Category: Mark Erelli

Coverfolk, Live & Kicking
(On the perils and potential of concert recordings)

September 16th, 2012 — 02:15 pm

If tribute albums are a coverlover’s bread and butter, then in-studio covers are quite often the wine: sweet, dry, subtle, and the perfect complement to the studio recordings which bring one to a musician in the first place. But if I take an arms-length approach to live concert recordings, it’s because so many cause me more pain than pleasure. Years of ear training as a choral vocalist leave me unable to appreciate instrumentation which is even slightly out of tune, a problem endemic to the live session, where crowd-pleasing can rush the re-tuning process. Similarly, a somewhat snobbish demand for purity of sound turns me off of crowd noise, speaker fuzz, and muddy recordings that, sadly, are so common to the format.

My insistence on such standards often causes me to eschew tracks that other bloggers celebrate. Live stage sessions can produce otherwise-unrecorded rarities, a temptation for any collector – and I acknowledge that for many true fans, the opportunity to hear their favorite band take on a familiar tune can be more than mere novelty. But for me, far too often, the set-list cover is a vehicle for disappointment, as the perfect pairing of artist and song is marred unforgivably from the very first sour note or yahoo yell.

Which is to say: we celebrate execution here, not merely concept, and recordings made in front of an audience often trade one for the other. But if I nonetheless listen to the live recordings that come my way, it is because every once in a while, the live setting brings sound and sentiment together in a way that the studio cannot reproduce.

The classic example here is Shawn Colvin’s stunningly beautiful take on The Only Living Boy In New York, recorded just a few weeks before the 9/11 tragedy. But live albums, sound-board singletons and full concerts, radio broadcasts, and video-sourced concert tracks are ever emerging, and every once in a while, we find one worth celebrating on its merits. Here’s a few recent finds we love.

When We Get To Shore, the new live album from American roots singer-songwriter and banjo player Coty Hogue, is a perfect kick-off here. Performed in front of a studio audience with fellow Bellingham musicians Aaron Guest (vocals/guitar) and Kat Bula (fiddle/vocals), peppered with traditional tunes and a few great popular songs from both the country and pop canons, including the below takes on Second Hand News and a startlingly sweet, banjo-driven I’m On Fire, plus more from Hazel Dickens, Bill Monroe, and Hogue herself, the mostly-covers album is a revelation of sound, with harmonies galore, a comfort level that belies the musicians’ collective youth, and an edge sure to please the neo-traditional crowd. Those interested in follow-up should also check out To The West, Hogue’s twangy countryfolk studio debut, which hit #1 on the Folk DJ charts in 2009 for its rendition of traditional title track Going to the West; the album is well worth pursuit, both on its own merits, and to see just how far this singer-songwriter has come since her return to the Northwest Americana scene.

I make a fine distinction in today’s post between in-studio performances and live concert recordings for a reason: as I note above, the urgency of performing for an audience shapes sound and sentiment in ways which are much more likely to prioritize energy over sound, both in the performer’s hands and mouth, and in the recording itself. But there are several fine folk and roots radio shows performed and produced from stage, and here we find a balance of sorts, with practiced engineers mixing for the folks at home while artists perform for the respectfully quiet audiences that sit before them.

The most notable of these revel in the energy of the live, and if a few sets suffer from the same haste and cavernousness as any concert, most benefit greatly from the high stakes of radio opportunity. Both of my favorites – Mountain Stage and eTown – drift past folk into the larger genre mix, with Mountain Stage prioritizing those who touch on the broad roots of and from their home in the West Virginia mountains, and eTown featuring particularly earth- and community-supportive bands and artists who generally claim the singer-songwriter mantle regardless of sound, but in both cases, the performances are well worth revisiting. And for those who love coverage, e-town provides a special treat: each show ends with all the bands who have performed that night performing a cover together on stage with the house band; the songs are often cut on the radio broadcast, but a visit to eTown’s YouTube page will net you the entire track.

I’m not a huge fan of mega-festivals, preferring intimate workshop stages and medium-scale outdoor events with a decent chance at seeing the performer’s faces from the crowd. But in an age of digital distribution, not being able to attend doesn’t mean missing out completely. This year’s Newport Folk Festival live sessions, for example, are generally quite well recorded, and while they’re not as comprehensive as one might wish, the sets which currently remain live in the NPR archives are worth the link. And covers abound, if you know where to look: Wilco’s set, for example, begins with a folk rock take on Woody Guthrie’s Christ for President, and includes a couple of the Guthrie-penned songs which helped them make their mark on the music world, while First Aid Kit’s take on Joan Baez classic Diamonds and Rust is a shining star in a sweet but short set. Similarly, Sara Watkins’ cover of John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Day is a sing-along delight, and her take on Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time is poignant indeed.

Finally, I can’t help but take the opportunity to tout and thank Molly Venter and Eben Pariser, aka Good Night Moon Shine, for last weekend’s house concert, held at our very own venue in rural Monson, Massachusetts. Both artists have been featured here for their work with their respective bandmates – Molly is the newest member of folkgrass girl trio Red Molly, who we speak of fondly and frequently here on Cover Lay Down; Eben is a founding member of the Brooklyn-based acoustic Americana band Roosevelt Dime, whose plunky, plucky banjo-driven cover of Radiohead’s High and Dry graced these pages upon its debut release in 2009 – but they sound easily as sweet in duo form; we’re honored to have hosted their debut as Good Night Moon Shine, and look forward to their future endeavors.

I should note, before you listen, that these recordings are the exception that proves the rule for today’s feature – in the case of Molly and Eben’s performance, the artists’ preference for echo in the mix was exacerbated by an audience-based recording setting, the use of a lo-fi recording device, and the resonance of the space itself, resulting in tracks that my wife aptly describes as sounding “live”. But as with Shawn Colvin’s Only Living Boy In New York – the gold standard here for live recordings – the historical relevance of the sessions, coupled by the lack of audience noise, tips the scales towards listenability. And since no other recordings of Good Night Moon Shine exist as yet, I cannot help but share them, in the hopes that it will help serve our primary mission: to support artists, especially those who deserve our support as they embark upon new paths to well-deserved glory.

I’ve also posted a somewhat crisper cover from Mark Erelli, who played our concert series in April to mark the 10th anniversary of his live album The Memorial Hall Sessions, which he originally recorded live just down the street in our Civil War era granite edifice of the same name. And please note: those within driving distance of mid-Massachusetts are always welcome at our twice-a-season concerts; our next show, on October 6, will feature another new duo, The Sea The Sea, featuring Chuck E Costa, whose coverage from a 2010 solo show in the same delightful carriage house setting has been featured here before, but which bears repeating ad infinitum.

