Archive for December 2012

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, 2012: The Singles
(b-sides, deep cuts, YouTube one-offs, & more one-shot coverage)

December 30th, 2012 — 11:56 am

As we noted late last week in The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1: Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations, it’s been a reasonably good year for full-album coverage. But although tracks from tributes continue to overwhelm singletons in my collection, as in previous years, a significant majority of the songs that lingered came from a mixed bag of borderline genre albums and single shot coverfolk releases, via the usual sources: YouTube and Soundcloud, in-studio sessions, website and bandcamp singles, full folk albums, and more.

That we continue to find so much of our favorite coverage of the year outside the album-length covers collection is an ongoing testament to our folk-first, artist-centric approach here at Cover Lay Down. After all, the point of our biweekly forays into the folkworld is to introduce you to the best of the singer-songwriter, roots, americana, bluegrass, and contemporary folk rock and folkpop canon. Our nominal focus on coverage is, in the end, merely a vehicle, to provide an entry into the craft and appreciation of those artists through the comfort zone of familiar song. And that artists, knowing this, remain prone to cover a song or two along the way, granting both a sense of their sound and an exposition of their influence, continues to lend credence to this folk-first mandate.

We eschew ranking for single songs; you’ll not find hierarchies here. But I’m not so humble as to enjoy the challenge of creating the perfect mix of coverfolk, circa 2012. And so, once again, we’re offering a two-part compromise: the short, mostly tongue-in-cheek “Best Of” which appeared on Friday…and here, today, the piece de resistance: a 29-song set of our favorite and most-played tracks from this year’s vast collection of singletons and deep cuts, designed to be downloaded and played in order for maximum emotional impact.

Like so many of the songs we posted in part one of this dual reluctance, every one of them gives me chills. Taken together, subjective though they are, they offer a challenge to 2013 and beyond.

So download the full set, or pick and choose among the singletons. Compare them against last year’s mixtape, to see how our tastes have changed. Hit the links beside each track to learn more about these amazing artists, and their output, and their journeys.

May the coming year bring us evermore joy through shared culture and communion. And may this humble offering grace your ears and raise your spirit, for now and for years to come.

The Year’s Best Singles: A 2012 Coverfolk Mix [Zip!]

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of alternate favorites and rare 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.

Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.

4 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1:
Tribute Albums and Covers Collections (2012)

December 28th, 2012 — 06:16 pm

It’s coming on 2013, and for weeks, otherbloggers and tastemakers have been touting their 2012 picks, jostling to be the best and first match for your own preferences, inviting debate over position in the ranks. And once again, here I am, after weeks of archival digging and false starts, late out of the gate and still struggling with the sheer hubris of presenting my own Year In Review.

As I noted last December atop our Best Coverfolk of 2011 feature, my reluctance to pass judgement isn’t a cop-out. I’m a relatively fickle listener, but I’m also the sort of collector who takes more delight in discovery than digs. Our focus on the breadth of music often leans harder towards emergence, promise, and artist evolution than the next big thing because that’s the honest expression of how I think and hear. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes. (And how does one compare the sublime to the sentimental? The transformation to the faithful revisioning? The sparse to the layered? Coverage comes in as many flavors and subtypes, and each one can be done well.)

As a general policy, then, I eschew the critical lens; our mandate, as we see it, is to tout and expose. While others rank and score, we celebrate and share that which we love as we find it, believing that if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. In that sense, the entirety of our year’s blogging is our recommendations list for the year. To winnow it down feels, on the one hand, like a dismissal of that joy we found in any of it when we found it.

And yet there is method in the madness of the recovery of the recent in the name of hierarchical organization. Just considering a Best Of post provides a useful and productive opportunity to revisit the archives. And though this year was perhaps not quite as generous as the last in some categories of coverage, a generous and precious handful of coverfolk EPs and covers albums have emerged this year; to come back to them before they fade from the memory has its uses.

More significantly, while I abhor the very idea of ranking songs, album-length collections seem easier to rate. Hitting the mark singly, in three minutes or so of song, is itself a hard standard; providing a rich, nuanced journey through multiple tracks without stumbling is nigh impossible. Self-selection becomes the primary criteria, then: in those very rare cases where an entire album of covers comes to us as a success, the end result is well worth repeating at year’s end. And here, the successes are so few and far between, we can count on our fingers the albums which deserve not just our respect, but our awe and appreciation, and our last dollars.

