Category: Nickel Creek

Chris Thile covers:
Josh Ritter, Jack White, Pavement, Wilco, Bach, Bob Dylan, U2 & more!

October 18th, 2012 — 12:07 am

By definition, receiving the MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant always comes as a surprise: candidates for the five year, no-strings-attached award are nominated through a secretive and anonymous process, and most tend not to know they have even been nominated until that call comes the day of the announcement. The five-year award, for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances” is a bit like a Nobel Prize for general awesomeness, socio-culturally speaking, and those who win come from myriad fields: geriatricians, filmmakers, authors, historians, and social services innovators all find themselves eligible, and their ages range, in an average year, from under 30 to over 60.

But if evidence were needed to substantiate their selection criteria, class of 2012 MacArthur Fellow Chris Thile is ample enough in and of himself. Thile is only 31, but those of us who have been watching him since his adolescent emergence on the scene would be hard pressed to consider a worthier recipient of the half a million dollars that come to those named by the MacArthur foundation.

A major player in the progressive acoustic movement – his award cites him as “a young mandolin virtuoso and composer whose lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass with elements from a range of other musical traditions is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music” – Thile grew up in the midst of music; his father was an instrument technician, and the family started playing together with the Watkins family as Nickel Creek when Thile was eight, and cut his first solo album with major bluegrass label Sugar Hill at twelve.

With Thile, the band would go on to record five albums: though the first two are impossible to find, the melodic newgrass of Nickel Creek’s turn-of-the-century work was a natural pull for our ears, and we’re proud to say we saw them before their self-titled “debut” – featuring a redefined progressive trio sound, and produced by Alison Krauss – emerged in 2000. The jazz fusion and pop elements of Nickel Creek are as self evident as they are prototypical of the form; their unique sound led to full-band collaborations with Dolly Parton, Darol Anger, Glen Phillips (as Mutual Admiration Society), and more, and paved the way for an explosion of acoustic fusion music which continues in the bluegrass, indie, and folkworlds today.

Nickel Creek put out their last album in 2006; Sara and Sean Watkins have since found their own niches, both as collaborators and solo artists, and we’ve posted their more recent work here before. But since a time long before their dissolution, Thile’s work has been legion: solo albums that range from melodic pop to bouncy bluegrass; cross-genre collaborative work with bassist Edgar Meyer, cellist Yo Yo Ma, fiddler Mark O’Connor, banjo master Bela Fleck, and a veritable host of others; a mandolin concerto entitled Ad astra per alas porci which was commissioned jointly by over a half dozen orchestras internationally. His work with Brooklyn-based high tenor and bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves, which culminated in a 2011 album, has been an exemplary example of the early country duo form, demonstrating how closely and capably he hews to his roots. And, more recently, as heard thrice over in our recent 50-song tribute to Thom Yorke and company, his crossover band Punch Brothers, which combines accessible indiepop with the rhythmic underpinnings and instrumentation of bluegrass and jam fusion forms, has been a major vehicle for his continued evolution.

Throughout, Thile has pushed the envelope of what the mandolin can do, musically speaking, taking on Radiohead songs, traditional work, original compositions, and classical variations with equal skill and whimsy. His newest EP with Punch Brothers, which drops in mid-November, will feature covers of Gillian Welch, among others; below, dip into a mixed bag of coverage from Thile in his various incarnations and team-ups over a scant decade and a half span, culminating in the sweeping pace and majesty of the Punch Brothers’ brand new, haunting, crystal-clear take on Josh Ritter’s Another New World below, and then heard on over to their website to preorder Ahoy! and receive a download of the track as an early bonus.

  • Punch Brothers: Another New World (orig. Josh Ritter) [2012]

Looking for more coverage from Chris Thile?

1 comment » | Chris Thile, Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers

Glen Phillips Covers:
Huey Lewis, Van Morrison, The Beatles, Bjork, Gillian Welch + more
…plus new and old collaborative covers with Sean and Sara Watkins!

September 20th, 2009 — 05:41 pm

Glen Phillips made a name for himself as founding frontman for Toad The Wet Sprocket, a high school rock band made good; if you’re a child of the eighties like myself, or just a fan of retro alt-rock radio, you’ve heard his distinctive voice plenty of times, most notably on cultural staple Walk On The Ocean. Indeed, my own personal experience with the artist, now pushing forty, is restricted to a single lawn-seat glimpse at a mid-nineties H.O.R.D.E. festival, an event most memorable for being the first and last rock concert which I was able to convince the girl who would become my wife to attend.