PS: Looking for a more regular coverfolk fix? Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features twice weekly…but we also share streams, videos, and other random finds throughout the week at the Cover Lay Down facebook page. Head on over for more, including two more eTown covers – a sweet bluegrass bonus featuring The Infamous Stringdusters covering Tom Petty, and Keller Williams and Marc Broussard turning Wild Horses into a funky acoustic reggae number – and a preview of an upcoming feature on local-girl-made-good Emily Elbert…and while you’re there, hit “like” to help spread the word about the artists we love!

2 comments » | Coty Hogue, Good Night Moon Shine, Live, Mark Erelli, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin

Mark Erelli Covers:
Townes Van Zandt, Roy Orbison, Paul Simon, Porter Wagoner & 12 more!

October 24th, 2011 — 03:50 pm

I’ve been a Mark Erelli fan ever since I saw him on stage at the 1999 Green River Festival, just two years after his 3 a.m. discovery at a folk conference hotel room jam. I was thrilled by the release of 2001 breakthrough album Compass and Companion, which brought several singles to local folk-and-roots radio station WRSI thanks to their close connection with the Signature Sounds label. And since then, I’ve discovered multiple connections between us – among them, a love of coverage, a love for the history and natural imagery of New England, and a love for Memorial Hall, the fine granite Civil War-era edifice in my hometown of Monson, where Mark recorded a live album in 2001.

All along, as his career progresses, I’ve often wondered why Mark Erelli isn’t more of a household name. Certainly, the gentle, cheerful singer-songwriter from the suburbs of Boston has spent long days on the cusp of national fame, winning Kerrville’s coveted New Folk contest in his early twenties, spending weeks atop the national Americana charts. His 2006 album Hope & Other Casualties was named Album of the Year by influential Boston folk station WUMB; his work has been covered by the likes of Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert, and chuck e costa; People Look Around, his Katrina-inspired co-write that year with fellow Boston singer-songwriter Catie Curtis, won the grand prize at the International Songwriting Competition.

Mark defines himself as a musician, not just a singer-songwriter; he seems happy as a sideman, a collaborator, and an opening act for the likes of Red Molly, John Hiatt, Gillian Welch, and others, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain if he seems to be a well-kept secret too much of the time. But the projects which bring him to the forefront are always good, and often amazing. In solo guise, Erelli comes off as a sort of anti-Townes Van Zandt, a performer from the flip side of the dour troubadour strain of folk: in his capable hands and palpable voice, both hope and tragedy find apt outlet, but even in the depths of angst and despair, the songs never lose the everpresent tone of awe and gratefulness which characterizes so much of his work. And he’s unafraid to reinvent himself, moving fluidly from the contemporary singer-songwriter sound of his early work to the dark folk gospel of the Memorial Hall Recordings (2002) and the country swing of Hillbilly Pilgrim (2004), and from there to recent incarnations as a bluegrass and folkblues collaborator.

Though the busy singer-songwriter has a knack for poignancy, and the voice to match, his signature scratchy tenor soars and croons and sings out, in delicate ballads, frustrated screeds, and rollicking roots/rockabilly tunes. His take on I’ll Be Here In The Morning, off the amazingly powerful, eminently quiet 2007 lullaby album Innocent When You Dream, is a perfect apotheosis, weary as the original even as it brings a lightness to the song which Townes never imagined, and couldn’t have pulled off if he tried. And, as heard in the below Mary Gauthier cover, his harmony work with fellow local and frequent collaborator Lori McKenna lends the perfect note of sweetness to McKenna’s full-bodied voice; those who find it as potent as I do will be happy to note that Mark spends almost as much time on the road supporting McKenna, Curtis, Kris Delmhorst, Josh Ritter, and others as he does in solo guise.

Erelli’s more recent solo and band-led works include a low-key, high-quality live album which we wrote about earlier this year, the gritty, fleshed out sound of 2008 album Delivered, and Little Vigils, a gentler, more pensive solo effort from last year which is heavily influenced by his fatherhood, his native New England, and his work with Karine Powart and others on The Darwin Project, an 18-song UK singer-songwriter project inspired by the life and work of Charles Darwin. But like Seven Curses, the diverse, deep 2010 duo album of murder ballads which Erelli made with bluesy Wisconsinite folk artist Jeffrey Foucault, his newest release is a collaborative effort, and it’s a doozy.

The album is C’Mon!, the band is Barnstar!, and the overabundance of exclamation points is a surprisingly accurate reflection of the high energy and fun Erelli, banjo wizard Charlie Rose, Massachusetts-based father and son fiddle and mando luminaries Jake and Taylor Amerding of Northern Lights fame, and producer/bassist Zack Hickman (recently of Josh Ritter’s touring band) bring to the project. The heavily bluegrass and cowboy country-influenced debut features a fine combination of Erelli-penned tunes, both reinvented and first release, and covers from all over the musical map (Neil Young, Micky Newbury, Traveling Wilburys, and Paul Simon), so we’ll start our set there, with a note that there’s a great ‘grassy Dawes cover available for free download at Bandcamp along with the usual streaming whistle-whetters, and our regular reminder that feature status here on Cover Lay Down is itself our strongest recommendation: if you like what you hear, follow the links below to buy and support Mark Erelli, and help spread the word about his many projects.

  • Barnstar!: Handle With Care (orig. Traveling Wilburys)
  • Barnstar!: Boy In The Bubble (orig. Paul Simon)

    (from C’mon!, 2011)

  • Mark Erelli: Crying (orig. Roy Orbison)
    (from Signature Sounds 10th Anniversary Sampler, 2004)

Looking for more coverage? Mark Erelli sticks to original works on the majority of his solo albums (though a couple, like The Memorial Hall Recordings and Innocent When You Dream, include multiple examples, thanks to their particular focus). But his website includes a downloads section, and while this month the link goes directly to the Bandcamp page for C’Mon!, where you can snag that free download of what Cover Me calls a grassed up version of “contemporary indie-folk gem When My Time Comes by Dawes”, most months it contains a discrete page with a single live or demo recording. Here’s a half dozen live and rare demo covers I’ve picked up over the years.

2 comments » | Mark Erelli

Mailbox Mayhem: New Coverage of and from
Stevie Wonder, Arrica Rose, Neil Young, Mark Erelli, Doc Watson & more!

July 30th, 2011 — 08:32 am

We’re home from the folkfields after a two-week hiatus, tanned, rested, and ready to explicate the current state of folk as represented by this year’s mainstage and sidestage lineups and their accompanying buzz. While we gather our thoughts [and CDs] for our annual post-fest megapost, here’s the best of what landed in the mailbox during our absence.

