Category: Kathryn Williams

Covered in Folk: The Bee Gees (Feist, Kathryn Williams, Moxy Fruvous, Ray LaMontagne +6 more!)

June 29th, 2008 — 10:07 am

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.

Like what you hear? Eschew the big anti-artist commercial megastores; click on links above to purchase small circular plastic carriers of audible joy direct from artist and label websites.

Or, if you prefer downloads, and are interested in an equally artist-centric solution, why not join up at Amie Street, where artists receive 70% of all profits, and retain all rights to their work…and where, thanks to a sliding-scale pricing model, tracks generally cost less than almost anywhere else? As an added incentive to Cover Lay Down readers, the folks at Amie Street are offering you $3.00 FREE towards your purchase; to get it, all you have to do is enter the code “coverlaydown” when you sign up. Totally worth it, dude.

PS: If anyone knows of a produced version of Sarah Harmer and the Weakerthans doing Islands in the Stream, please pass it along — I love Sarah Harmer, but the CBC recording that’s been making the blogrounds is a little too heavy on the crowd noise and tape crackle for my taste…

429 comments » | Bee Gees, Constantines, Damien Rice, Eagle Eye Cherry, Feist, James William Hindle, Kathryn Williams, Keller Williams, Leah Kunkel, Moxy Fruvous, Ray Lamontagne, The Bird and The Bee

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

Kathryn Williams Covers: Tom Waits, Big Star, Velvet Underground

May 18th, 2008 — 04:26 pm

I first heard UK-based singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams a few years ago, when tracks from her 2004 major-label all-covers release Relations began to show up on the cover blogs. Since you, too, are a reader of music and cover blogs, you’ve surely heard her gorgeous, tense version of Nirvana’s All Apologies from that album. And you may remember her dreamy and delicate cover of Spit on a Stranger I posted, alongside the Nickel Creek cover of the same tune a few months back, when we did a feature on Pavement; looking back, it still feels like Williams’ track was the strongest of the entry.

But while cover songs provide a comfortable entry point for us to discover new artists or revisit older ones, in the best possible world, when considering the work of a performer or songwriter, a cover song is only a doorway to discovery, and not the full house. Like cover songs it contains, Relations provides both an excellent introduction to the work of an incredible artist, and to her sound, but it would be a mistake to let a few tracks from Relations remain the endpoint of an experience with Kathryn Williams.

For one thing, Relations remains one of only two major-label releases in what is otherwise a catalog of solid singer-songwriter albums produced on Caw Records, Kathryn Williams’ own label. Though the differences of label-vs.-indie influence can be slight in actual performance, in this case, given the less-than-mainstream extremes we hear spilling into the margins of Williams’ penultimate release Leave to Remain — which Kathryn herself describes as “the one where, if it wasn’t my voice, I could probably listen to it’” — it seems safe to assume that Kathryn might consider her indie releases to be more authentic representations of her sound as she herself imagines it.

And, for another, though her body of work falls squarely within the definition of folk music, within that broad definition Kathryn Williams defies easy categorization. Her tendency towards confessional songwriting, in the style of Dylan or Joni Mitchell, is evident to all; her guitarwork is consistent with that approach, if more delicate. But hiding behind her deceptively unassuming lyrical performance and acoustic guitar style is more than a tinge of grungefolk, like predecessors Mary Lou Lord and Juliana Hatfield. And a preference for unusual instrumentation – strings, woodwinds, drumbeats among them — and a tendency towards the use of these instruments to produce dissonance and drone effects in production, has led to legitimate comparisons with the new freak and psych folk camps.

Williams’ increasing facility in exploring the potential of such disparate elements comes to a head with Two, her new album with fellow singer-songwriter Neill MacColl. Two is presented as a duo album, but it fits squarely into the Kathryn Williams canon; on the majority of the album, Williams voice is solo, and we hear a more mature, confident expression of what has come before – sweet on the surface, with an undertone of experience (see, for example, the much more radio-friendly yet equally gorgeous sound of Come With Me.)

And though the songs are predominantly co-written, the primary voice here, too, is still hers: with the exception of a single duet on the album’s sole cover, MacColl seems to be primarily contributing harmony vocals and additional stringwork, while Kathryn’s “barely there” vocals and overall sound are more prominent. Further, although in parts the album comes across as experimental, its sound is still very clearly a continuation of the musical directions in which Kathryn Williams has been moving for much of her career.

Ironically, nowhere is Kathryn’s dominant hand more evident than in the only true duet on the album, a cover of Tom Waits classic Innocent When You Dream. At first listen, the song sounds weird and unfinished: instead of harmonizing, the two voices pull at each other, fighting for the listener’s attention. But by bringing forward the fragile freak-folk sound through vocal dissonance, instead of hiding it in the undertone or drone or production, the true nature of Kath’s complicated vision is finally realized.