And so today, as the last days of the year wane into history, we bring you our wholly subjective picks: the best folk, roots, indie, and Americana coverfolk albums of 2012, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking. Read, download, follow links to purchase, and then stay tuned later this weekend for an unordered mix of our favorite singletons and one-offs of the year.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists): Leonard Cohen: The Bard of Montreal / MOJO Magazine Presents The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered (tie)

The year in multi-genre, multi-artist tribute albums started and ended badly, in our wholly subjective estimation: Chimes of Freedom, Amnesty’s gigantic 4-CD Dylan tribute, offered several duds and but a single disc’s worth of favorites; late-year Fleetwood Mac tributes from MOJO magazine and Starbucks in-house label Hear Music leaned heavily indiepop this year, though we’ll surely see a track from one or the other in our impending “best of” single-shot mixtape, and neither made for full-bore success. But a similarly paired set of tributes to Leonard Cohen – a freebie from Canadian folklabel Herohill, and a March release from MOJO now mostly only available to collectors willing to pay for back issues – were either centrally or exclusively indiefolk albums, as befits a new generation of singer-songwriters heavily influenced by the poetry and melodic genius of the inimitable Canadian bard, and both were so strong, we’ve decided to put them up as a twinned set.

Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman, a little-blogged under-the-radar release from Tompkins Square Records which came to my attention via a reader just last month, deserves second-place recognition for a comprehensively strong set of folk-and-more tracks that reveal surprising nuance from the catalog of a sadly undersung jazzfolk hero of the Cornish circuit with over 30 albums to his name; check it out for slow, dreamy interpretations from Meg Baird, Two Wings, Maddy Prior, William Tyler, Hiss Golden Messenger, the ubiquitous Lucinda Williams and others who shared his stage. Strong runners-up included the decidedly twangy Nick Lowe tribute Lowe Country, and Long Distance Salvation, a double-disk tribute to Springsteen’s Nebraska, which contains at least a single album’s worth of excellence, and plenty of good besides.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist): Rory Block, I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis

Though last year there was strong competition in this category, the reciprocal single-folk-artist tribute was much rarer this year – indeed, as noted below, since the EP category contains but a single entry, we almost abolished it entirely. In part, this is because many of the best one-artist tribute albums of 2012 lean too far away from folk to count: Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s tribute to the Nina Simone songbook, for example, is quite powerful, but far too R&B for a folkblog; indie rock duo The Rosebuds’ same-name 20-year anniversary tribute to Sade album Love Deluxe, while excellent in its own right, is truly a soul album, though it has enough elements of folk to legitimize an honorable mention. Happily, country blues counts as folk on most radio playlists, and on ours. And so despite its own issues of over-consistency, Rory Block’s otherwise excellent Rev. Gary Davis tribute, with its masterfully authentic guitarwork and more than a hint of gospel harmonies, gets the prize by default.

Also problematic, for technical reasons: David Crossland’s tribute to mentor and Kingston Trio co-founder John Stewart remains on the cusp of release as of presstime and thus will likely count as a 2013 contender. And though Love Canon’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 and Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute To The Replacements got plenty of play in my car and my house this year, both get honorable mention but no awards: the former tribute to the songs of my 80′s childhood is hugely fun and eminently sunny but, despite a strong and perfectly earnest take on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, ultimately lacks depth (and is probably supposed to, given the tongue-in-cheek band name, Tron-parody album cover, the laughter that ends many tracks, and a playlist that includes slyly gleeful bluegrass versions of both Olivia Newton John hit Physical and Devo’s Whip It); similarly, and much less successfully, though the MTV unplugged consistency of the Replacements tribute is fun for a while, the one-take two-uke retread approach wears thin by album’s end, leaving it with little staying power.

The Year’s Best Tribute EP: Hyacinth House, A Tribute to Bob

As above. This foreign-born folk-slash-indierock throwdown – technically recorded over a sequence of years, possibly not released in 2012 in the first place, and impossible to track or label otherwise with any definitive assurance – was the only EP-length reciprocal single-artist tribute we found this year. Luckily, it’s quite good enough to stand on its own.