With its tender mix of old-timey reconstructions, traditional tunes, original songs, and recorded field narratives, On The Brooklyn Road – an incredible new country roots album from San Francisco Bay-area up-and-comer Nell Robinson, recently featured on A Prairie Home Companion – puts itself squarely in the category of older folk forms, even as it swings through songbooks both old and new. And yet there’s something deeply powerful and startlingly post-millennial about this sophomore album, as a whole, in no small part because of how effectively it provides a delightfully listenable, fluid primer of the interrelationships of the various folkforms which together fall into the roots category.

There’s a little bit of everything here, from country gospel to gentle singer-songwriter balladry, from grassy backporch pickin’ to a loose and lazy zydeco, all peppered with the recurring refrain of field recorded stories from Robinson’s mother and uncles, and leading us to the album’s delightful coda, which features pitch-perfect stylistic reconstructions of two traditional arrangements originally by the Cackle Sisters, a long-forgotten female duo from the 1930′s who invented their own yodeling form. But the sequence works well, and with nary a weak spot, leaving me struggling to pick just a pair for our post, even as it creates the perfect conditions for a press-ready quote we can stand by: Robinson’s sweet voice and the lighthearted settings of On The Brooklyn Road make for a consistent, thoroughly enjoyable journey through a timeless, sepia-toned world at the intersection of bluegrass, country, folk, and americana. Highly recommended.

Bonus track from Nell Robinson’s debut:

Folk-noirist Algebro‘s strangely fragile falsetto and gentle acoustic strum make for a reasonably odd match, with a product that starts off teetering on the edge of parody, and never shakes its easy association with Devendra Banhart. The handlebar moustache Algebro sports on the cover of his album doesn’t help, either – nor does the jock-y, math-y pseudonym taken by Chicago singer-songwriter Thom Cathcart for his solo project. But his utterly delicate take on this Stevie Wonder classic, released as a promotional freebie by the Georgia transplant, grows on you quickly, leaving us with the inner visions of a calmed, pensive narrator once totally hidden by the heavier instrumentation and soaring albeit somewhat bombastic beauty of the original.

Single Life, the newest album from Alberta singer-songwriter Landon A.R. Coleman, is a bit of a folk/rock/blues/americana/indie genre smorgasbord, as seen in the two streamable originals currently available over at bandcamp while we wait for an August release – a not unexpected result of a lifetime steeping in literature and in the indierock, flannel-wearing solo artist, and bluegrass branches of the musical arts. And his cover of Neil Young obscurity Down To The Wire is no exception: it starts as a warm and syrupy tune, with echoey emergent harmonies and sustained strings, and then somewhere along the way, ever-so-gently, it evolves into a fully orchestrated album-ender, with synthy flutes and reed flourishes that fade into something not so far from a mid-seventies Disney soundtrack.

Those who have been following Cover Lay Down over the last few months already know that we’ve been struggling with the aftereffects of a massive tornado strike here in my tiny rural Massachusetts town. What you may not know is that one of the buildings which was damaged was the same stately civil-war era granite structure in which Mark Erelli recorded his seminal Memorial Hall sessions, one of my favorite albums from this gem of the rich Boston folkscene.

Now Mark’s released Live In Monson, a limited-edition bandcamp EP of outtakes from those sessions, as a fundraiser for our continued clean-up and rebuilding efforts, featuring live versions of some of his most notable folk radio hits from the period; the high energy of his take on classic American slave song Follow The Drinking Gourd is indicative and apt. Stream, then buy at bandcamp for just 5 bucks to make a difference. And don’t miss Mark’s amazing “official bootleg” live session from Passim, recorded in 2010 and released this Spring, while you’re there – the Tom Petty encore is just the tip of the iceberg.

    (Trad.; from Live In Monson Benefit EP, 2011)

    (orig. Tom Petty; from 4.2.10, 2011)

According to Erelli’s website, he’ll also appear on a “rockabilly version of the Sesame Street classic Ladybug Picnic” on Alastair Moock‘s upcoming kid folk album These Are My Friends. I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m a big fan of the gravely-voiced singer-songwriter, and you should be, too. Here’s step one: this gentle outtake from Moock’s first kid’s album A Cow Goes Moock, a Buddy Holly tune done for sleepy kids yet boasting a summery folkrock greatness, found among the samples available over at Moock’s kidfolk site. (Note: Moock’s Grownup’s Music, which lives separately, and comes in much more muted colors, is equally worth your while).

I tabled this one back at the end of June, but the timeless Louvin-esque strains of Ashville, NC duo The Twilite Broadcasters have been lingering in my ears ever since – it’s time to share the joy. The nut: twangy tenor/baritone harmonies and true craftsmen’s hands on the mando and guitar make for a delightful collection of traditional interpretations on the oldtime/country/bluegrass border. And like the songs themselves, the video of their take on Doc Watson-collected tune What Does The Deep Sea Say, which I found on their site, is adorably, indelibly authentic.

  • The Twilite Broadcasters: What Does The Deep Sea Say (orig. Doc Watson)

We’ve posted work from Arrica Rose before here at Cover Lay Down, celebrating her folkpop prowess as it evolves. Her slow, soft take on Tom Waits’ I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You, which we reposted in December ’09 as part of a Tom Waits coverage set, is a stunner still, three years after its release; her more recent take on the Bee Gees’ Tragedy is a delicate journey through summer.

But we’ve never heard her like this. The Californian artist’s most recently dropped song is pulled way back, an echoey, shimmery dreampop mashup of Video Killed The Radio Star and Wonderful World that takes our breath away. The gentle, almost funereal pace and pitch pairs so well with the Lois Armstrong classic, it turns what had been a tale of the inevitability of change into a song of solace, giving thanks for the constancy of nature’s blessings along our evolutionary path. Totally transformative, and a perfect teaser for upcoming indie rock album Let Alone Sea, which drops August 22 but is already garnering critical acclaim.

  • Arrica Rose and the …’s: Video Killed The Radio Star (Wonderful World) (orig. The Buggles/Louis Armstrong)
    (from Let Alone Sea, 2011)

In other news: after almost a year in download-only format, the debut album from Mon Monarch – the folk trio formed around singer-songwriter chuck e. costa, current Official State Troubadour of CT and one-time winner of the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist competition – has finally hit the shelves, for those who still prefer a bit of plastic and liner notes; there’s no covers on it, but I can’t say enough about this amazing collection of heartfelt, intelligent lyrics and songcraft, so I’m using this opportunity to repost a video we took when costa played our concert series last year.

  • chuck e costa: No Love Today (orig. Chris Smither)

And finally, though I mentioned it in passing beforehand, uke-player and singer-songwriter Sophie Madeleine’s 30 covers in 30 days project ended Tuesday with the release of her newest album The Rhythm You Started; both can be accessed in full at Sophie’s website, and both come with our strongest support and ratings. BoingBoing reports that her cover of Pumped Up Kicks’ Foster The People is garnering the most attention, but though I find her Bon Iver cover quite beautiful, and appreciate the mix of obscurities and obligations the set spans, I’m still partial to the third song in the series, a light, warbly take on Daniel Johnston’s True Love Will Find You In The End which makes a great call-back to the baker’s dozen of song coverage we posted back in January.