But though Toad broke up before the turn of the century, this is no “where are they now” retrospective. For the past decade, the singer-songwriter with the distinctively strained voice and an ear for wry hook-laden songs has been busy pursuing his craft in other venues, drifting from label to label, releasing solo works and collaborations at a relatively frequent rate, and covering a broad set of tunes in concert and beyond. (For example, his Beatles cover, which you’ll find below along with several live covers, comes from an excellent all-Beatles-cover soundtrack to the truly awful 2009 Eddie Murphy vehicle Imagine That.) And although not all of Phillips’ output is legitimately folk, the vast bulk of it is singer-songwritery stuff, and it’s all good.

Glen Phillips’ three solo albums have veered from the full-blown singer-songwriter pop of his debut Abulum to the more Toad-like production of both faster and more atmospheric tracks on his incredible sophomore Lost Highway release Winter Pays for Summer, and back to both styles for his fluid, dynamic 2006 masterpiece Mr. Lemons — it says everything it needs to that I have favorites on all of them, and that each of those favorites fits a different mood. Though diverse, each album comes across as authentic, melodic, strong, and thoughtful: a rarity, in a world where most artists go through some sort of slump in their solo careers, and overall a powerful package indeed.

Phillips’ most notable collaboration, especially for folk fans, is an ongoing partnership with Sean and Sara Watkins, founding members of Nickel Creek and – like Phillips, Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, and a strong group of other musicians – regulars at L.A.’s Largo. In 2004, this partnership came to fruition with Mutual Admiration Society, a lighthearted, folkpop-meets-bluegrass album originally recorded in 2000 with all three members of Nickel Creek, and eventually released on the Sugar Hill label. I discovered the project last year in my local library, and, finding that it exists predominantly under the cultural radar, have worked tirelessly to spread the love to friends and neighbors ever since.

(Total aside: Bonus points to M.A.S. for featuring live Nickel Creek and Watkins-led covers of both the Jackson 5 hit I Want You Back and Britney Spears’ Toxic on their MySpace page; we’ve featured both Sara & Nickel Creek here previously, so I’ll let y’all head over there on your own to pick up these tracks.)

This week, the collaboration continues, and the task of promoting Glen Phillips, both solo and with the talented Watkins siblings, gets a heck of a lot easier with the release of a new project called Works Progress Administration — starring Glen, Sean, Sara, fiddler Luke Bulla, and members of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Elvis Costello and the Imposters, all from the Largo scene. Most of the tunes were penned by Phillips, and though Sean’s straining to hit the high notes in a few places, that songwriting, plus incredible musicianship and strong harmonies, has resulted in an absolutely stellar set of songs well worth the purchase price. Check out the Kinks cover from that album below, order the whole thing here, and then check out this full set of Glen Phillips coverfolk to whet your whistle while you wait for Phillips and friends to bring the WPA tour to your town.

What, you’re still here? Seriously, you people. Go buy WPA, and then, if you haven’t already, pick up the Glen Phillips back catalog. Or, if nothing else, head over to his webpage and click on the donate button.

After all, as I pointed out to some cheeseball who wanted to pay me to promote their artists just this afternoon, Cover Lay Down is proudly non-profit, avidly pro-artist, and fully supportive of the peer-to-peer recommendation and promotion model which characterizes music blogs at their best.

Which is to say: our love is not for sale. But Glen Phillips’ work is, and it’s well worth the price.

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Mutual Admiration Society cover Elliott Smith’s Between the Bars live in some parking lot after a show.

979 comments » | Glen Phillips, Nickel Creek

Covered in Folk: Harry Nilsson (Covers from Marc Cohn, Steve Forbert, Glen Phillips and more!)