Honorable mention goes to the four songs of Jurado Covers, which – quite unusually, for an EP-length format – has four different yet equally strong indie singer-songwriters paying tribute to the same artist, in honor of the release of Damien Jurado’s “zenlike” 2012 release Maraqopa. Download it for free at the link below.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist): Barrett Smith and Shannon Whitworth, Bring It On Home

By contrast, we find a huge and varied set of contenders in this category this year, many of which deserve respect and admiration at year’s end, from Pesky J. Nixon’s alternately intimate and raucous living-room-recorded Red Ducks to The Chieftains’ guest-heavy collaboration Voice Of Ages, which made the rounds of many blogs upon release, thanks to guest spots from Bon Iver, The Low Anthem, et al. But if we’re looking for album-length perfection with staying power, three strong contenders shoot to the top of the list: Peter Mulvey’s ancient, raw, ragged The Good Stuff, Rickie Lee Jones’ stunningly hushed and deconstructed The Devil You Know, which was produced by Ben Harper and sounds like it, and Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith’s amazingly heartfelt Bring It On Home. Of these, the half-acoustic soul, half-folk Bring It On Home gets the nod for top honors by a razor’s edge, because we’re suckers for both masterfully produced layers of stringwork and sweet harmonies here at Cover Lay Down, and this album has got ‘em in spades.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists): Mason Jar Music and Friends, The Storm Is Passing Over

An incredible eleventh hour collection of songs thematically joined by the narratives of flood and storm evoked by Hurricane Sandy, The Storm Is Passing Over easily leapfrogs over all previous contenders in an otherwise lightly-populated category to make its first appearance here on Cover Lay Down atop our year’s end list, leaving us with nary a runner-up in sight. The predominantly sparse songs lean heavily towards the public domain, of both the traditional and the old-school folk, gospel, and blues canons; though Bela Fleck and Roseanne Cash make an appearance, generally speaking, the artists here, most of whom share a connection to the hard-hit borough of Brooklyn and its strong new folk scene, represent a veritable cross-section of the new folk revival, from Emily Elbert, Michael Daves, and Aoife O’Donovan to Dawn Landes, Abigail Washburn, Piers Faccini, The Gundersen Family and Tift Merritt.

A project like this, with all songs recorded in the last few weeks, could have come off as hastily contrived. But the first-rate artists here, many of whom we have been following for years, come together mightily, bringing a smooth collection of songs that range from tender to triumphant, heavy on the solo singer-songwriter and country blues – which is to say the three samples below are a true indictor; it all sounds this good from start to finish. Bonus points: it’s available on the cheap by name-your-own-donation, with all proceeds going to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, so head over to the website to stream and download now and support both scene and sorrow.

The Year’s Best Covers EP: Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Old Gold

The short-set challengers in this category for 2012 run an especially broad gamut – so much so that it was tempting to create a hybrid-genre category just for Leftover Cuties and Lake Street Dive, both of which incorporate acoustic, big band, and indie elements in ways that truly defy genre. Other challenges, different in scope but similar in scale, face us with the Deschutes River Recordings series, which at three tracks, seems too light to compete, though each is a gem on its own, and with Laura Cortese‘s five-track Kickstarter Covers album, which, as we noted upon receipt, is technically not available to any but a handful of us who gave to last year’s Poison Oaks project crowdfunding campaign, though we have assurance from Laura herself that a slow track-by-track release over time is perfectly acceptable, allowing for our inclusion of a second track herein.

But although Ahoy!, the late-year half-pint release from newgrass pioneers the Punch Brothers, is an energetic delight of talent and folk hybridization, and although You Gotta Roll, the 5 song all-covers EP from Woody Pines, has a hopped-up ragtime-stringband-meets-rockabilly energy that evokes an era when blues, folk, jazz, and country were still intermingled on dustbowl radio, it’s the sheer warmth of Seattle countryfolk singer-songwriter Zoe Muth’s Old Gold that stands out among near-equals, with sweet, twangy vocals and a heady set of songs from her influences reimagined with richly-arranged abandon making for a true powerhouse of a coverset. Kudos to Signature Sounds, to producer Rob Mitchell, and to Muth herself, for their collaborative work in getting this tiny, precious Americana gem into the world.