  • Sophie Madeleine: Skinny Love (orig. Bon Iver)

  • Sophie Madeleine: True Love Will Find You In The End (orig. Daniel Johnston)

2 comments » | Mailbox, Mark Erelli, New Artists Old Songs

Tributes and Cover Compilations, 2010
Volume 1: January – April

April 17th, 2010 — 10:24 pm

Saturday was Record Store Day, and though we’re off in Disney World – the least indie place in the known universe – it seemed nonetheless appropriate to ground today’s program in our most album-oriented feature.

Happily, there’s a bunch of solid tribute albums lurking on the horizon, both in and out of the folkworld. June, especially, promises to be exciting, with a John Prine tribute and a tribute to the songs of Shel Silverstein scheduled to drop almost simultaneously. The Prine tribute is much more americana-folk oriented – names include Justin Vernon, Josh Ritter, The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Justin Townes Earle – while the Silverstein tribute yaws wider, bringing in Sugar Hill records luminaries Sarah Jarosz, Black Prairie, and Sara Watkins alongside Andrew Bird, Kris Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams, Dr. Dog, Todd Snider and others. But there’s much commonality here: both albums feature John Prine and My Morning Jacket, and – given the subjects and the talent involved – each promises plenty of wry, tuneful social commentary done up right.

More generally, though it’s early yet, Consequence of Sound may not be wrong in naming 2010 the year of the tribute album. Slow-moving news of a grand Bowie tribute due in September is surely just the tip of an autumnal iceberg. And, in addition to a few rock and pop-driven tributes in the early part of the year – notably, Peter Gabriel’s reciprocal Scratch My Back project, and the recent Bird and the Bee electrotwee indiepop paean to the Hall & Oates songbook – the recent emergence of two fully folk-oriented albums, an eclectic iTunes-only DIY duo’s cover album, and an indie lullaby compilation which leans towards the mellow and acoustic, have set a high bar for this year’s crop. Today, we take a closer look at these first-round pace-setters.

First and foremost, major thanks and kudos to the always-excellent Call it Folk, who made first mention of LML Records release In My Room earlier this week. Featuring a solid mix of 20 longstanding folk icons and regional delights, the album asks its participating artists to cover their favorite songs, performed as if stripped down and solo from their living rooms and home studios and other comfort zones, and predictably, the resulting recordings are almost universally intimate, though the wide breadth of artists makes for a full and diverse mix.

I’m still soaking in this one, but the gems are there in spades, from Arlington Priest’s slightly prettified but still-weary take on Ray LaMontagne’s Jolene to new fave singer-songwriter Peter Bradley Adams’ ringing, hushed cover of Matthew Ryan’s I Hear A Symphony. No project of this scope is perfect, and to be sure, with the balance of these contributors skewing towards older, mid-to-late career artists, there’s a few piano-led clunkers from a few older folkies here that go heavy on the pop-vocalist syrup. But the song choices are often inspired, and all are handled with care and affection. And with proceeds going to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and Amazon listing the full 20-song digital download for just under 8 bucks, it’s worth getting the complete set.

As with the abovementioned collaborative project, save for a single mention – this time on the increasingly perceptive pages of Beat Surrender – there’s been little early buzz about Mark Erelli and Jeffrey Foucault’s new collaborative effort Seven Curses, a stark, dark set of murder ballads from Springsteen, Guthrie, Neil Young, Porter Wagoner, and other powerful troubadours. But the first three tracks are available at Foucault’s website, and – as we might have expected from this particular pair of down-to-earth singer songwriters and cover artists – though the production runs the gamut from sparse, intimate ballads to fuzzed-out two-man folkabilly, taken as a set, the songs represent a fantastic teaser for the album-to-come.

Seven Curses – currently available in the US as an on-tour pre-release only, though it was released to the UK market on Fish Records last Monday – is due to drop on the dollar market towards the end of the month, though you can pre-order at Young Hunter records. And you better believe I’m placing my order today. Here’s two to tempt your ears into joining me.

I mentioned Pomplamoose last week as an example of the growing cadre of artists using the digital world to leverage themselves to fame and possible fortune; now, serendipitously, comes email notice of their new iTunes cover album Tribute To Famous People, just in time for inclusion herein.

Like their YouTube work, the new collection is less folk than playful eclectic pop, just an increasingly confident couple of multi-instrumentalists taking advantage of modern digital tools to build a layered, homegrown sound that is equal parts studio mixing and piece-by-piece performance. But though the sound and self-effacing sales pitch are perfectly indiegeek, the intimacy of lead singer Nataly Dawn and the humble approach to performer-centered song bring a sense of earnestness and authenticity very much in line with the modern indie folk and folkpop sensibility – especially on cuts such as these.

Finally, the folks at American Laundromat – nurturers and tireless promoters of a particular subgroup of predominantly female indie set, who caused so much celebration here upon the 2008 release of their stunning Neil Young tribute collection – once again come through with a stellar mix of music in Sing Me To Sleep, an impending collection of indie lullabies. Folk has generally been but one far end of the sound spectrum for the American Laundromat sound: High School Reunion, the 80′s tribute which they released back in 2005 ran the gamut, and their recent Cure covers album, though excellent, was just too heavy with electric noise and fury to merit mention in a folkblog. But aiming to reach children and their indie-sensible parents leads to production decisions that replace the feedback with sweetness, delicacy and drones, and our readers should find much to cherish here.

Unlike the rest of today’s recommendations, Sing Me To Sleep isn’t out yet – it drops 5/18 – but there’s an amazing limited edition package that you just don’t want to miss available for pre-release up on the site, and that’s certainly close enough on the horizon to merit a preview, isn’t it? Here’s a delicious, delicate Jack Early cover from indie popsters Dean & Britta, label-sanctioned and drowsy with underwater guitars, to make you sleepy with desire.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and coversets every Sunday, Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: reflections on a Floridian vacation.

1,302 comments » | Jeffrey Foucault, Mark Erelli, Pomplamoose, Tribute Albums

(Re)Covered, XV: More covers of and from
Talking Heads, Pat Wictor, Lori McKenna, Mark Erelli & Paul Simon!

March 6th, 2010 — 10:32 pm

Our music library may be vast, but we’ve never claimed to be completists here at Cover Lay Down. There’s always something missed or previously unheard, and always something new, too, released just in time to taunt us in the aftermath of a topical post.

Serendipitous addenda come from fellow bloggers, readers, labels, artists and library visits into our welcoming ears and hands. From there, they make their way back to you via our (Re)Covered features, wherein we share new and newly-rediscovered songs that dropped into our laps just a bit too late to make it into earlier features.

