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

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!

Category: (Re)Covered, Crooked Still, Jimmy LaFave One comment »

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

  1. Watch The Deadly Gentlemen Cover Vampire Weekend « Timber and Steel

    [...] big thank you has to go to the wonderful cover-folk blog Cover Lay Down for bringing this track to our attention. The Deadly Gentlemen is a experimental jam-folk project [...]

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