The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album: Renee & Jeremy, A Little Love

This was the year I truly fell in love with California singer-songwriter duo Renee & Jeremy; indeed, I’ve probably blogged about their work more times than anyone this year, and who can blame me? A Little Love is a tidy, gleeful gem of modern kindie music, apt and ample for family fare, chock full of soft-yet-infectiously reimagined songs from R.E.M., Coldplay, Queen, Supertramp, and others that celebrate the gift that is the generous and well-lived life.

Two new albums from perennial kidfolk favorite and Smithsonian songstress Elizabeth Mitchell tie for second place: both her Grammy-nominated Woody Guthrie covers album Little Seed and her more recent release Blue Clouds are excellent additions to a growing body of work, further cementing her place at the core of the modern kidfolk canon. Bonus points to Jumpin’ Through Hoops, whose Rockin’ to the Fiddle is a tiny, joyous tradfolk set of fiddle tunes and kidfolk classics from Kristen Andreassen and friends which was released too late in 2011 for consideration in last year’s tongue-in-cheek awards.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album: Charlie Parr, Keep Your Hands On The Plow

Last year, this category existed almost exclusively to acknowledge the highly-anticipated duo release from Michael Daves and Chris Thile; this year, we keep it in the mix in order to call back to Charlie Parr’s early 2012 treatment of old gospel blues songs, which has had quite solid staying power in our home and our ears as the year has progressed. As we noted way back in January, Parr’s hoarse voice and honest workmanship make for an especially strong and consistent album, sparse and heartfelt, with the right balance of ragged gospel blues harmonies and well-crafted hill-and-holler fiddle and fingerpicking bound to tempt those who find their heart in the modern neo-trad work of Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Low Anthem while still touching a nerve in lovers of the Louvin Brothers, Dave Van Ronk, Leo Kottke, and more.

A strong second-place showing from Portland’s well-respected, internationally-known Foghorn Stringband, whose 21-track 2012 release Outshine The Sun is a perfect exemplar of a classic old-timey sound, lends credence to our category even as their recent forays into Cajun and other broad roots sounds and sources adeptly widen the lens of the traditional. Though the inclusion of songs from Hazel Dickens, the Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers in the mix of fiddle tunes, pre-WWII country, and early bluegrass technically transcends the limitations of the public domain canon, the unified sound of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass, and vocal harmonies around a single microphone has a warmth and an organic authenticity that is both loving and truly timeless, making the album well worth revisiting here.

The Year’s Best Rereleased Cover or Tribute Album: Lotte Kestner, Extra Covers Collection

We created this category last year as a one-shot in order to feature They Will Have Their Way, a nominally “new” release cobbled from two previous one-shot tribute albums of male and female covers of Neil and Tim Finn songs. But while technically there is some great new coverage in Trespasser’s William co-founder Lotte Kestner’s aptly if unimaginatively titled Extra Covers Collection, the majority of the slowcore collection is forged from the two 2011 EPs we discovered and touted too late to make it into last year’s “best of” feature. Both new and older tracks combine to hold up eminently well as a late night lullaby set, though we continue to wish Kestner, who trends towards covering the obscure, would include more detail in her track listing; the Billy Idol cover below is a retread, while the Gotye cover is, naturally, new, but both remain favorites.

The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album: Rayna Gellert, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds

A kind of catch-all last year, which allowed for a nod to those albums which lean heavily on coverage, but include enough originals in the mix to knock them out of consideration as “true” covers albums. This year, consideration of such cover-heavy releases allows us to celebrate the work of several artists: a new solo outing from Uncle Earl fiddle-player Rayna Gellert, New York tradfolker Jan Bell’s well-balanced thematic soiree Dream of the Miner’s Child, bluegrass banjo wizard Bill Evans’ In Good Company, a guest-heavy album which includes a delightfully fun 4-song sequence of instrumental Beatles tunes plus coverage of John Martyn and Sarah Siskind, and Canadian crooner Reid Jamieson’s tribute to the songs of winter, which, while it garnered treatment as a covers album upon release in November, truly belongs in this category thanks to three solid original tunes.

