Archive for January 2013

Jack Johnson covers:
Jimmy Buffett, The White Stripes, Lennon, Dylan, Sublime & more!

January 13th, 2013 — 02:06 pm

Though he hasn’t released a studio album since 2010, Hawaiian “soft rock” singer-songwriter Jack Johnson has been an unquestionable darling of the last decade, topping the college charts with catchy, easy-going folkpop lullabies, and winning praise for his work organizing the jam and surf communities through music and political action. And the odds are good that you’re familiar with at least some of his work; after all, his soundtrack for the 2006 film Curious George garnered two Grammy nominations, and became the first soundtrack for an animated film to top the Billboard 200 since Pocahontas; his matter-of-fact take on Dylan’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind alongside other luminaries from across the genre spectrum on the I’m Not There soundtrack the following year was a standout in the mix.

In the annals of popular music, Johnson is often associated with the fratrock and jamband crowds, thanks in part to his top-rate cred as an ex-competitor and documentarian of the world of professional surfing, early gigs alongside Dave Matthews and Ben Harper, and ongoing collaboration with acoustic hip-hop performer G. Love. The influences he claims run a wide gamut, from Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix to Radiohead, Neil Young, A Tribe Called Quest, and Bob Marley; echoes of their various elements permeate his songwriting even as the campfire sentiment he brings to his playing transforms that soul into intimacy.

But it’s easy, too, to make a case for his work as central to the post-millennial elevation of indie folk rock into the mainstream. Typified by bouncy, danceable strum patters which echo the hawaiian music and culture of his early years as a surfer and beach bum, the stories which Johnson brings to life are vivid portraiture. His warm voice, centrally acoustic guitarwork, and tender, easy-going sing-song treatment of often sensitive subjects from ecology to homelessness put him squarely in the folk camp. And his promotion of other singer-songwriters via his homegrown label Brushfire Records has helped raise consciousness of several fellow-minded artists with clear folk influences, such as Matt Costa, Neil Halstead, Mason Jennings, and Zee Avi (and sure enough, we’ve got a full set of covers from those labelmates and mentees as a bonus set below to follow Johnson’s own).

In live performance, our subject is prone to further consciousness-raising through activist song, and to medleys which combine his own social justice anthem Fall Line with the songs of others – you’ll find a pair of such hybrid halfcovers here. But those familiar with Jack Johnson only as a peripheral pop radio presence and surf-culture champion will find his larger canon of coverage to be equally glorious, an apt entry into the deeper catalog of his work. He’s taken on many of his peers and influences, and with a few more playful exceptions, like his originals, his covers trend towards the gentle, almost sentimental. Personal favorites include the sweet childlike chant and tinkly piano Johnson brings to Jack White’s We’re Going To Be Friends, and his gently rocking, drone-driven take on Jimmy Buffett’s nostalgic A Pirate Looks At Forty, which I find aptly bittersweet and beautiful, a prototypical combination of oceanic theme and intimate, pensive heart that typifies the best of Jack Johnson’s work. Since I turn forty myself tomorrow, we’ll start there, adrift at sea.

As promised, our bonus tracks today comprise a full set of coverage from a few of our favorite Brushfire Records recording artists.

2 comments » | Jack Johnson, Mason Jennings, Matt Costa, Rogue Wave, Zee Avi

New and (Re)Covered: Checking back on 2012
with Crooked Still, Jimmy LaFave, Miley Cyrus & more!

January 8th, 2013 — 09:38 pm

What’s in your ears as the holiday fare fades? Here at Cover Lay Down, we’re still catching up on 2012 after finding some prize otherwise-unknowns on the top albums lists of several trusted folkblogs, plus a hint of missed opportunities and a spate of tracks that – with one brand-new exception from Boston-based newgrass quintet The Deadly Gentlemen – turn out to have been recorded before the calendrical turn.

