Category: Mike and Ruthy

(Re)Covered: Rising Stars
Arborea, Sam Billen, Mike and Ruthy

May 1st, 2010 — 05:51 am

The newest twigs and branches of the folk movement are still growing strong, if this month’s inbox is any indication – and that’s a very good thing, indeed. So today, for our regular weekend feature, we present news about a set of relatively new, relatively young artists that we’ve posted about before, making them ineligible for inclusion in our regular New Artists, Old Songs feature series…but perfect for a particularly focused edition of (Re)Covered.

A majestic set came in last week from Arborea, a Maine-based indiefolk duo who I’m dying to see live. We’ve pushed the echoey, delicate, almost nufolk sound of Shanti and Buck Curran in the midst of several features, most recently for their work as part of last year’s excellent Odetta tribute from Wears The Trousers, but never truly written about their work alone. But these stunning new recordings force my hand: “spooky” and “shimmering”, inviting further comparison with the work of Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, Sandy Denny, Devandra Banhardt, and Sam Amidon, and with the birdsong tones and woodsy atmosphere of their rural origin.

Today’s trifecta, sent along on the tailwinds of their most recent release House of Sticks, aptly represents the fine balance between tradition and experimental delicacy which we’ve come to expect of Arborea. The two whole tracks – a Tim Buckley cover recorded at SXSW which will appear on their next studio recording, and a video from a February house concert in France which mixes an Arborea original with familiar Led Zeppelin and Dylan tunes – maintain the etherial tones of their studio sound, demonstrating once again that the raw, organic delicacy of their early work is neither fluke nor parlor trick.

There’s also a frustratingly partial halftrack sample from We Are All One, In The Sun, an upcoming tribute to American Primitive artist Robbie Basho, curated by Buck and featuring tracks from Meg Baird, Helen Espvall, and others, which – despite containing Basho-influenced originals as well as several covers – nonetheless joins an ongoing dead heat for the top spot in my list of this year’s tributes and compilations. And, as a bonus, I’ve included both of the Arborea tracks we’ve posted here before. Listen, and be transported.

  • Arborea: Phantasmagoria In Two (orig. Tim Buckley)

    (unreleased, 2009)

Bonus Tracks:

Way on the other end of the sound spectrum, Kansas singer-songwriter Sam Billen – whose “achingly fragile” version of Auld Lang Syne we posted at the New Year – has recently added two more tracks to REMOVERs, an ongoing covers and remixes project “of songs that influence [his] music” which he’s been producing in his home studio in and among the various stresses and joys of new fatherhood, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Trusting any artist’s listed influences can be a challenge in the catch-’em-all world of MySpace and promotional soundalike set-ups; it’s hard enough to know what to make of artists who cite folk, rock, and techno all at once, let alone those who, like Sam, include Todd Rundgren and The Yellow Magic Orchestra on their list, and yet come out with sparse, gentle, well-curated folk albums for the holidays. But whether you find yourself familiar with the modern indie alt-rock namedropping or just shake your head at the names listed for the coming project, there’s something both unifying and unified about this set, and it’s not just how Billen makes these songs sound right in his own voice and modality.

As you might expect from the premise, much of the sound on this album bleeds past the boundaries of electrofolk into a kind of gentle-beat DJ fare, hypnotic and chilled. But Billen’s relatively sparse treatment on tracks such as The Republic Tigers’ Made Concrete and his fuzzed-out remix of Capybara’s The Wimp come off perfectly balanced between the post-folk work of Sufjan Stevens and the electroindie moodmusic of The Postal Service. And sure enough, in apt acknowledgement of those influences, the series – which to date contains six tracks, all available for stream and download perfectly gratis via The Record Machine – includes covers of both artists. His take on Sufjan is a personal favorite, a deliciously etherial boundary-crossing dreamscape built from hoarse harmonies, bells, banjo, and just the right touch of electronic interference. Check it out, and don’t forget to pick up his previous albums, too – both the all-acoustic Tokyo Sessions EP and his most recent full-length Headphones and Cellphones, while vastly different, come highly recommended.

Bonus Track:

In other news: Folk Rock has always been a bit tricky to define on this side of the Atlantic Ocean; outside of the traditional grounding of the British Isles, most modern electrified music with a solid beat comes in categorized as just-plain-rock of one sort or another, and sure enough, hearing Mike and Ruthy‘s 2008 original I’m Going To Get My Baby Out Of Jail on this morning’s radio was more like a fresh blast from some delicious combination of the Velvet Underground and Cowboy Junkies than anything – and a far cry from the sometimes delicate, sometimes rootsy acoustic folk sound which has previously characterized the bulk of their work as a duo, as solo artists, and as members of The Mammals.

