appeared on recent indierock compilation War Child: Heroes, as anything but the radio-oriented track it is intended to be.

But in the last few weeks, news of a new project has hit the blogs, sure to appeal to fans of his weary troubadour sound: Beck has grand plans to record a series of one-shot in-studio sessions covering classics with a host of well-seasoned friends and fellow musicians, releasing them through his website as Beck’s Record Club, and if the three retro-grungy Velvet Underground covers which already grace are any indication, the project is well worth watching. Here’s the first taste, plus a favorite older cover for continuity’s sake:

We closed out last summer with a feature on The Kinks, and the subject proved popular: In the days that followed, I received plenty of encouragement, and a handful of tracks from readers. Most were on the syrupy side — I’m not sure why Ray Davies’ songwriting lends itself so well to torch songs. But a few were keepers.

Here’s a trio of vastly different but equally summery Kinks covers which have come to my ears since then, and stuck: a delicate solo uke version of Victoria from Ema and the Ghosts, a lighthearted retro-rocker from Holly Golightly, and an older typically british folkrock take on Days from Kirsty MacColl.

We featured Sam Jacobs, who fronts the loose collaboration of friends now performing under the moniker The Flying Change, way back in our very first New Artists, Old Songs post, and a few Wilco covers when ex-Wilco member Jay Bennett passed a few months ago. Now, thanks to Sam himself, we bring this exclusive, endearingly lo-fi take on Wilco’s Pieholden Suite, recorded live with full band, including oboe and sax. It’s not exactly folk, but it starts off that way, and stays pretty mellow throughout. Great stuff from a maturing artist.

I’ve also included Jacobs’ wonderfully Cohen-esque cover of Tom Petty’s Yer So Bad, recorded under the name Lipstik, which we first posted back in April of 2008, and a great ragged Daniel Johnston bonus cover from Bennett’s last album, which is available for free download here.

Finally, our very first annual Cover Lay Down contest week has been quite the adventure. But since geography, availability, and other factors seem to be keeping most folks from entering our two festival-related contests, to make it easier, I’m making each prize for those contests available separately. In other words: EACH contest includes at least one highly-recommended CD, and each CD can be won without stress or commitment.

Here’s the list, with linkbacks good until midnight Monday; click on each for contest entry details. If you’re only in it for the CDs, make sure to include the phrase “CD ONLY” in your entry.

Contest #1: Win 26-song all-covers indiefolk CD sampler Before the Goldrush

Contest #2: Day passes for both Friday and Saturday at Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest, July 16-19, PLUS new CDs from both newgrass angel Sarah Jarosz and cajun & swing combo Red Stick Ramblers

Contest #3: Two four day camping passes to Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, July 23-26 PLUS Susan Werner’s most recent all-covers chamberfolk CD Classics

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Coming up later this week: Cover Lay Down hits the Hype Machine top 100 pop charts, and we use the occasion to ponder the definitive nature of popular folk songs.

1,442 comments » | (Re)Covered, Beck, CONTESTS, The Kinks

KT Tunstall Covers: Radiohead, Beck, Missy Elliot, Bloc Party, Jackson 5 *now updated w/ US acoustic tour info*

March 5th, 2008 — 02:45 pm

You might be surprised to find radio popstar darling KT Tunstall on a blog devoted to exploring the boundaries and possibilities of folk. Thanks to our shufflesong culture, many people never truly explore the work of artists like Tunstall beyond chart-toppers like Hold On and Suddenly I See, to name but two beat-heavy guilty pleasures of mine which have infiltrated every inch of our sonic culture.

But I’ve long had this Grammy nominee’s sweet, simple Under The Weather, with its thick, mellow guitarstrum and longing, trapped in the part of my skull I use for folkmusic. In fact, if you go back to her albums, I think you’ll find that a vast majority of KT Tunstall’s work is comparable to the singer-songwriter fare of a post-production Kathleen Edwards, Paula Cole, or Aimee Mann.

Trying to reconcile the sweeter, folkier sounds of her less-heard album cuts with the funky modern edge of her more memorable singles led me to KT Tunstall’s Wikipedia entry, which — sure enough — reinforced my suspicions by claiming her legitimacy as a folk musician. Which brings us here, today, to explore the folkier side of KT Tunstall.

I am constantly confused by the relationship between pop and folk music; apparently, so is my local library, which files such staple folk musicians as Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams in the Pop section. But such placement is not arbitrary — near as I can tell, it’s the production of these albums which matters to them. And sure enough, the recorded output of Williams, Colvin, and a whole generation of modern singer-songwriters is produced as if for pop radioplay.

There’s a whole range of artists who genuinely do fall into this folkpop camp, and many of them, like Joan Osborne and Ani DiFranco, identified as folk artists first. But while I think self-definition matters, we here at Cover Lay Down think genre identification is in the sound as much as the sensibility. If this is folk — and I think it is — then we’d be remiss in not calling attention to the best of it when it passes by.