Of these, Rayna Gellert’s Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds edges out to the top, if only because of how effectively Gellert packages and presents a perfectly-balanced mix of the traditional and the newly-penned in her triple-threat role as arranger, lead performer, and producer – indeed, the album, which finds the artist shifting from old-timey fiddle tunes to vocal-driven singer-songwriter fare, is so unified in its timelessness, it’s often hard to tell which are the old tunes, and which the new. NPR’s Bob Williams called it “an exquisite slice of Americana”, and we’re inclined to agree, recommending it to the No Depression and indiefolk crowds alike for its morphine-drip drones and atmospheres. And with its strong phrasing, Gellert’s deep alto voice, risen to new-found prominence, reminds us of none so much as Cindy Kallett’s, which is high praise indeed from this long-time fan.

The Year’s Best YouTube Covers Series: ortoPilot, 2012 YouTube Advent Calendar

Finally, our sole new category this year, and one long-overdue, as the trend towards YouTube coverage sets and series seems to reached critical mass a while ago. Old Ideas with New Friends, a previously-blogged early 2012 Vimeo project designed to raise awareness of Leonard Cohen’s then-new release Old Ideas, had a diverse set of tracks but several with staying power, while Antje Dukekot’s monthly six-song-so-far Antje Sings Covers! solo set may lack the rich instrumentation and depth of her nuanced studio albums, but her lighthearted overdubbed takes on favorite songs from Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, The Wailin’ Jennys, and others make for a fine if cutesy introduction to her live performance. But in the end, appropriately enough, it’s the native YouTuber who wins out: ortoPilot’s advent calendars are always stellar, but this year’s is nearly perfect, with masterful predominantly solo guitar-and-voice driven takes on a diverse set of modern pop and indie radio tunes from Seahorses, Kings of Convenience and Foster The People to TLC, Green Day, Stevie Wonder and Smashmouth.

  • ortoPilot: You’ve Got A Friend In Me (orig. Randy Newman)

  • Antje Duvekot: Ford Econoline (orig. Nanci Griffith)

Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’ end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.

Thanks, folks. May your days be merry and bright.

2 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums

Christmas Coverfolk, 2012:
New Tracks from Old Friends

December 21st, 2012 — 10:28 pm

It’s been a hectic season, broken up by shock and awe and rumors of an apocalypse that never came. But the last day of school has finally passed, and now, suddenly, it’s Christmas in earnest: time for the tree, and the warmth of family and friends; for church carols and pageantry; for hot cocoa by the fire, the kitten in our lap and the old dog at our feet, and the laughter of children. And we are grateful, and glad, in our bittersweet joy.

Previously this year, we came to you with a cross-comparison of new Christmas Kidfolk, Reid Jamieson’s wonderfully lighthearted, mostly-acoustic, mostly-covers Winter-themed album, a set of seasonals about drinking at the holidays, and the best of a mixed bag of new seasonal compilations. Now, as a final installment of our holiday joy, here’s this year’s greatest Christmas singles, to complete the soundtrack for your season – in long form below, or in zip form, for easy listening while you read.

First out of the gate comes Hey, It’s Christmas! Vol. 3, a compilation we overlooked in our previous feature. The free-if-you-want-it-to-be album is quite eclectic, featuring a set of everything from dear folk and jazz tracks to punky grungerock and poppy electronic numbers – but it’s hard not to admire the underdog premise of showcasing relatively unknown artists, the set makes for solid background music all the way through, and I’ve grown quite fond of Danny Leggett’s ironically folk take on Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, which comes complete with rocking chair creaks to set the mood. Download all three volumes at the website to expand your holiday cheer, too.

This one popped up just today, but it’s been on repeat all afternoon, thanks to sparse and gently ringing guitar picking under a warm familiar melody sung in delicious octaves from favorite singer-songwriter Rose Cousins and fellow Canadian Don Brownrigg. It’s clearly Shawn Colvin’s arrangement, but the subtle, tiny harmonies and piano moments, and the simple ooohs added between verses of this old carol sing of firesides and the stillness of winter so exquisitely, it’s hard to imagine a more centering folksong for the season. Rose’s award-winning We Have Made A Spark, which we featured way back at the beginning of the year, remains one of our favorite releases of 2012, hands down: listen, and you can hear why.