October 15th, 2008 — 10:00 pm

My interest in Harry Nilsson came through coversong, most specifically 1995 covers album For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson, which I picked up when it was new in order to gain access to otherwise-unavailable rarities from Marc Cohn, Aimee Mann, and a solid roster of other perfectly tuned oddities (like, say, Fred Schneider of the B-52s doing a pitch-perfect version of Coconut, or the infamous nasal harmonies of The Roches applied to a space-age Spaceman). Purchasing the album was a revelation: here was a set of tunes that were all strangely familiar, yet I had never realized that they were all from the same guy. For the rest of my life, a huge set of the songs in the very air of modern American culture would have new relevance to me — which is to say, Nilsson’s work remained ubiquitous as it had always been, but this time, when I heard his songs, I knew how to connect them.

Nilsson is best known in the world of cover collectors for his incredible cover of Beatles classic You Can’t Do That, which combines bits and pieces from 22 other songs from the Beatles catalog, and for his definitive version of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’, which appeared in the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy, and would later be covered by dozens of others, far too often erroneously attributed to Nilsson himself. His voice is familiar to Western culture due to an almost unprecedented turn as a composer for and song contributor to over fifty film and television soundtracks, from the theme song to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father to the entirety of the songs written for the sorely disappointing Robin Williams/Shelley Long vehicle Popeye. You may have also seen his oddly endearing 1971 made-for-TV morality play and kidproject The Point in your own childhood, as I did; Nilsson claims he had the idea for the project while on acid, and it shows.

But Nilsson was more than just a soundtrack and novelty song guy. A highly prolific and versatile artist in the sixties and seventies, Nilsson released twenty albums between 1962 and 1980, when illness and exhaustion, coupled with the death of his friend John Lennon, drove him away from the studio. He was an incredible songsmith, as his high coverage speaks to; he had a way with a tune, and an ability to speak wistfully yet wryly about cultural alienation through finely honed lyrics floated upon a full wash of rich, orchestrated sound. Discovering his work has been a joy. Knowing that I have only hit the tip of the iceberg is even more wonderful.

Despite high pop culture credibility and two Grammy Awards, it is generally believed that Nilsson’s tendency towards constant reinvention and vast shifts in musical style throughout his career kept him from the recognition that he truly deserved. But over a decade after his death, a quick peruse of the blogosphere reveals that Nilsson continues to have a huge fan base among audiophiles, many of whom believe that his true genius was criminally underrated throughout a highly productive career pushing the envelope of sound and sarcasm, irreverence and grandiose instrumentation. Tellingly, Lennon, who shared Nilsson’s disdain for commercialism, was also a fan; in turn, I’ve heard bloggers I trust refer to Nilsson’s work as “Beatles-esque”, and though I’m not the hugest Beatles fan, I can see what they mean. And any musician who had his work included in High Fidelity — which is, after all, about music with a high credibility factor — automatically gets counted as one of the best of the underrated bunch.

I didn’t grow up with Nilsson in the house; as such, I owe a huge debt to the musicians I love and the blogosphere at large for my increasing fandom of Nilsson, who not only helped me put a name to this culturally ubiquitous voice, but taught me that there was more to this artist than soundtracks, misattribution, and “put the lime in the coconut”. As thanks and in tribute to the power of iconoclasts everywhere, here’s some of my favorite folk-tinged Harry Nilsson covers, from the great, lazy jazzgrass jams of Glen Phillips and Nickel Creek side project Mutual Admiration Society to Steve Forbert’s torn, wistful take on The Moonbeam Song.

Welsh popfolkie and early Apple recording artist Mary Hopkin takes an orchestrated turn on The Puppy Song, while a previously-posted Victoria Williams deconstructs the song into something playfully delicate and warbly; Marc Cohn croons Turn on Your Radio as a slow, inimitable blues with soulful vocals and a Nilsson-esque wash of sound. Canadian folkie Reid Jamieson‘s lovely, lighthearted solo acoustic take on Nilsson obscurity Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore alone is worth the price of admission. The Asylum Street Spankers are their ragged, irreverent selves, bringing an eerie saw and some doo-wop vocals to an acoustic Think About Your Troubles off their children’s album Mommy Says No. And who could resist the indie folkrock of The Format to top things off? Enjoy.

As always, our inclusion of links to the above artists’ stores and homepages should be taken as a tacit urge to support the continued creation of artistic genius in our culture by buying music, directly from the artist wherever possible. Which is to say: buying this stuff from the musicians justifies our existence, and theirs, so do it.