Luckily, it is no stretch to give KT Tunstall the folk treatment. Though her Top 40 work is produced with an eye towards a particularly modern, stomp-and-clap britpop sound, her background, her preference for acoustic guitarplay and balladry, and her live performance belie a sense of song as fundamentally happening between herself, her strings, and her audience. KT Tunstall has a singer-songwriter soul inside her popstar performer mentality, and I like that: it means tasty beats in hit-single production, but plenty of intimate folky cuts between the singles, and lots of stripped-down selections in her live performances.

The glee with which she reconstructs Missy Elliot’s Get Your Freak On – as seen in the video clip below – is ample evidence: though her penchant towards coversong choices is more rock and roll than anything else, with or without her everpresent foot pedal, Tunstall plays like a folkin’ busker. Even in her more upbeat moments. And that ain’t bad.

Tunstall’s had a big week in the popworld: a newly-released UK single, and a stunning new video for If Only, can only cement her reputation as one of this generation’s bright shining popstars. But if your folkbrain has already forgotten the softer folkpop of her first album, skipped past the moodier cuts on Drastic Fantastic, or missed entirely her sophomore fan release Acoustic Extravaganza, these deep tracks and live cuts that have been making the blogrounds may help you, too, reconsider KT Tunstall’s cred as the modern queen of Scottish folk. The first two cuts are b-sides on her new UK single for If Only, so I’m streaming them in the hopes that my UK readers will pick it up; the rest are already out there, so enjoy.

Bonus VIDEO CLIP: How KT Tunstall builds Get Your Freak On solo in the studio:

Samples of (and videos for) KT Tunstall’s three major releases are all over her website; links there go to UK Amazon, but our US readers can find her work almost everywhere with little difficulty. Folkfans might start with Acoustic Extravaganza, which is now widely available, but all three albums come with my highest recommendation. (And it’s not a cover, but like the video for Under The Weather, the new ski-themed video for If Only has an organic folk authenticity; if you missed the link above, check it out here.)

UPDATE: more evidence for KT Tunstall’s acoustic heart comes to us today via Glide Magazine, which announces that her first major US tour in May “will be a close up personal affair, with Tunstall on acoustic guitar duties while the rest of the band perform various other unplugged acoustic instruments, such as double bass, harmonium, and mandolin.”

Today’s bonus coversongs sample a few other well-produced female singer-songwriters covering songs at the intersection of folk and pop:

967 comments » | Beck, Bloc Party, KT Tunstall, Missy Elliot, Radiohead, The Bangles, White Stripes

Beck Covers: Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, The Flaming Lips, Nick Drake

November 12th, 2007 — 05:36 pm

I saw Beck from a great distance in the heyday of Odelay, sandwiched between Primus and Toad the Wet Sprocket: it was the early nineties, it was Horde, we were bopping on the throbbing lawn, and folk was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. Fifteen years later I’m married to the girl I took to the concert, Beck’s still cranking out the pophits, my hard drive is stuffed with folk music, and I pick up every Beck album as it comes out.

Is Beck a folk musician? Not if measured by his hits, no. Technically, his most popular work is post-modern alt-rock, if anything. But there’s plenty of reasons why Wikipedia includes the artist formerly known as Bek David Campbell in its list of American folk singers, and uses the term “folk song” to describe a vast swath of his work (I swear, it said that even before I showed up). Beck spent his early days as a busker and coffeeshop player, which gives him the folk street cred; he even opened for Johnny Cash in 1995. He can play a slide guitar and twang his postadolescent voice like no one’s business; some of his songs from that period and before come across as almost alt-country.

Beck’s songwriting, too, lends itself well to the cadence of the folksinger, as both his less highly-produced projects and covers of his work demonstrate. Today’s bonus selections, by KT Tunstall, Tom Petty, and Marianne Faithful, provide some tasty versions from the folkier side of this versatile performer’s songbook, just to show how folk these songs really are. But Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change, especially, represents a stripped-down acoustic style that leans on his rough interpretation and a simple, indiefolk production style — even if the occasional synthpulse in the background belies his post-modern hip hop heritage.

And when Beck takes on the songs of others, he generally chooses to slow them down, letting his quavery voice and lo-fi, sparse acoustic instrumentation recreate tone and timbre until everything is wistful, hazy, and raw. Live or B-side, tribute album or hidden track, Beck’s penchant towards funereal alt-folk pieces, like Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch at their slow and melodramatic best, legitimizes his inclusion in a blog devoted to folk covers.

Want proof? Today we bring you a broad set of covers from Beck’s folksinger side: the dreamlike echoes and hawaiian guitar of Your Cheatin’ Heart, the strings and lo-fi drumkit pulse of James Warren’s Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometimes, the slow, ragged-harmonies of Beck and Emmylou Harris covering Gram Parson’s countryband ballad Sin City, an in-studio acoustic cover of the Flaming Lips, and the eerie, gorgeously dark Nick Drake covers Pink Moon, Which Will, and Parasite. Are they folk songs? Absolutely. Is Beck an unsung folkstar? Listen up, and decide for yourself:

Regardless of categorization, Beck’s work is available directly through his online store. Folkfans should probably start with Sea Change; if your ears can take the bouncier, harder stuff, I also highly recommend Odelay and Guero.

Today’s bonus coversongs:

886 comments » | Beck, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, KT Tunstall, Marianne Faithful, Nick Drake, The Flaming Lips, Tom Petty