Which reminded me that Mike and Ruthy, who we first featured within a substantive post on Ruth’s work in various guises, are currently raising funds via Kickstarter to release their newest and upcoming album Million To One – which, judging from the album cover, the Kickstarter video, and the album description on their webpage, is bound to continue their move towards a broad redefinition of the American folk rock sound. Nothing new to post, yet – the album is recorded, but no tracks have been released – but with the recent decision to close our archives, it’s a good time to repost some older favorites from the married ex-Mammals, in the hopes that it will help spur donations to the cause…all of which come with the usual goodies, rewards, and extras, as good micro-finance models should.

1,213 comments » | (Re)Covered, Arborea, Mike and Ruthy, Sam Billen

Ruth Ungar Merenda Covers: Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Richard Thompson, Nico & more!

June 7th, 2008 — 09:05 pm

In the early days of Cover Lay Down, I spent some time covering the emergence of artists like Teddy Thompson, Rufus Wainwright, and Sam Amidon, all new voices who walked in the footsteps of folksinger parents; more recently, we heard Neill MacColl, son of Ewan and half-sister of Kirsty, in duet with Kathryn Williams, and Ben Taylor as a tagalong in discussion of the life work of his father James.

This may seem like a high percentage of “folk kids” for a blog that’s only been around since September. But stepping back and looking around, we see that the prevalence of second generation musicians in Cover Lay Down is not so far off from the natural order of things in the world of folk music.

And if the idea of folk music as a family business is not so uncommon, then I suspect much of this has to do with the kind of work that musicmaking is — after all, the artistic muse isn’t one which takes place solely outside of the household, and can be left at the office each evening. As we alluded to in our recent exploration of folk musicians who are also mothers, as an art form and a vocational practice, the work of folk is something which permeates home life.

Some forms of folk, like some forms of music, are more open to family performance, of course. In the contradance and traditional folk music worlds, especially, performance is very often something which happens in households and community halls, with families and children; proportionally, you see more kids on (or near) stages in dance performance than you do in latenight singer-songwriter coffeehouses. Sam Amidon grew up in a household like this, where music took place as a daily and family activity, and performance was more often mid-afternoon than anything else. And the family atmosphere which permeated the McGarrigle/Wainwright household is famous for bringing forth Rufus and sister Martha Wainwright as musicians of confidence in their own right.

Someday soon, I hope to tackle the phenomenon of three-generational folk families which have their roots in the early American folk resurgence of the fifties and sixties, such as that of Woody, Arlo, and Sarah Lee Guthrie, or the performing careers of the Seeger family, including Pete Seeger’s grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger, who performed as part of The Mammals with today’s featured artist until the band went on its recent hiatus. But such massive undertakings are for cooler, more comfortable days than today’s high humidity heat wave. Instead, today, we look at another folk performer who grew up in not one but two households of folk musicians, and has since struck out on her own. Ladies and gentlemen: the various folk incarnations of Ruth Ungar Merenda.

For a young folk musician, fiddle and uke player and vocalist Ruth Ungar Merenda has gone through a surprisingly large amount of performing groups and incarnations. Starting off as a childhood sidegirl determined not to follow in the footsteps of her mother, luthier and singer-songwriter Lyn Hardy, and her father Jay Ungar, who with Ruthy’s stepmother Molly Mason is a staple of the New England contradance and fiddlefolk revivals, Ruth headed off to Bard College, and from there to NYC, where she tried to make a go of it as an actress.

But as with so many second generation musicians, it seems the music was in her blood. By her mid-twenties Ruthy had drifted back to the fold, making appearances throughout New England as part of the family bands. In 2002, with the production support of Jay and Molly, Ruthy released Jukebox, a sprawling solo album which tackled a few originals and a bunch of early country and jazz classics with powerful but still slightly immature vocals over a delicate old-timey charm and acoustic swing production. Though the album showed diverse influences, and would have probably done well in the track-by-track promotional model of today’s blogworld, back then it sold no more than a handful of copies.

Luckily, even before she released her solo disk, Ruthy had found a different outlet for her sound, joining up with a few other younger folks, including fellow second-gen songwriter Tao Rodriguez Seeger and singer-songwriter Michael Merenda to become The Mammals. And this time, people started to listen.