What finally becomes clear when pursuing the deeper success of Kathryn Williams work is that where most folk invites the listener, this a folk that coaxes and teases, lulling us in with a sense of familiarity, only to challenge us with tension and undertones not usually heard in singer-songwriter folk. If it took a collaboration with Neill MacColl to bring this out, so much the better, and kudos to both. But regardless of whether you think of this newer work as a solo record or a true collaboration, though it may take several listens to fully appreciate it, Two is a tour de force, one which re-establishes Kathryn Williams as a folk artist to keep watching as she continues to mature and explore.

Here’s a few great but often underplayed covers from Relations to set the stage, followed by that cover of Innocent When You Dream, so you can hear for yourself how one leads to the other. In neither case, though, do one or two songs represent the beauty or breadth of the full albums; I highly recommend seeking out both Relations and Two in their entirety.

  • Kathryn Williams, Thirteen (orig. Big Star)
  • Kathryn Williams, Candy Says (orig. Velvet Underground)

    (from Relations, 2004)

  • Kathryn Williams and Neill MacColl, Innocent When You Dream (orig. Tom Waits)

    (from Two, 2008)

No bonus tracks today, sadly; all but a small handful of my music remain unaccessible due to previously-mentioned technical difficulties. I’m hoping to have some resolution on the computer front in the next week or so; in the meanwhile, here’s some highly relevant and still-snaggable tracks previously posted on Cover Lay Down:

277 comments » | Big Star, Kathryn Williams, Neill MacColl, Tom Waits

Covered in Folk: Pavement (Kathryn Williams, Nickel Creek, Cat Power, Casey Dienel)

February 2nd, 2008 — 02:15 am

Late Saturday night, a couple of weeks ago: my brother’s in from out of town, and he’s flipping through my iPod. We’ve always had vastly different ears for music, though we passed plenty back and forth through the years; he’s looking, but he isn’t seeing much he’s in the mood for. Still, keeping a folk blog means finding commonality in strange places. As in:

“Wait, how many folk covers of Pavement could there be?”

Just enough, man. Just enough.

I dropped out of college in 1992, just around the time mid-nineties alt-rockers Pavement were hitting the ground running. My post-adolescent rejection of radio as a primary source for music immediately precedes Pavement’s mid-nineties heyday as minor indie alt-rock radio gods. And I just plumb never discovered their earliest work as a fuzzed-out post punk group.

Okay, I’m old. But I’m not too old to recognize that, to a particular generation just out of my reach, Pavement’s indiefolk cred is impeccable. That’s partially because Pavement’s sound is so prototypical of its time, able to represent fully a particular sound in an otherwise dried-up musicial historical moment. It’s also because Pavement is considered by many to be the first truly indie modern rock band, the ones who showed the rest of the world it was possible to make it that big without the benefit of major label promotion and corporate backing.

It is this folk politic, plus the unique timing of their fame and significance, which makes Pavement worth knowing. And it is this curiously narrow window of time which has brought a certain next-gen group of blog-favored musicians to just begin covering Pavement songs, almost always with reverence and a certain glee, a nod and a wink between indie listener and ripening singer-songwriters paying tribute to their past.

These covers tend to be pretty diverse. Pavement’s sound drifted significantly through their short career; finding its way from post punk through an almost classic early nineties alt-rock sound to 1995 release Wowee Zowee, which would turn heads later, but was a bit too eclectic to catch fire at the time of its release. By the time the band broke up just before the turn of the century, their sound had passed through its college-rock stage to become something both more experimental and more melodic. Along the way, they picked up a small generation of pre-indie fans — one reason why, today, bloggers and musicians of a certain age need no introduction.

There’s not that much in the way of pure folk covers of Pavement, though there’s certainly plenty in the non-folk indie world, as befits the band’s proto-indie status. But we aim for quality, not quantity, here on Cover Lay Down, and the following songs are the cream of a very recent indiefolk crop.

A short Friday set, then, just enough to turn you on: scratch-voiced blogfave Cat Power, the pianopop of still-rising youngster Casey Dienel, and two acoustic covers of Spit on a StrangerNickel Creek‘s sweet newgrass version, and a slower, more mystical take by UK alt-folkstar Kathryn Williams. I’m older than all of them, I think. Plus bonus tracks to follow, as always.

Want to hear more Pavement? Start with Hype Machine; though Pavement is no more, and half the guys who started it have day jobs, these days founder and core member Stephen Malkmus is a darling of the indie world.

Once you get hooked, pick up the diverse collected works of Pavement over at Matador Records (Also Cat Power’s label). Folk fans who like a little alt-rock in the mix might start with Terror Twilight, their final album. The new CD by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks is pretty sweet, too.