Chameleonesque indie god Bonnie “Prince” Billy continues to blow us away with his collaborative efforts: most recently, we featured his take on Fleetwood Mac’s Storms alongside Matt Sweeney; here, he partners with “songteller” Dawn McCarthy, aka Faun Fables, and the effect is grand indeed. I’m by no means the first to post this new single-shot track, which was originally released via YouTube way back in October, but it bears repeating – both for the contrapuntal harmony voices of male gravel and female soar as above, and for the general indiefolk beauty of this sad, resurrected Everly Brothers tune.

We’re huge fans of fiddling Prairie Home Companion tradfolk favorites Jay Ungar and Molly Mason here at Cover Lay Down – and of Mike and Ruthy, his daughter and son-in-law, who will be performing at our house concert series in April. So to find the four of them releasing a holiday album this year was a true delight, and I’m happy to report that A Fiddler’s Holiday is exactly what one would have hoped: lighthearted, airy, warm, and bright, with a solid mix of originals, carols, and traditional appalachian folk tunes for the holidays, and a live setting and a full orchestra bringing forth love so thick on the ground, you can hear it through the speakers. Their Silent Night rivals the best I’ve heard, and that’s saying something, indeed.

Several of our most beloved tracks from Christmasses past are joined this year by new releases from artists who make a ritual out of their holiday releases, and we couldn’t be happier to find such familiarity in the mix. North Carolinans Beta Radio return with The Songs The Season Brings, Vol. II, a free 3-track release to rival last year’s, with a favorite carol or two done delicately in the mix. Long-time seasonal favorites Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack are back with their 4th annual YouTube holiday single, a sweet Winter Wonderland that hangs like snowflakes in the air, and we’re pleased to be releasing it in mp3 form. Versatile homegrown artist Sam Billen releases Merry Christmas, a family-and-friend recorded set of 7 chillingly slow old instrumentals this year – an interesting change, though no less moving than his previous holiday works. And Boston-based singer-songwriter Catie Curtis, whose eleventh-hour EP release of songs played and rehearsed for what is now fast becoming an annual visit to the White House was a potent last-minute addition to our seasonal feature set last year, expands her holiday recording to a full-length album this year, making us twice as grateful.

Juliana Richer Daily popped onto our radar just this year, while we were looking for covers for October’s 50-track Radiohead covers megafeature; her cover of Fake Plastic Trees, which we clipped from a YouTube video, bears the mark of an amateur with soul and a need for slightly better recording equipment, but her warm voice and delicacy still stood on their own against other covers of the same from Lori McKenna, KT Tunstall, and Duncan Sheik. Champagne Year, her streamable Christmas EP, is delightfully imperfect, with a fine mix of modern classics and old chestnuts; it’s hard not to like her takes on new winter canon additions from Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes, but it’s her Blue Christmas which truly shows an artist on the cusp of transcendence, soaring even as she finds her wings.

Regular readers of the Cover Lay Down Facebook page will have noted this unusual mash-up already. But sweet harmony duo The Sea The Sea, who honored us as guests for our house concert series this Autumn, are always worth reposting – and their combination of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and What A Wonderful World, originally released via YouTube, is shivery, with surprisingly complex interplay between two songs that don’t quite fit making for a song of great depth and beauty. Keep an eye open for a full album debut from Mira Stanley and Chuck E Costa sometime this Spring.

I’m sneaking this one in on a technicality: Folk Angel have released three previous bandcamp Christmas albums, and though I’d heard of their work, I’ve never posted them here, mostly because – despite their name – increasingly, the band trends towards a quite raucous yet indie-friendly Christian Gospel poprock. But while their earlier Christmas releases sport tracks that both better fit our oeuvre and bear repeating, their Joy To The World, from this year’s fully EP-sized Glad Tidings: Christmas Songs Vol. 4, is a total delight: happy, bouncy guilty pleasure with more than a hint of radiopop, handclaps, and a totally indierock beat that totally transforms the song, making us all want to sing along. And their equally transformative take on What Child Is This is its equal: a gleeful epitome of what modern indie folk rock can truly be. Call it a guilty pleasure, but listen regardless – and then compare it to the 2009 bonus track to see just how folk these guys used to be.