We’re grateful of the opportunity to clear the air before moving forward. So before we start in earnest with the next big and promising things to come in 2013, here’s some relatively recent coverage that bridges future and past. Enjoy.

When Boston-based neo-grass ensemble Crooked Still announced at the end of 2011 that it was taking a hiatus from touring “in order to keep the creative juices flowing, and to maintain the core friendship and collaboration which have underlaid their success,” fans of the group held their breath, knowing that well-intentioned announcements of a band going on temporary hiatus while its members pursue other projects often precede a dissolution.

But although the jury is still out on whether the band will come back together for more than the occasional reunion – ominously, no tour dates yet appear on the band’s page – the various members of the long-standing group have been hard at work on a vast and wonderful set of projects in the year since they released their last record, Friends of Fall.

Unsurprisingly, lead singer Aoife O’Donovan, who had already been involved in side projects from the indiefolk trio Sometymes Why to the chamberfolk ensemble Childsplay, got the lion’s share of press coverage in her journey beyond the boundaries of Crooked Still. But then, the diminutive muse lost no apparent time in re-establishing herself as a ubiquitous session player and tourmate for the year, hewing to the folk and bluegrass crowd with celebrated performances and recordings alongside Sara Watkins, Kate Rusby, and Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny, and straying beyond the boundaries of roots music, lending her sweet airy vocal precision as a guest vocalist harmonizing with Chris Thile on the experimental Goat Rodeo Sessions CD/DVD set, and coupling with Dave Douglas’ brass quintet for an entire album of originals and folk standards.

By contrast, the 5-track Peachstone EP, her first major solo work, got little coverage despite much predictive ballyhoo in major print publications before it hit the streets; the album, currently available only at tour dates, is apparently beautiful and fun in its way, but perhaps unsurprisingly, some concertgoers have reported that they still prefer the energy of live shows with her newly-formed Aoife O’Donovan Band.

Equal masters and collaborators, the other members of Crooked Still remain active, too, with noteworthy projects of several types and sizes. Banjo player Greg Liszt continues to make waves on the edge of folk and neo-trad jamband music with The Deadly Gentlemen; their chunky, funky cover of Vampire Weekend’s The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance, which dropped just this afternoon, is the warm result of a new year’s home session that promises much to come from the newgrass quintet. Double-bassist Corey Marino has been teaching fiddle camp, managing Sarah Jarosz and touring with David Wax Museum. Cellist Tristan Clarridge has been quite busy with his own neo-trad chamberfolk group The Bee Eaters, who spent much of the year touring to support a late 2011 release. And Fiddler Brittany Haas’ new all-girl trio The Fundies made a few significant waves in several end-of-year lists from the folkworld; the Skeeter Davis cover on their debut EP, which was funded by a grant from Club Passim’s Iguana Music Fund, is a darling romp that replaces the slow girl-group doo-wop harmonies of the 1963 Goffin/King-penned original with glorious fiddle chops. We still miss Crooked Still, but with this much great music to enjoy as they stretch their wings, it’s hard to begrudge them the opportunity.

  • The Deadly Gentlemen: The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance (orig. Vampire Weekend) [2013]

Those pining for the days of Crooked Still would be well advised to remember that fellow Berklee-bred band Annalivia is still going strong, with a potent 2012 release that offers rich, full traditional American folk and originals by way of the celtic fiddle traditions. We first featured the quartet in a feature on the Boston Celtic Music Fest (which takes place this coming weekend in Boston), and again in 2010; on The Same Way Down, they continue the fine tradition of beautiful vocal tones and masterful stringwork which brought them so high in our favor the first time.

