Category: Keller Williams

Bluegrass On The Edge:
New releases from The Farewell Drifters, Keller Williams, and Crooked Still

May 16th, 2010 — 07:40 pm

The breeze outside is gentle, and the temperature hovers in the low seventies. Our garden is overgrown with tall grasses, I can hear the kids calling breathlessly to each other from the woods behind the house, and the best damn ‘grass festival in the Northeast is just two months away. Perfect for an afternoon on the porch with the laptop, a glass of lemonade, and a stack of new and upcoming releases from the broad borders of bluegrass.

Nashville-based up-and-comers The Farewell Drifters are my favorite kind of bluegrass band: talented, young and energetic, with chops and poise beyond their years. Which makes me especially happy to report that their sophomore album Yellow Tag Mondays is a well-balanced delight, revealing a hidden pop side and an ear for perfect tenor-led harmonies, making it clear that this quintet of fresh-faced, clear-voiced singer-songwriters and instrumentalists are more than ready for the main stage.

Like many young five- and six-piece bluegrass bands, The Farewell Drifters push their own strong songwriting heavily; in two albums and one EP, their total coverage count remains small enough to count on one hand, with room left over for hitchhiking. That’s not a bad thing – primary songwriters and band co-founders Josh Britt and Zach Bevill have a knack for hook-heavy composition and solid, sweet countrypop lyrics that, when added to the band’s rich sound, engender apt comparison to Nickel Creek. Still when the boys do go outside their own book, it’s a genuine joy, and thanks to their reps, I’m proud to present an exclusive covertrack from the new album, plus a bonus cover from their 2008 River Song EP, and one more from their debut which reveals just how far the road has taken the band in three short years.

It’s been a long, long while since we visited the Beatles songbook, but it’s good to hear a young band prove there’s still life in those old familiar tunes. Listen, then head over to their website to check out The Farewell Drifters’ back catalog, and to save your place in line for the June 8 release of Yellow Tag Mondays.

Keller Williams is hard to categorize – though the irreverent and self-indulgent singer-songwriter spent much of his career on the jamband circuit, he most often performs in full solo folksinger mode; his albums tend to stick to a particular sensibility throughout, but taken as a collection, they run the gamut from electrojam to acoustic folk. But with the sweet flatpicking, acoustic bass, and occasional harmonies of husband and wife duo Larry and Jenny Keel layered under his signature choppy guitar style on every track, just like in previous 2006 Keller and the Keels collaboration Grass, his new all-covers album Thief comes closest to bluegrass than anything.

Though both Keller and his detractors often have trouble taking his performance seriously – check out the utter silliness of his Moondance cover from 2003 live release Stage below to see what I mean – the approach here is comprehensively successful, transforming a vast array of songs from the hidden recesses of alt-radio and popular culture into delightful summery tunes, playful and light. I’ve included a few favorites, but the whole album is worth pursuit, if only to hear tracks such as signature Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses, and the Butthole Surfer’s Pepper totally revamped as lazy jazzgrass jams a la perennial cover favorites Hayseed Dixie.

Of course, the biggest news in the increasingly rich world of crossover folk/bluegrass these days is the newest from Crooked Still. All eyes are on Some Strange Country, due to drop on Tuesday, and available for full-album streaming at NPR until then. I’m a huge fan of Crooked Still, and there’s a lot to love here: their album-closing cover of the Rolling Stones’ You Got The Silver is fun, sure to please both cover lovers and newcomers alike; first single Half of What We Know is a strong radio-ready composition that works well with the band’s fluid, dark atmosphere, and it’s wonderful to hear a full record’s worth of new covers and originals from Crooked Still – a band with a well-known reputation as perfectionists who hew close to their catalog in concert, and take few risks on stage and between albums, as evidenced by Crooked Still Live, last summer’s under-the-radar live album.

But though I highly recommend purchase to old fans and new, I’m also finding a grain of salt in my celebration of Some Strange Country. The press release, as might be expected, touts the record as a sonic expansion, and it’s fair to say that lead singer Aoife O’Donovan lets go a bit more than on previous releases, but other than that, I’m hard-pressed to describe it as anything but a continuation and perhaps a crystalization of the same wonderful sound we’ve been privy to before.

Am I asking too much? Are familiarity and comfort an inherent drawback to defining your own sound outside of traditional genre lines? Check out both the above-linked original track and this totally revamped take on my youngest daughter’s favorite traditional folksong, move on quick to NPR before the stream turns into a pumpkin at midnight tomorrow, and make the call for yourself.

Speaking of NPR: I managed to catch the tail end of a Mountain Stage rerun last week which featured barely post-adolescent sibling trio The Lovell Sisters originally recorded in June of last year, and the set was such a stunner, a blow-your-socks-off fusion of folk, bluegrass, country and old-timey acoustic, I can’t help but pass it along.

The Lovells Sisters broke up in January – seems college takes short-term priority over performance for sister Jessica – and there’s nothing but wonderfully vibrant originals on the first EP from the remaining duo, now performing as Larkin Poe. But the EP is well worth note and promotion, so click here for the NPR archive of The Lovell Sisters on Mountain Stage, covering Jimi Hendrix, Massive Attack’s Teardrop (aka the theme to House, MD), and In My Time of Dyin’.

Oh, and as a total afterthought: legendary Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio passed away today after a long battle with cancer. War Pigs predates his work with the seminal heavy metal band, but here’s a Hayseed Dixie cover in tribute anyway:

1,430 comments » | bluegrass, Crooked Still, Keller Williams, The Farewell Drifters

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