What, more? I was tempted to drop a long list of covers of Everybody’s Talkin’ here to serve as today’s bonus coversongs, but we’ll save that for a future Single Song Sunday. Instead, I’m going to suggest that, as with many prolific artists who treat musical output as an avenue for genre exploration, Harry Nilsson’s diverse output includes more than a few tracks which reflect the trope and stripped down sound of modern folk, even if they are ultimately best classified as classic radio poprock in context. Here’s a few covers from Nilsson’s lighter side.

Cover Lay Down publishes new content Wednesdays, Sundays, and sometimes Fridays.

1,092 comments » | Asylum Street Spankers, Glen Phillips, Harry Nilsson, Marc Cohn, Mary Hopkin, Nickel Creek, Reid Jamieson, Steve Forbert, The Format, Victoria Williams

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 5: Barnyard Tunes and Critter Songs for Cool Moms and Dads

June 11th, 2008 — 09:01 am

I grew up in the suburbs, where wildlife was scarce, though we had our share of squirrels and birds, and the occasional rabbit sighting in the backyard. When we wanted to see larger animals, we generally headed out to Drumlin Farm, a working farm run by the Audubon Society, where caged birds of prey lined the path to the chick hatchery, the pigs and sheep gave birth every spring, and you could always spot the queen in the glass-lined, thin-sliced beehive, if you looked long enough. There was a pond, too, for crawdad spotting. Well worth the membership, and the half hour drive.

These days, we live in the country, where turkeys congregate around corners year round, and the neighborhood dogs roam aimlessly throughout our lives. Round these rural parts, Spring brings a whole mess of animals into the yard, from the new baby robins that nest in our holly bush to the frogs, toads, and salamanders that scatter when the kids run through the tall grass and hollows. On weekends, it’s a five minute jaunt through the woods to the dam and its shady, overgrown waterways, where turtles, ducks, and beavers play in the water, and the fish practically jump on the hooks the moment we throw our lines in.

On hot days, we head up the hill to Westview Farm, where the new baby goats skitter up and down the concrete barriers, butting heads and bleating; in the evenings, the mother cow in the grazing field across from our driveway lows to her new calf. This year, the neighborhood has even been graced by a family of foxes; we haven’t seen the mother and her kits yet, but the father runs past our windows and down into the growing darkness just about every day towards suppertime.

The world of kidsong is chock full of songs about animals, and for obvious reasons. A healthy child’s life is full of nature, and nature is full of life. Too, the developing awareness of what it means to be alive, and be part of a world full of other things that are alive, is an important part of child development; songs which portray the various relationships we have with animals — both wild and domesticated — help prepare us to think deliberately about our world, and our place in it, as we grow up to become parents of our own.

Today, in service to this aspect of development, we present a sprawling collection of animal coversongs from my growing kidfolk cache. Most predate the phenomenon of song authorship. And with artists such as Tim O’Brien, Nickel Creek, Garcia/Grisman, and Seldom Scene lead singer Phil Rosenthal on the list, the set skews towards the bluegrass, but I make no apologies for this; it is only very recently, with the advent of the NYC indie bluegrass scene, that bluegrass has begun to leave behind it’s associations with rural community and farmlife, and this makes it good solid folk music in my book.

But regardless of origin, as with all previous entries in our Covered in Kidfolk series, the point here is to provide a respite from the cheesy, cloying pap that passes for mainstream children’s music, that we might — as cool moms and dads — stay true to ourselves while providing our children with music that befits their age, and their emotional and developmental needs. I think this particular set hits the mark admirably. Whether these songs speak of the swamp or the barnyard, the woods or the stream, each is wonderful, in both the usual sense and in the older sense of the word: full of the wonder which we should nurture in every child, and in ourselves.

As always, folks, links above go to label- and artist-preferred sources for purchase, not some faceless and inorganic megastore. If you like what you hear, buy, and buy local, to help preserve the little spaces, for the little people you love.