Our recent post covering the Talking Heads songbook has proved to be immensely popular, netting huge surges in traffic after receiving mention from both Metafilter and Very Short List. As is generally the case, with popularity comes an increase in suggested also-rans, and though many of the songs readers sent along were not folk at all – for example, I had already considered and rejected Guster’s uber-funky alt-jamband take on Nothing But Flowers and Moxy Fruvous’ slammin’ live cover of Psycho Killer as far too rock for our readership, and passed over Miles Fisher’s electrocover as fun but far too weird, when compiling our original post – this Jason Spooner track, recommended by fellow Star Maker Machine regular FiL, is a great slow-burn acoustic folk jam that fits the bill perfectly.

In an interesting email exchange with Pat Wictor after our recent feature on the NY-based singer-songwriter attempted to used his recent career path to exemplify the challenges artists face in moving from “emerging” to “established”, Pat humbly suggested that I had made the common mistake of confusing buzz with name-recognition and much more typical under-the-radar career growth – an error all the more frustrating because I myself have addressed this issue of bloggers mistaking buzz concentration as an indicator of popularity in previous posts, specifically in regards to the shortened buzz-and-fall cycle which has accompanied the rise of the rapid-fire blogging world. Mea culpa.

As Pat points out, his career continues to grow, albeit in more subtle ways out of the “new artist” limelight; recent developments include growing audience sizes, his first major tours of California, Texas, the Midwest, and the Carolinas, and a move from opening act slots to co-bills in much larger spaces. But that doesn’t mean he’s rich and famous yet, folks. Instead, says Pat, he’s engaged in “the long, slow work of building an audience, person by person,” and that’s where a blog can be a fine vehicle, indeed. Here’s a matched set of subtly different covers of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s You Got To Move from Pat’s work with frequent stage-sharer and fellow 2006 Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist Abbie Gardner (of similarly up-and-growing folk trio Red Molly) – one from his album, one from hers – to help keep these artists on your radar where they belong.

We’ve featured local singer-songwriters and frequent touring companions Mark Erelli and Lori McKenna here in fits and starts over the years: our first-year Mother’s Day post offered a pair of now long-gone coversongs from the housewife-turned-singing sensation; the release of Mark’s 2008 album Delivered occasioned a similar subfeature, including several covers which have suffered the same fate.

But their recently recorded cover of Mary Gauthier’s Mercy Now, which came to me via Bottom of the Glass, is a full-bore delight, with driving beat, lightness, and harmonies that lend a bit more hope and perhaps a touch more steel to what seemed to be an untouchable original. And sending you off to purchase the recent 1% For The Planet benefit compilation from which it comes is a great way to support ecological causes, to boot. As a bonus, in lieu of reviving old posts ad infinitum, I’ve included a few favorite othercovers from those previous posts.


Finally, in other covernews, the new Peter Gabriel all-covers album Scratch My Back is, by most accounts, sappy, maudlin, emotionless and tame; it wasn’t even that hard to find a reviewer willing to call it “the worst cover album in the history of cover albums.” But the good news is that it’s part of a reciprocal project, which means upcoming Peter Gabriel covers from each of the artists whose work Gabriel mangles on his own release. And if Paul Simon’s cover of Biko, released in tandem with Gabriel’s cover of Boy in the Bubble as the second “Double A-side” single from the project, is any indication, we’re in for a great ride.

Our Paul Simon cover feature is yet another part of our long-dead archives, and we’re surely overdue to revisit his songbook, so expect another round of Simon covers to come sometime in 2010. In the meanwhile, stay tuned to the usual indieblogs for Peter Gabriel covers from Bon Iver, Regina Spektor, and more in the weeks ahead.

As an added bonus, since we’re looking back that far today, here’s another stunning Peter Gabriel cover from an album featured in our very first post here at Cover Lay Down, way back in September of 2007.

Cover Lay Down posts new features and coverfolk sets every Wednesday and Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,100 comments » | (Re)Covered, Jason Spooner, Lori McKenna, Mark Erelli, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads

(Re)Covered VII: More covers of Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Britney Spears

August 19th, 2008 — 11:15 pm

We’re in an indiefolk mood today, thanks to an increasingly large pile of new material flowing in from fan recommendations, the labels, and the blogosphere at large. As such, there’s nothing particularly rare here today, just a bunch of great web-scavenged covers, most of which had their coming out party long after we originally featured the songwriters that first made them famous — making them a perfect fit for yet another long-awaited edition of our longstanding (Re)Covered series here on Cover Lay Down.

At the height of her popularity, Cyndi Lauper’s strength was in powerful yet simply-stated melody and lyric; in simplicity, however, a song’s flexibility is limited, so it was a nice surprise to find not one but two great new covers coming out over the past few months, especially after finding so many covers of so few different tunes for our May feature on the songs of Cyndi Lauper.

This cover from Canadian indiefolkers The Acorn has been making the blogrounds since at least June, most recently ending up on This Morning I Am Born Again, but it bears repeating for the way it transforms what was once a bouncy throw-away theme for the kid-friendly underground pirate adventure flick The Goonies, turning a cinematic bit of eighties cheese into something lo-fi and fragile, full of string undertones and indie half-tension, the post-millenium’s high-culture equivalent of the exotic comfort of a warm goat-cheese brie.

Meanwhile, alt-folk trio Girlyman gives a chilling, harmony-rich rendition of Lauper ballad All Through the Night, proving once again that good songwriting will out, even through the worst sappiest power ballad production (see also: Supertramp covers). I posted Girlyman’s wonderful version of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord last year as part of a megapost on the solo work of the post-Beatles Fab Four; I certainly would have shared this perfect live cut when we featured Cyndi Lauper songs last month if I had known about it, but the hype for their gigantic live album Somewhere Different Now, also released in May, seems to have gotten lost in the sea of late spring releases and a recent label change-over for the intrepid and outed members of Girlyman. Special thanks, then, to the anonymous tipster who prompted me to track this song down, which in turn led me to an album which perfectly captures the sweet harmonies and raw yet intimate presence that typifies a small-venue Girlyman show.

Our original exploration of the Paul Simon songbook was large enough to separate into two posts: one on his solo work, and one on his work with that Art guy. But, as I mentioned back then, Simon’s influence on music is immense; as such, as musicians new and rising continue to mine the cultural jetsam for songs that have some personal resonance, coverage of Paul Simon’s vast catalogue remains vast and evergrowing.