The Mammals emerged in the midst of a young person’s newgrass revival, finding fame alongside similarly female-voiced bluegrass and folkgrass acts such as Uncle Earl and Crooked Still. As fiddler and the sole female voice of the Mammals, Ruthy found herself front and center plenty; she also began to play with others backstage at festivals, and occasionally showed up with a few other women from those aforementioned groups in side projects and sidestages, even recording a slightly racy album with her compatriots Aoife O’Donovan (of Crooked Still) and Kristin Andreassen (of Uncle Earl) as the trio Sometymes Why after a successful jam session in a festival parking lot.

I was lucky enough to see the Mammals several times in their few years together as an active performing group, both as a solo act and in tandem with Canadian-based folk group the Duhks (their performance together was billed as Platypus, as in Duhks+Mammals, which is just too cute). I liked the sound an awful lot, and I think their early release Evolver was a masterpiece of modern traditional folk rock. But seeing them in concert in their last year of performance, you could tell there was a hint of something in the air, just a faint unease in the way they clustered in threes and twos, rather than as a full ensemble, as if that there were some differences of opinion about what the “right” sound for the Mammals was supposed to be.

These days, in fact, The Mammals are “hibernating” while their members pursue solo projects; for Ruthy and Michael Merenda, now performing as Mike and Ruthy, these projects included marriage, which came with a very generous wedding present of studio time and production for an album. The result was The Honeymoon Agenda, a complete set of originals and well-chosen cover songs which run the musical gamut from the urgent yet delicate one-guitar duet sound of Tom Waits cover Long Way Home to a surprisingly countrified version of the Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror to a grungy production-laden folkpop that rivals the best work of Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield or Mary Lou Lord and Elliott Smith, or more recently, Signature Sounds indierockers the Winterpills — that latter being unsurprising, since it was the Winterpills’ producer who gave the duo the generous gift.

This newest incarnation of Ruthy’s collaborative work is a far cry from the bouncy, almost renaissance sound of the contradance she grew up with, and it seems to have replaced the acoustic folk-slash-newgrass jam session sound of the Mammals work with a more intimate studio sound. Nor is it truly a return to the country swing-influenced singer-songwriter sound of her earliest solo work. Instead, though the record ultimately still shows an evolving artist in flux, it shows much more potential, in many more directions than before. It is lo-fi, but confident and mature in a way that Ruthy’s first solo work only hinted at. And, as in all Ruthy’s previous work, there is an energy and an honesty here which is well-served by her perpetual sense of whirlwind glee in making music, regardless of the style or subgenre.

But why take my word for it? Here’s a few coversongs from each of these three major phases of Ruth Ungar’s adult career thus far, so you can hear her musical journey for yourself.

The Honeymoon Agenda is available from various artist-friendly sources, including CD Baby; for digital downloads, I highly recommend Amie Street, where the entire album is currently available for download for six bucks, but where, due to their snowballing scale, song prices will continue to rise as others find Mike and Ruthy’s music. (Bonus: when you arrive at Amie Street, sign up for an account, and enter the code “coverlaydown” for a three dollar discount!)

The Sometymes Why album appears to include no covers, but it, too, has some great ragged moments. And all five of the Mammals albums, Ruth Ungar’s single solo album, and hubby Michael Merenda’s solo works are all worth checking out, too.

If you’re up for some live music, and live in the NY/NE area, Mike and Ruthy will also be appearing at several folk festivals in the American Northeast this summer, including the always amazing Clearwater Festival and Revival on June 21 and 22, and New Bedford Summerfest in the first week of July, which I’ve never attended but very much hope to make it to this year; their tour schedule has more. And for those who are willing to make the trip, experimental folk trio Sometymes Why will be at Bonnaroo next week. In full, it’s an exceptionally busy schedule for any performer, let alone one who became a mother on January 28 of this year. Given Ruthy’s own irresistible pull towards the musicworld, I’m confident that we can expect to see little William performing alongside Mama, Daddy, Grandma Lyn, and Grandpa Jay before long.

Today’s bonus coversongs offer a taste of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason’s typical contra-slash-swingfolk sound, as a roundabout way of exploring the deeper roots of Ruth Ungar’s musical journey.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • The Mammals (and many others) cover tradfolk tune The House Carpenter

  • 79 comments » | Compay Segundo, Hank Williams, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Mike and Ruthy, Nico, Richard Thompson, Ruth Ungar Merenda, The Mammals, Tom Waits