295 comments » | Buckwheat Zydeco, David Grisman, Elizabeth Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, John McCutcheon, Kidfolk, Laurie Berkner, Nickel Creek, Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, Taj Mahal, Tim O'Brien, Townes van Zandt

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

Single Song Sunday: House Carpenter (Natalie Merchant, Nickel Creek, Roger McGuinn, Tim O’Brien)

January 6th, 2008 — 07:51 pm

It’s been some week here at Cover Lay Down. Features on popular singer-songwriters Billy Bragg and Paul Simon brought us to the top of the charts at musicblog aggregator The Hype Machine and a linkback from New York magazine’s Vulture blog. On Friday, almost 900 of you visited the site, a new record; download tracking shows that many of you came in for one song, but stuck around to try something new. Welcome, kudos, and thanks for validating our goals here at Cover Lay Down.

But a slow day at home and a new branch of our local library system got me thinking about our roots, both as a folk blog and as community members. Popular artists and indieacts may have got you here, but there’s more to folk music than the indiefolk and Grammy winners of the last decades. Above all, it is our goal at Cover Lay Down to broaden your horizons, even while we serve your existing biases and favorites.

Today, we return to our roots for the fourth in our very popular Single Song Sunday series with a feature on Child Ballad #243 in the canonical collection of British folk ballads, a song more commonly known as House Carpenter.

Habitat for HumanityThey’re building one of those Habitat for Humanity houses in our town, just along the main road, out past the edge of what counts for downtown in these rural one-bar parts. A few weeks ago our local church helped make lunch for the crew — chili and cornbread, the kind of early winter comfort food that can be soaked up quickly, and keeps the fires going for hours. I wasn’t there, but the story goes that they had plenty of leftovers, primarily due to the fact that the workforce that day was a group of local college girls, doing their community service. The girls ate all the clementines, though. I guess we made the food with heartier carpenters in mind.

The 18th Century folk ballad House Carpenter, officially titled either James Harris or Demon Lover, isn’t about hope, or new beginnings. Quite the opposite. It’s a morality play, in which a woman is tempted by a finer life with an old flame, gives in, leaves her new little babe in the care of her carpenter husband, regrets it too late, and drowns for her sins. It’s about the perils of choosing style over substance; it’s about the consequences of valuing speed and beauty over community and commitment. Like our Habitat for Humanity project, it’s not about house carpenters: it’s about the girls who showed up to be house carpenters, and the church making lunch; a reminder of the value of all who help make a house, a home, a community.

That authenticity is hard to come by in the world today is an oft-repeated trope in folk music; it is the universality of the sentiment, as much as the plaintive beauty of House Carpenter’s simple tune, which explains why the song continues to find voice in each new generation of folksinger. In some ways, it’s frustrating to find that the message is still needed, hundreds of years after it was first found necessary. But the house goes up, nonetheless. Looks like it’s going to be a cosy place, too.

Work on our local Habitat house seems to have been put on pause for the winter. The girls who came that day to help have gone back to their lives with a new entry for their graduate school applications and, hopefully, a true sense of having participated in something selfless and pride-worthy. May their lots and ours be better than the lot of our alternate-verse narrator, who sinks and goes to hell for one bad decision. If their work on the house is any indication, they’re already headed for a better life.

Unlike Rain and Snow, the emotion of this oft-covered song is set in the lyrics; as such, most interpretations aim for a melancholic delivery. But as today’s featured artists demonstrate, there’s a wide potential for instrumentation and tone, even within a limited emotional range.

The fast-paced storyteller’s banjo on Pete Seeger and Clarence Ashley’s ancient versions creates a tension which serves the piece equally, if differently, from the languid brushstrokes, etherial harmonies and skeletal bass of The Tami Show’s haunted cover, the sweet, rich mysticism of Mick McAuley’s celtic ballad, or the fuller instrumentation and nuanced tonal ebb and flow of Tim O’Brien’s moody, celtic-flavored bluegrass.

The sparse, cracked doublevoiced tones of Roger McGuinn are a world away from the mournful, driving blues Natalie Merchant brings to the piece. And interpretations by folkfave youngsters The Mammals and Nickel Creek provide a study in contrast, two new-folkgrass bands taking the song through vastly distinct but equally powerful paces.

Try ‘em all. Find your favorite. It is, after all, the personal connection that makes us folk.

As always, all album and label links above take you direct to the source for your musical purchase. Buy local, support community: it’s that simple.

874 comments » | Mick McAuley, Natalie Merchant, Nickel Creek, Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, Single Song Sunday, The Mammals, The Tami Show, Tim O'Brien