From the recently “released” Bedroom Covers album from The Morning Benders, with its wonderfully hushed and lo-fi versions of many favorite and respectable pop tunes, comes an echoey take on Mother and Child Reunion with shades of Iron and Wine, only played out at a tenor’s 45 rpm; Bedroom Covers is a total freebie, and it rocks: we’ll surely come back to it down the road for upcoming Covered in Folk features (we’re way overdue for a Fleetwood Mac set). Plus two versions of what may well be my favorite Paul Simon composition of all time: a pensive yet hopeful bedroom cover from the recently-featured Mark Erelli, and — for those who lean that way — a great countrygrass cover from Darrell Scott’s very promising all-covers “acoustic folk” album Modern Hymns, released just yesterday on the highly credible folklabel Appleseed Recordings, via blazing newcomer blog A Fifty Cent Lighter & A Whiskey Buzz, who also offers up Scott’s solid take on oft-covered Joni Mitchell favorite Urge for Going.

Finally: the “Britney Spears takes over culture” thing is pretty much over, but even after both an All Folked Up feature and a (Re)Covered revisit, her songs continue to crop up everywhere that indie hipsters crave irony. Today’s evidence comes from The Portland Cello Project, which finally hit stores this week after months of slow-burning hype. I’m by no means the first to notice The Portland Cello Project, and technically, they’re not folk, either — critics are calling the guest-vocalist-with-multiple-cello sound chamber pop; their myspace page lists them as indie/classical/rock. Listen through their whole self-titled debut, though, and you may think you’ve discovered yet another new folk, akin to the experimentation of, say, Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet project (which also features cellist Ben Sollee).

The album tracks each feature collaboration from the Pacific Northwest indiefolk crowd, including star turns from Loch Lomond’s Ritchie Young and indiefolk darling Laura Gibson; I especially like the delicate indietune Under Glass, and Stay, a wonderful, plucked-sting acoustic waltz with guest Anna Fritz. Captain Obvious gets cred for picking the Gibson and Under Glass for sampling. And PCP gets TOTAL bonus points here for a secret, hidden covertrack, which sets the Mario Brothers theme song to a classical ensemble sound, and then slowly buries it in a faux-military drumroll — that no other blogger has mentioned that says what it needs to about how most critics listen to label freebies, sadly.

Whatever you call it, this is surprisingly solid, listenable music, covering a huge range of pleasurable soundscape; though it’s among the more upbeat and fun songs on the album, their version of Toxic still comes across as authentic, not just some marching band cover. And since the Britney covers always bring a smile, and given the increasing prevalence of cello in folk music, I’ll allow it just this once. With a few other recent Britney covers scavenged from the webs that fall on the edge of folk: Sia’s delicate acoustic version of Gimmie More, and French-Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim’s ubiquitous pop-folktronic Toxic, just in case you haven’t heard it. And so the trend continues.

803 comments » | (Re)Covered, Acorn, Britney Spears, Cyndi Lauper, Darrell Scott, Mark Erelli, Morning Benders, Paul Simon, Portland Cello Project, Sia, Yael Naim

New and Noteworthy Coverfolk: Carrie Rodriguez, Mark Erelli, The Sacred Shakers (w/ Eilen Jewell)

August 10th, 2008 — 09:42 am

Now that my email inbox is finally back to ground zero, it’s time to take a look at the best of the recent crop of shiny plastic that has once again begun to pile up beside the alumni mags and kitchen counter catalogues. Here’s the top tier, some new releases and a handful of exclusive, previously unblogged covers from three well-respected singer-songwriters still on the cusp of full-blown fame: Mark Erelli, Carrie Rodriguez, and Eilen Jewell’s new country gospel project The Sacred Shakers. Regular reader of the usual folkblog suspects have already heard about some of these, but good news, like good music, bears repeating.

Mark Erelli is an old favorite of mine, ever since the high-folk production of 2001 sophomore release Compass and Companion started getting radioplay back in the mid nineties; since then, he’s gone deeper into honky tonk and bluesfolk, and spent a good deal of time on the road as a guitar man, supporting the fast-rising career of old friend and coffeehouse circuit peer Lori McKenna. But his new disk Delivered, on long-time label Signature Sounds, is a triumphant return to his singer-songwriter roots, with a polished sound made even more mature and powerful by the faint hints of explorative influence from his last few outings, and it’s a wonderful place to find him.

Erelli, whose local-boy-made-good backstory and aw-shucks manner only compliment a distinctive raspy tenor with a New England twang and a fine sense of how to write an ageless political folksong, hasn’t included any covers on this newest. But like his early albums, Delivered contains a great set of well-crafted tunes with strong vocal arrangements, solid atmosphere and open, confessional lyrics, grounded in common themes of spiritualism, hope, political desire, atonement and authenticity. Alternately hushed and driving, at their best, the collection of first-rate songs that comprise Delivered rival the best and most pensive of Paul Simon’s midcareer, the most yearningly hopeful of Springsteen, or the downtrodden post-folk of Dylan’s most recent.

I’ve previously posted a few choice gems from Erelli’s vast collection of covers (see below for links). And there’s bound to be more to come, as long as Erelli continues to post a new unreleased track on his blog every month; this month’s freebie, for example, is a great bedroom cover of Greg Brown’s If I Had Known well worth the download. Here’s a few more I’ve been holding back until just the right moment, all of them well worth repeat listening; his slow, sultry campfire versions of Joni Mitchell classic Case of You and Roy Orbison classic Crying are personal favorites, both among my top covers of all time. Enjoy ‘em while you wait to buy Delivered, which is available on tour only right now, and hits the streets at Signature Sounds on September 16.

Speaking of the always-excellent Signature Sounds: though Eilen Jewell, whose chipper Texas swingfolk wowed the blogworld last year, still has just the two albums to her name as a solo artist, this month marks the release of a selftitled collection of public domain tunes and a few country classics from new group The Sacred Shakers, which builds a core of male vocals and old-timey alt-country instrumentalists around Jewell’s sweet voice and girlish energy.

Though the premise here is old-timey bible-belt country gospel, played out in a surprisingly full spectrum of settings from slow waltz to driving alt-country, the sound is not so far off from Eilen’s big splash, last year’s Letters from Sinners & Strangers. Not that this is a bad thing: just a peg looser than a classic country gospel album, The Sacred Shakers album has touches of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and even the Stray Cats, but — as songs:illinois noted while I was away — has more in common with early Sun Records era Johnny Cash and Elvis than anything.

Which is to say: mostly, The Sacred Shakers is just plumb great swingin’ countryfolk with a hint of alt-country, full of fiddle and banjo licks, country rock guitar, thumping stand-up bass and the distinctive clicketyclack of the honkytonk drumkit in its more upbeat moments, and sweet and honest-voiced when Jewell steps forward for the slower sets, like Hank Williams cover Ready to Go Home, or obscure tradtune Twelve Gates to the City (which you can hear over at songs:illinois).

Here’s an *exclusive* label-approved pair from the new release, and a fave Eilen Jewell solo cover from last year. Especially startling: Greg Glassman, in duet with Jewell on the slow, ragged waltz that transforms album closer and country gospel classic Green Pastures, sounds eerily like Ryan Adams.