This one I just plain missed: NPR, Sirius XM’s The Village, and several other major critical sources named the self-titled full-length debut from The Stray Birds in their top albums of the year, and it’s easy to see why: the combination of pulsing three part harmonies and quite tight neo-traditional appalachian sounds of upright bass, guitar, and banjo are stunning, weary, and intimate, carrying all the sweetness and dust of Gillian Welch without the burden of her weight. Check out this amazing live NERFA cover of a Townes Van Zandt standard, plus an older cover of an american tradtune from their 2010 EP that shows an early warmth, add a free-to-download live recording of original song Sparrow recorded at Berklee College over the summer of 2012, then snag the whole album to hear why we’re all raving about The Stray Birds.

  • The Stray Birds: Loretta (orig. Townes Van Zandt) [2012]

File this one under “new to me”, or perhaps just new to the US folk listener: British performing legend Joe Brown, who has apparently spent his early decades as a major player of UK rock, television, and film, recorded a totally pop uke-driven acoustic album in 2012, and as I had never heard of him before, I am privileged to be able to find the album on its own merits.

Brown, who grew up in the early sixties of skiffle and rockabilly, is apparently quite well respected across the pond; one of the songs here closed “The Concert For George”, staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall in tribute to George Harrison when he passed in 2005. But the star is mostly just having fun here – there’s a pair of Hawaiian string tunes that just swing, and several old tin pan alley songs, such as When I’m Cleaning Windows, sports a whimsical vaudeville tone; such whimsy, plus a darling accent, a raucous sing-a-long chorus, the most obvious title in show business (The Ukelele Album), and three separate songs titled I Like Bananas, I Like Ukeleles, and I Like You, make it hard to envision him as anything more than a loveable old britpop goofball.

But when applied to the annals of pop, the combination is surprisingly successful. Brown’s Motorhead cover sounds plinky and organic under the wail of the electric guitar; the stuttering beat and slightly slower pace he brings to Pinball Wizard takes a few minutes to get used to, but ultimately, the shift in sensibility makes for a surprisingly mature treatise on age and self-discovery. His take on ELO standard Mr. Blue Sky and 10cc’s I’m Not In Love are delightful. Call it folk rock lite, with a sense of humor.

I won’t say much about Miley Cyrus, other than to note that 2012 was the year that the Disney princess turned out to have a folksinger’s heart after all, with turns on Dylan and a trifecta of tunes recorded in her backyard making it clear that the girl who grew up a daughter of a country legend has the chops and the inclination to become a major folk player, if she chooses to keep moving in that direction. Her late-December release, the last in a series of outdoor session covers and originals taped in the warmth of summer, finds her taking on a staple from her godmother’s ample songbook with a savvy and nuanced sensitivity that tickles our fancy even as it surely soars over the heads of the pre-tween crowd who brought her fame and fortune – though a million YouTube hits suggest that plenty of more mature fans are sticking with her as she moves towards the folk.

  • Miley Cyrus: Jolene (orig. Dolly Parton) [2012]

Finally, we’re embarrassed to admit that we missed this past year’s release from Jimmy LaFave, who we featured in full just a few months ago, describing him as both one of the world’s most effective Dylan interpreters and a powerhouse of the Texan folk scene worthy of recognition and respect. Depending On The Distance is his first studio release in five years, but you’d never know it from the recording; LaFave’s newest is more of the same – consistent with the canon, his soulful rasp-and-wail layered over contemporary AAA/dustbowl instrumentation. And that’s never a bad thing; here, voice rich and weary with middle-age, LaFave takes on an old radiopop standard from John Waite and a Dylan favorite with equal aplomb.

Thanks to ongoing support from readers like you, Cover Lay Down continues into 2013 and beyond with bi-weekly artist-centered features covering covers, from new songs turned acoustic to old songs done up folk. Coming up: folk covers of Kanye West and Taylor Swift go head to head!