Finally, if I had to recommend further listening, it would be Heather’s mostly-indiefolk and stunning-as-always Fuel/Friends 2012 Holiday Mixtape. Heather’s mixes are always a joy, but this year’s is especially precious: though a few of the tracks are originals, and several are from previous years, the majority are new, amazing covers, soaring and dark and gentle in turns, and with universally heartbreaking takes from Denison Witmer, The Gundersen Family, Oh Starling, Ben Kyle, Eef Barzelay, The Wood Brothers, and more, the whole collection comes together as the best damn CD-like-thing I’ve heard for the season – so much so that it was quite tempting to just skip my own playlist and repost the whole thing here.

As always, Heather provides plenty of threads to pull, too: I found Branches’ O Holy Night, for example, and followed it to Songs For Christmas, an equally stunning new EP, which is worth every moment you can devote to it. Recorded two-by-two over the last three years, the collection of traditional tracks is a tiny tour de force, a microcosm of the state of indiefolk itself, full of ragged glory and hollow bells. Thanks to Heather, Branches, and all the bloggers and artists who bring us light and love throughout the year for setting the bar high, and continuing to raise it. And God bless us, every one.

Coming soon: Cover Lay Down presents our selections for the best coverfolk of 2012!

4 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Griefsongs: A Prayer For Newtown

December 16th, 2012 — 06:37 pm

…because sometimes there are no words.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

2 comments » | Theme Posts

Chanukah Coverfolk, 2012:
with songs by Woody Guthrie, South Park, Peter Paul & Mary, & more!

December 9th, 2012 — 09:52 am

from Winterlights: A Season in Poems and Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines

It’s the first day of Hanukkah, aka Chanukah, and though the candles have long since burned down, as in past years, my holiday playlist didn’t even last as long as the light it was designed to accompany. Thanks to a small selection of new covers, however, this year was closer than ever, giving me hope that one day soon we’ll have more than a single set to offer over these eight nights.

In the meantime, here’s our annual rehashed set: our 2008 post rewritten yet again, some older tunes from years past, and a few relatively recent additions to the canon. May these songs bring light to your darkened days, regardless of your practice.

While I generally attribute my love of folk music to my father’s good taste and influence, it was my mother who introduced me to both kidfolk and, later in life, filled the house on holidays with what can only be called the Jewish equivalent of Christian Music — that branch of music which, in trying to balance between the spiritual source and the popular ear, has a high tendency toward over-earnestness.

So when Mom was the first to respond to our 2008 call for quality folk/acoustic Chanukkah covers, I was, to be honest, a bit wary of the result.

Now let’s be fair: Chanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, and Jewish music doesn’t rank too highly on the pop culture horizon. As such, much of the Chanukkah music out there is religious first, and folk second; it is, in other words, music that truly belongs in the Synagogue rec hall, rather than a popular stage. As evidence, in our modern Jewnitarian household, we have a full shelf of Chanukkah music collected over the years which is, on the whole, a bit too precious to be considered just plain good music.

But it’s not just Chanukkah, and it’s not just me. Notably, in fact, both of the genres I inherited from my mother have a reputation for being more miss than hit.

I’ll probably get clobbered in the comments for saying so, but I think that as general categories, this is because Kidfolk and Religious folk suffer from the same root ailment: both are too often produced with a conservatively projected audience in mind, which limits the ability of most performers to find the music that truly exists inside themselves. The result is transparently constructed, subject to the worst of overannunciation and false cheer, and this might be enough to explain the lack of authentic emotion which many folk fans ascribe to the vast majority of the output from such categories.

But just as there is good kidfolk to be found in the hands of those who are able to transcend the limitations and temptations of talking down to their audience, there is nothing inherently cheesy in the curious mix of religion and popular music. Though wariness is a reasonable watchword when dealing with religious music, as in any genre, gems can be found, even if the average is less than worthy to the popular ear.

And as it is in general, so it is with Chanukkah songs.

As an example of music which is worth a second listen, here’s two recommendations from Mom: a bluegrass cover of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah, and a live rooftop video performance of the Texas Swing version of The Dreydl Song from the aptly named and recently disbanded Mark Rubin and his Ridgetop Syncopaters. Neither is perfect, and the overall success of A Chanukkah Feast, Vol. 2, the non-profit-generated album from whence they come, is a bit hit-or-miss. But each song is worth a chance — which is more than I can say for most of the music which trickles into so many Jewish households this time of year.