Finally, for the last few years, Brooklynite fiddle player Carrie Rodriguez has been slowly working her way out from the shadow of Chip Taylor, who first discovered her a few years back. She first appeared as a Tracy Grammer-esque partner, lending her duet voice and fiddle to Taylor’s own tunes; more recently, with last year’s Seven Angels on a Bicycle, she’s come forward as frontwoman and titular performer, albeit with Taylor on board as producer and co-writer. Now, with She Ain’t Me, out just last week on EMI imprint Manhattan Records, Rodriguez finally comes into her own, trading the rough-hewn look for a shiny cover art glamour, delivering a solid set of surprisingly poppy, diverse originals that run the range from Carole King to Louisiana Swing to full-blown poprock; Twangville hears Lucinda Williams, too, and I think I agree.

Rag Doll, the album’s sole cover and another rep-approved Cover Lay Down web exclusive, is a lovely, atmospheric folkpop piece with sublime vocals, a great showcase for both Rodriguez’ increasingly confident voice and mononymic indie-folkster Sandrine’s underrated songwriting; but my favorite track on the new album is the driving countryfolk neo-fiddletune Absence, co-written with Mary Gauthier and guest-starring fellow new folk revival vocalist Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still (who also lends vocals to Mark Erelli’s release, come to think of it). Check out Muruch’s review for Absence, and then pick up She Ain’t Me for even more gorgeous high-production folk originals.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

As always, all new and as-yet-unreleased tracks shared on Cover Lay Down are posted with full permission from labels and artist representatives. For review consideration, please send CDs and sundries to the address listed on the sidebar.

1,041 comments » | Carrie Rodriguez, Eilen Jewell, Mark Erelli, The Sacred Shakers

Why Do I Love Hank? Country coverfolk with today’s guest host: Paul

July 25th, 2008 — 10:41 am

My name is Paul and I usually blog over at Setting The Woods On Fire. Boyhowdy has been kind enough to let me say a few words here while he enjoys a vacation. As you might have guessed from the title of my blog, I’m a big fan of Hank Williams. I also love cover songs.

Cover songs are fun because they help you separate the song from the performance. Do I love Hank because of the songs he wrote and poularized? Or do I love Hank because of the way he performed them? I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but listening to covers of Hank is a good way to understand what makes Hank’s records so special.

Except for the Dylan tune, the tracks featured here are new to me. Boyhowdy thought it might be interesting to see how a Hank fan would respond to folky covers of Hank’s work. Some I liked a lot. Some not so much.

I’ll start with Cold Cold Heart by Norah Jones. This one should generate lots of interest, as it’s one of Hank’s best compositions performed by popular singer. While Norah undoubtedly has a great voice, I’m not sold. I hear it more as a musical exercise than as an emotional plea from a frustrated lover. Lesson: I love Hank because he really sells a song.

Norah Jones, Cold Cold Heart (H. Williams)
(from Come Away With Me)

Since I wasn’t so nice with the first one, let’s move on to my favorite song in this batch of Hank covers, a brilliant medley of Wedding Bells and Let’s Turn Back The Years performed by John Prine and Lucinda Williams. I love everything about this recording. Hank did not write Wedding Bells but it sounds just like something he could have written, which is shown by how seemlessly this “medley” fits together. John and Lucinda do a nice job selling the song without over-singing. Not surprising, considering their talents. (Of course, it might just be the peddle steel guitar that so warms my country-loving heart on this piece.)

John Prine & Lucinda Williams, Wedding Bells/Let’s Turn Back The Years (C. Boone/H. Williams)

(from In Spite of Ourselves)

Speaking of over-singing, here’s a rendition of Long Gone Lonesome Blues that’s just a bit too overdone for my taste. Yodeling is OK (in small doses). Quavery yodeling is pushing it.

Red Molly, Long Gone Lonesome Blues (H. Williams)
(from Never Been To Vegas)

Over-singing isn’t always bad, though. I’m not exactly sure why, but Mark Erelli’s spirited version of The Devil’s Train works well despite the singer’s affected “twang”:

Mark Erelli, The Devil’s Train (H. Williams)
(from The Memorial Hall Recordings)

Another one from Boyhowdy’s batch that I really liked was I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Greg Brown. It’s kind of a goofy song (“I was living high until the fatal day a lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched”), and it’s a Hank Williams’ signature tune, so it’s not an easy assignment for a cover artist. But Brown pulls it off with aplomb by playing it straight. Just like Hank, I believe Brown’s exaggerated tale of woe.

Greg Brown, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive (F. Rose/H. Williams)
(from Friend of Mine)

Only one of Boyhowdy’s batch of folky Hank covers really bothered me, and this is it. The descending harmony party is cloying. And the re-written lyric about the “gay” dog just does not belong in a Hank Williams song (not that there’s anything wrong with gay dogs). Score one point for Hank’s performance trumping his songs.

Devon Sproule & Paul Curreri, Why Don’t You Love Me? (H. Williams)
(from Valentines Day Duets #3, 2006)

Let’s close this post with a Hank song performed by one of the few artists that I would place on an equally high pedestal, Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan, (I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle (H. Williams/J. Davis)
(outtake from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)

I hope you enjoy these tunes. If I’m wrong about my criticism of any of the few I didn’t like, please let me know. It’s just one Hank fan’s opinion.

Oh yeah, my conclusion from listening to these covers is that I like Hank’s songs, but I love the way he sings them.

Prolific blogger and tastemaster Paul pays regular tribute to country, rock, bluegrass, and jazz over at Setting The Woods On Fire. He is also a founding member of collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine.

1,013 comments » | Bob Dylan, Devon Sproule, Greg Brown, Guest Posts, Hank Williams, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Mark Erelli, Norah Jones, Paul Curreri, Red Molly

Schoolday Coverfolk: National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6-10

May 6th, 2008 — 11:23 pm

In my other life, I’m a middle school teacher; I spend most of my days surrounded by twelve year olds, trying to balance entertainment with mentorship, and curriculum with life lessons. Before that, I taught in a boarding high school, tutored gifted and talented kids in a tiny rural elementary school, ran a before-school program, and did public demonstrations at a science museum.

And before that, I was a dropout. And before that, I was a goofball, who needed a little good advice now and then, but couldn’t really sit still long enough in the classroom to make any teacher want to defend me.

But Mrs. Carter liked me, though I don’t know why. The way she looked at me – like I had something worth watching for – made up for the fact that I was always the understudy when we were picked for the school play, always the alternate for work with the poet in residence. I learned to rise to the occasion, and to focus on doing things well, instead of doing things best; I gained confidence in my abilities. And though after that year, I turned back into the goofball for a good long time, I never forgot Mrs. Carter. And I never forgot that look.