1 comment » | (Re)Covered, Crooked Still, Jimmy LaFave

A Question of Coverage:
The Beck Song Reader As Fan-Performed Art

January 1st, 2013 — 10:56 am

Beck has always been a musician on the edge: his earlier works range from full folk and anti-folk albums (2002 release Sea Change; his debut Golden Feelings) to surrealistic hip hop alt-pop (Odelay); the five albums taken on by Record Club, his ongoing collaborative foray into one-day full album coverage of other artists, are sparse and odd, with both Yanni and the Velvet Underground in the mix, but always interesting. Our once-upon-time 2007 feature on his coverage shows but a part of this range, noting that, in covering the songs of others, Beck tends towards “funereal alt-folk” – full-bore ragged folk blues and morphine folkhymns – letting the glitchy songs that ride the line between pop and electronica stand on their own merit as whole-cloth compositions.

But in a world where a band recently released their album on polymer casings that could be filled with water and frozen to create a functional ice record that degrades while you play it, playing with form is a legitimate response to the challenges of making the musical object, beyond and as compared to the easily-downloadable song, a thing of both value and beauty. So when Beck released his most recent “album” as sheet music, via the hipster-lit mag-and-more McSweeney’s, hardly anyone blinked.

But then people started playing the 20 songs in that musical collection, and recording them. And in considering these tracks as fodder for our ongoing exploration here at Cover Lay Down, I realized that in creating a work of art in potential – that is, by releasing his album as something which by definition exists both as its own artwork, and as a template designed to be played out and interpreted in order to be fully experienced – Beck presents the world of coverage with an existential crisis.

Can it be a cover if there is no original? Technically, no. By definition, covers take on songs which have been heard; it is the creative interpretation of that hearing experience which we celebrate herein as inherent in the folkways. We acknowledge the primacy of the original recording by digging deep into the history of the songs we cover where needed, in order to cite and therefore see how history has adapted a song (see, most recently, our exploration of You Are My Sunshine).

But in those cases, the first recording almost always influences the subsequent cover – almost by definition, modern coverage involves interpretation as a reactive process to the performance of another.

Beck’s new release confounds that premise. It is both anachronistic (sheet music), and a new medium (a set of sheet music meant to be understood as an album). But what it isn’t is an original recording – the prerequisite for coverage. It is a blueprint, not a performance; for now, at least, what it prompts is more properly crowdsource than coversongs. Indeed, it comes with the assurance that the author himself has never recorded his own version of his songs.

Yet in less that three weeks, dozens of recordings of the songs in Beck’s Song Reader have been produced and published – notably, something which would have been impossible to imagine in the Tin Pan Alley heyday. And, uniquely, these recordings are all interpretations of that sheet music, not other peoples’ versions or recordings. With such rapid-fire response, we are faced with a novelty: few or none of the earliest versions of this song can be counted as a “cover”, as we must assume that no “original” has yet influenced subsequent recordings…and yet, as coverbloggers, the idea of versions seems square inside our search parameters.

Whether any of these is a cover, or how and when any of these recordings begin to count as covers, is left as a brain-teaser, a thought experiment of coverage. But the diversity that has resulted / is resulting from this grand experiment is astounding – it is, as the LA Times puts it, “a thrilling bounty of recordings from a variety of musicians”.

And so, today, we feature eight of our favorite covers versions of The Wolf Is On The Hill, from sweet and sultry to rowdy and raw – just a tip of a fast-growing iceberg of sound calved by one of the great musical geniuses of his generation.

If you’d like to hear more, Portland Cello Project, whose beautiful work with Jolie Holland heads off our mixed-media set below, has recorded the whole album, and the Beck Song Reader fansite is amassing quite a collection. Oh, and Peter Mulvey’s take on Last Night You Were A Dream, as heard on NPR, which also commissioned the Winterpills and Studio 360 covers below? Perfect.

  • Winterpills: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Song Preservation Society: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Studio 360: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Caleb McCoach: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Juston Stens and The Get Real Gang: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Jesse Noll: The Wolf Is On The Hill

  • Tom McLaughlin and Mike Midden: The Wolf Is On The Hill

Don’t forget to check out our two-part series on The Best Coverfolk of 2012!

Comment » | Beck