Bonus tracks? Sure, they’re on the playlist, too. Here’s a few recent Malkmus-does-Dylan cuts from the I’m Not There soundtrack, to give you a sense of his more recent sound.

And, just for fun, something lo-fi and grungy and feedback-y from near the end of Pavement’s career, after they had moved on past traditional song structure, before they started turning into a Stephen Malkmus project. It’s totally not folk, but most definitely a Pavement cover you’ll love if you’re of a certain Schoolhouse Rock age.

237 comments » | Casey Dienel, Kathryn Williams, Nickel Creek, Pavement, Stephen Malkmus

Covered In Folk: Birthday Boys T-Bone Burnett, Dave Grohl, LL Cool J, Allen Toussaint

January 13th, 2008 — 03:59 am

It is my honor to share a birthday with a seminal hip hop balladeer, a grunge god, the hands-down master of New Orleans R&B songwriting, and the best soundtrack and pop-americana producer in the business. Since it was too hard to pick just one, instead of focusing on a single artist or genre today, I’m featuring some of my absolutely favorite covers of the work of LL Cool J, Dave Grohl, Allen Toussaint, and T-Bone Burnett, all of whom were born on January 14.

If I didn’t have an outlet for celebrating these four incredible musicians, I’d probably spend the day moping around the house, feeling old. Instead, I get to spend a few hours researching, listening to, and celebrating the songs of their younger days, and mine. Not bad for the last day of my 34th year. Though to be fair, it also helps to realize that I’m younger than all of them.

Today’s piece de resistance is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ incredible cover of Fortune Teller from Raising Sand, their recent all-cover release, which owes its existence to not one but two of these four deities of the musical realm. But the rest of this fine set is worthy of your consideration, too. The envelope, please…

Though Allen Toussaint (b. 1938) has always been recognized as a performer and songwriter in hs own right, most of the songs he’s written found fame in either his own hands or the hands of other R&B and rock artists. But his works are so prevalent, they show up in the folk world, too, especially where folk and blues-tinged rock meet. Bonnie Raitt‘s funky cover of Toussaint’s 1970 hit What Is Success pays tribute to both the R and the B. Meanwhile, Fortune Teller, penned pseudonymically by Toussaint’s alter ego Naomi Neville, and recorded by bands from the Rolling Stones to the Who, is just incredible in the hands of Plant, Krauss, and our next birthday boy.

T-Bone Burnett (b. 1948) spends most of his time behind the scenes in the music world. But even if you’ve never heard his work as a roots rock Country singer-songwriter, you know his work as a Grammy-winning producer and song-writer for a bevy of musicians you really do admire (Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Spinal Tap, his wife Sam Phillips) and for a rash of award-winning soundtracks (Cold Mountain, O Brother Where Art Thou, Walk The Line). Burnett plays guitar on the above-mentioned Fortune Teller, and produced the album, too; here’s four more amazing covers of songs he either arranged or co-wrote.

Hip hop artist and actor LL Cool J was born in 1968, and he dropped his first album of major label tracks at 17 years old, which makes the entire hip-hop genre older than you thought. Here’s a pair of playful indiepop folk covers of 1987 Def Jam release I Need Love, the first “romantic hip-hop ballad” to hit the top of the pop charts, just to prove it can be done, and done well; irish folk-rock singer-songwriter Luka Bloom and indie folktronic group Sexton Blake do excellent coverwork here and elsewhere, and come highly recommended.

Before he formed the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl (b. 1969) was Nirvana’s last and most famous drummer. The folk scene is long overdue for some good Foo Fighters covers; while we wait, check out Laura Love‘s sparse bass and vocal, Patti Smith‘s soft banjo-tinged americana, and Kathryn Williams tense string quartet jazz folk — some of the best from an infinite series of covers of Nirvana songs penned and recorded during Grohl’s tenure.

All artist and album links above go direct to label and musician homepages, so you can best support artists directly, and avoid supporting the faceless megacorporations which commodify those artists. Please, folks: buy what you hear if you like what you hear, and help me realize my birthday wish for a future bright enough to contain the infinite possibility of homegrown music, in a world in which artists can sustain themselves without having to keep their day jobs.

Just can’t get enough? Cover Lay Down publishes every Sunday and Wednesday, and some Fridays and Holidays. Our archives are open late, but they don’t stay up forever, so don’t forget to hit up older posts before the songs go back to the ages from whence they came.

1,066 comments » | Alison Krauss, Allen Toussaint, Bonnie Raitt, Covered in Folk, Dave Grohl, k.d. lang, Kathryn Williams, Laura Love, LL Cool J, Luka Bloom, Patti Smith, Sexton Blake, T-Bone Burnett