It’s a well-kept secret in educational circles that it isn’t just the good kids, or the smart kids who get voted “most likely to be a teacher”, who come back to school to sit on the other side of the desk (or in my case, to stand atop the desk and gesticulate wildly to make a point). We come from all the cliques, from the woodshop wannabes to the cheerleading squad, from the lit mag proto-hipsters to the band geeks. But I can’t think of any teacher I have ever spoken with who is not honored and thrilled and genuinely surprised when that rare student comes out of the woodwork to say “you mattered, and now I matter.”

A few years back, at a five year reunion, this kid came up to me, and thanked me. He said I was the one who changed his life; that now he was doing what I had taught him to do, and hardly a week went by where he didn’t think about what I had taught him.

And I looked at him, and smiled, and was secretly joyous. But all I could think about was that this kid was the goofball. The one who was always pushing the envelope. The one who messed around in film class, though he always came through with something pretty cool when the work was due. The one who spliced thirty second of a shower scene from a Penthouse video into his remade music video for Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher. And showed it on the day the Academic Dean came to observe me in my first year of teaching.

And then I remembered Mrs. Carter. And I thought about calling her up, and thanking her. But Mrs. Carter isn’t around anymore.

If Jeffrey Foucault was a teacher, he'd look like thisThere are surprisingly few songs about the teaching profession which portray it in a positive light (though there are a couple of other memorable songs out there about teachers as sex objects, such as Police classic Don’t Stand So Close To Me and Rufus Wainwright’s The Art Teacher); of these, fewer still have been covered by folk artists. More common are songs about school as a part of adolescent or childhood experience — songs where the teachers are there, unmentioned, just hovering in the background. But as a teacher myself, I know that no classroom feels safe unless the teacher has set a tone that makes it safe. Even without mention, as long as curriculum and classroom exist, a teacher is always there.

Today, then, in celebration of National Teacher Appreciation Week (USA), we bring you a set of quirky covers of teachersongs, and some schoolsongs which touch lightly and broadly on our experience of the classroom, that childhood stew of fear and freedom where our personalities were transformed.

Together, the songs make a perfect soundtrack to a google search for that one special teacher who reached out and changed your life. Write the letter, send the email, make the call: let them know they made a difference today. You don’t even have to say thanks — just letting them know that you remember them, and that you turned out okay, is a rare and precious reward.

See also: Kate and Anna McGarrigle cover Loudon Wainwright III’s Schooldays

793 comments » | Art Garfunkel, Bree Sharp, cry cry cry, David Wilcox, Fionn Regan, Jack Johnson, James Taylor, Luther Wright, Mark Erelli, Matt Nathanson, Paul Simon, Petty Booka

Double Feature Folk: Bill Morrissey Covers Mississippi John Hurt

November 14th, 2007 — 08:34 am

In rare cases, a performer goes beyond the traditional one-song cover approach to cover a full set of an artist’s catalog. At their best, from Jennifer Warnes’ full album of Leonard Cohen songs to Billy Bragg and Wilco’s reinterpretation of the works of Woody Guthrie, such devoted efforts to reimagine a whole body of work go beyond mere song interpretations to cast new light on a deserving talent.

We call it Double Feature Folk — a case of featuring an artist who is himself featuring another — and we start today with Bill Morrissey’s 1999 tribute to the Songs of Mississippi John Hurt.

Mississippi John Hurt was one of those classic early blues artists from the days of Lomax and Leadbelly. Lost for years with but two mid-depression pressings to his name, he was tracked down in his twilight through a song reference to his hometown of Avalon, and given a few shining years in the sun — including a set at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival — as a revered elder statesman of the country blues before his death in 1966.

When he released his Songs of Mississippi John Hurt in 1999, Bill Morrissey was himself an elder statesman of the Fast Folk folk scene. Morrissey had cut his teeth on the blues, finding a balance between the New York folk scene of the sixties one one side, and the early lo-lo-fi sounds of Hurt and his country contemporaries on the other. Ten Grammy nominations later, he was known for having forged a unique brand of laconic early alt-americana focused on the milltown depression that hit his native New England in the late seventies and eighties.

So why a full album of Mississippi John Hurt songs? Hurt’s greatest hits were in no real danger of getting lost — this is a man whose early version of Stagger Lee is considered definitive. Instead, it seems likely that, even as folk and blues seemed to be giving way to the post-grunge and lo-fi indie movements of the late nineties, Hurt himself was starting to be forgotten.

For Morrissey, who attributed his right hand work “purely” to his discovery and subsequent embrace of the blues stylings of Mississippi John Hurt, this must have been a tragedy. Here was the antithesis of the Delta blues — a man who, in Morrissey’s words, was “elegantly melodic and funny” — and all that he was remembered for was a few old chestnuts he had made his own.

Reminding the growing fourth-wave folk community of its roots while pulling Hurt’s less iconic songs back together under his name seems, in this light, almost a noble ambition on Morrissey’s behalf. In celebrating those roots — the bouncy, playful blues lyric, the acoustic blues fingerplay — Morrissey redefined post-blues folk, a group which would include equally playful and lighthearted contemporaries Greg Brown and Chris Smither, just in time for a new generation of artists such as Peter Mulvey and Jeffrey Foucault.

And it works, too. Morrissey’s creaky, almost anti-melodic vocal style lends itself well to the surprisingly sweet songs of this iconic sharecropper. His eclectic acoustic arrangements bring horn, harmonica, and harmony without making these songs anything but lighthearted and fun.

Today, three tunes from Morrissey’s tribute to Mississippi John Hurt — plus a whole mess of covers, both by and of Morrissey and Hurt — which showcase the startling commonality of voice, perception, and style between two half-forgotten A-listers of their respective musical generations.

  • Bill Morrissey, I’m Satisfied (Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Bill Morrissey, Louis Collins (Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Bill Morrissey, Funky Butt (Mississippi John Hurt)

Bill Morrissey’s entire awardwinning catalog, including the fifteen-track Songs of Mississippi John Hurt, is available directly from Rounder Records. Mississippi John Hurt tracks are available on practically every good blues compilation, but all good bluesfans should have at least one copy of the Complete Studio Recordings of Mississippi John Hurt box set.

Today’s bonus Bill Morrissey coversongs:

And today’s bonus Mississippi John Hurt coversongs:

Don’t forget to come back Sunday for a very special feature on up-and-coming indiefolkster Sam Amidon, including covers of Tears for Fears, some souped-up traditional americana, and more Mississippi John Hurt!

659 comments » | Bill Morrisey, Devil in a Woodpile, Double Feature Folk, Greg Brown, Leadbelly, Lucy Kaplansky, Mark Erelli, Mississippi John Hurt, MuleboneUK, The Rolling Stones