Mom’s not the only source for Chanukkah music, of course. A chance encounter with Peter Yarrow’s Light One Candle in the Unitarian Universalist Hymnal at our rescheduled 2010 Vespers service reminded me that there is, at least, one honestly folk Chanukkah song which seems overdue for coverage. A quick survey of the usual secret sources revealed a live recording from diminutive Brooklinite singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin, who has made a name for herself over the last few years for a series of surprisingly popular folk rock Jewish Holiday originals released via YouTube.

Citrin’s folkpop EP, foursongsforyou, is chock full of catchy hooks, and comes highly recommended. The recording in question appears on the soundtrack for a recent PBS special called Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah Live in Concert; I haven’t heard the whole thing, but the presence of both The Klezmatics (see below) and acoustic jazzfolk guitarist Laurence Juber in the cast suggest that some of it, at least, is deserving of further consideration.

And speaking of Klezmer, and other lesser-known forms of folk: reader Kevin reminds us that Texas-based group Brave Combo does a great version of Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah; it’s polka rock, but polka counts as folk at the Grammys, so who are we to say otherwise? For comparison’s sake, here’s an acoustic-with-accordion take on the same song from Barenaked Ladies.

Oh, and Klezmer counts as folk, too – even the Indigo Girls got into the act, with their dobro-fueled Klezmergrass cover of Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah hiding among the Xmas seasonals on 2010 release Holly Happy Days. One day, I expect, we’ll host an entire Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Klezmer music; in the meanwhile, here’s The Indigo Girls, and The Klezmatics, a band pushing the boundaries of the genre who has garnered national attention for two albums of interpretations of Guthrie’s Jewish-themed songs and poems, with a surprisingly mellow folk cover of Guthrie’s Hanukah Dance, and a happy, joyous take on Hanukah Tree, both from Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah. Good on you, Guthrie, for helping bring the folk to the days of lights.

We featured singer-songwriter Robby Hecht back in February in our New Artists, Old Songs series, and included this tender take on South Park standard Lonely Jew (On Christmas) among the mix, but it easily bears repeating here: Hecht, who has recently been touring with Angel Snow and others, remains an artist on the rise, and though it is primarily his YouTube canon which we celebrated earlier, this tiny track – supposedly from an out-of-print 2010 collection called AllDay Radio Christmas, and performed by collaborative AllDay Radio, which was co-founded in San Francisco by Hecht and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jason Jurzak but now claims to be from Nashville – reminds us quite aptly that honest beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places, even the dark nights of Comedy Central.

Of course, there’s no getting away from the best-known Hanukkah song, the one that’s become such a central part of the candle-lighting ritual itself. Here, indieguitarist Ben Kweller and folkbluesman Marc Cohn interpret Rock of Ages, also known in its Hebrew form as Maoz Tsur. The song is over seven hundred years old, but it’s still powerful in the right hands.

And finally, here’s an indiefolk tune and a half, courtesy of avid blog suppliers and indie champions XO Publicity, who have for five years running turned out a wonderful holiday sampler series aptly titled XO For The Holidays. The 2010 sampler includes a raw and atmospheric acoustic indie-rock-americana-folk transformation of the Dreidel Song courtesy of Campfire OK, which tips the scales enough to include LA-based duo Bumtech‘s surprisingly successful electroacoustic Hanukah/Christmas mashup medley from the previous year’s sampler as a bonus. Good work, XO folks. Happy Holidays to you, too.

Looking for something a little more Christmassy? Check out our first Christmas post of the year, plus our short Xmas Drinking Songs mix, and stay tuned for more of the same later this week. And don’t forget our previous Holiday Coverfolk features here on Cover Lay Down…

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Christmas Cheer Coverfolk: Seasonal Songs of Drinking

December 5th, 2012 — 10:49 pm

A spot of computer troubles have temporarily postponed what was intended to be a comprehensive survey of this year’s newly released single-artist Holiday albums. But on this day in 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition, and paving the way for a return to the Christmas tradition of drinking with good company. And so a hastily-constructed thematic feature is born.

Join us, as we lift a glass to the season and the day with a decidedly mixed-bar set of songs celebrating holiday drinking. We’ll be back later this week with more coverfolk cheer as we continue our ongoing celebration of Christmas 2012.

Download the Cover Lay Down Drinking at Xmas mix in one convenient zip file!

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