Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Folked Up: Britney Spears
Stripped Down, Sweet, and Seriously Scary

You can't get much farther from the stripped-down authenticity of folk music than the lip-synch spectacle of top 40 pop songs; the odd Springsteen or Dylan anomaly aside, the stuff we favor on Cover Lay Down doesn't see mass market radio play. But that doesn't necessarily make every folk cover of every song originally performed by a half-naked ex-Mouseketeer a joke. A good song is a good song is a good song -- and sometimes it takes a jolt to the system to allow the listener to bring new meaning to the overly familiar.

To prove this theory, for our Halloween special, I went in search of the most disturbing set of folk covers I could imagine.

Folk covers of Britney Spears songs.

And the scariest part is, some of them are quite good.

Some are not, of course. It's hard to make meaning out of something played to death, harder still to keep the MTV imagery from invading the brain, corrupting any sincere attempt at rehabilitating a popsong. It's easier to make a joke out of the familiar instead, making easy laughs and easier cash on a novelty act.

Today, in an attempt to explore this admittedly simplistic model for envisioning the pop cover song's purpose, we bring you a double trio of folked-up Britney cuts: the merely covered, and the genuinely recovered. Some may make you weep. Some will make you laugh. One or two will make you wonder why Max Martin (the man behind the Britney throne) is wasting his time writing tunes which will never be truly appreciated by anyone above the age of fourteen.

My recommendation: listen to each of these through, tricks and treats alike, until you can truly appreciate them for the meaning their coverartists bring. Even novelty is worth something. And plucking a tired backbeat from the radio to breathe new and vibrant life into it, making something golden out of something glittery? In the world of coversongs, it's the holy grail.

Let's start, then, with the good stuff. Ladies and Gentlemen, we bring you Britney Spears, recovered.

  • Stevie Ann, Toxic
    Netherlands native Stevie Ann -- my current music-crush -- covers Toxic as a lush, poignant paean to poisoned love. The link here is the produced version, courtesy of Guuzbourg of french girlsinger blog Filles Sourires; but you can and should also see an absolutely incredible live-on-the-radio cover sans saxophone over at Coverville, after which you, too, will wonder why this young woman is still only touring in her native country.

  • Richard Thompson, Oops! I Did It Again
    In the "original" live recording of Richard Thompson's version of Oops! I Did It Again, off coveralbum 1000 Years of Popular Music, his audience thinks he's making fun of the song. This much tighter solo cut from an NPR session reveals otherwise. Thompson's rough voice, loose tempo, and all-around angst bring just the right note of self-flagellation and regret to the tune. Originally via always great oft-folk musicblog The Late Greats.

  • Fountains Of Wayne, Hit Me Baby One More Time
    Okay, Fountains Of Wayne isn't folk, but I've missed the band at two folk festivals so far, so I'm going to allow it. Their all-male electrified alt-geekrock version of Hit Me Baby One More Time turns what had been a dubiously anti-feminist anthem of love at all costs into a soft plea for the sensitive guy trying to make sense of a world full of Britney-lovers.

Second verse, same as the first -- but where the folktunes above are genuinely successful attempts to rescue surprisingly decent songs, these either play the songs for laughs, tongue firmly in cheek, or try to interpret beyond their reach.

  • The BossHoss, Toxic
    Kitschmeisters The BossHoss, Germany's bluegrass/country/rock answer to Richard Cheese, take on Toxic. They're tight, and worth the novelty, but really, if you've heard one Hayseed Dixie, you've heard them all. Still, their cover choices are fun; kudos to Motel De Moka, the music blog with a knack for the perfect themed playlist, for spreading this around just when I needed a pick-me-up.

  • Fuck, Oops! I Did It Again
    I don't know much about the unfortunately-named Fuck, and if this lo-fi, experimental cover is any indication of their prowess and style, I'm okay with that. The subtle vibes and cello (and wind machine?) aren't bad, but the plodding speed only underscores the overly simple, maudlin interpretation. Thanks to coverblogger extraordinaire Copy, Right? for originally posting this, though -- everything's worth trying once.

  • Travis, Hit Me Baby One More Time
    Travis' live attempt to unplug and slow down Hit Me Baby One More Time turns silly far too quickly. Bad sign: the band starts out trying to play it straight, but can't keep from cracking up when they hit the falsetto call and response of the chorus. Worse: they seem ruefully surprised at their own laughter, despite the fact that they clearly rehearsed the vocals.

As always here on Cover Lay Down, all artist links above lead to artist websites, which in turn lead to the artists' preferred source for music-purchasing. Follow these links -- and the links to other coverblogs scattered throughout -- for the best door-to-door treats around.

You're on your own for buying Britney, though. Some things are too scary, even for Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Chris Smither Covers:
John Hiatt, The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Chuck Berry, and Dylan

I seriously considered Chris Smither for our Covered in Folk series. After all, for much of his forty-year career Smither was a total unknown outside a very small community...unless you happened to know who wrote Bonnie Raitt's hit Love Me Like A Man. Smither has cred as a performer in his own right; he deserves to be touted for his own deceptively simple musicianship, not just his writing. The problem is, while his songs have been pretty consistently out in the open since he started out, his career path yaws like a ship in a storm.

Smither joined the Cambridge, MA folk scene in the late sixties, and hit the national radar in the early seventies with a spate of albums that showcased his emerging songwriting and raw, bluesy swamp folk style. But he faded into relative obscurity by the end of the decade, touring sporadically, releasing only one album in the eighties while his songs lived on in the hands of others. For a while, it looked like another promising musician had gotten lost.

But when Smither came back in 1991 with intimately recorded live album Another Way To Find You, it put him right back in the groove, winning awards and filling bars across the country. Since then, he's been prolific and celebrated; today, where the Dixie Chicks still sell more Patty Griffin than Patty Griffin, Chris Smither has transcended life as "the guy who wrote that song" to become a headliner again, reemerging from the dark eighties to impress a new generation with his foot-stomping blues/folk guitar style, his throat-scratching Florida by way of New Orleans tenor drawl, and his interpretation of both his own well-crafted tunes and familiar standards from the folk canon.

At his best, Smither's signature sound is a holdover from the days of Leadbelly, before blues and folk music split into distinct genres. Like those that came before him, he can play fast and loose with tempo, speeding through phrases on the guitar in raw emotive power. What distinguishes his style from the great grandaddies of interpretive fingerplucking is a preference for fastfinger slide over chord-playing, and a mellow, weathered grin all his own that shines through his lyrical play to flavor even the most wistful of folksongs.

The edgy, bluesy style Smither favors in performance is best featured on Another Way to Find You, in all its live, foot-stomping glory; his produced work shows an equally gifted ability to play the power of that wailing voice and sweet guitarplay off a full wash of sound. Here's a full house of covers from his second wave of fame -- a trio of solid tracks from Another Way, and a pair of more recent, more produced cuts -- just to prove that you can rise again:

  • Friend of the Devil (orig. Grateful Dead)
  • Down in the Flood (orig. Bob Dylan)
  • Tulane (orig. Chuck Berry)
  • Rock and Roll Doctor (orig. Little Feat)
  • Real Fine Love (orig. John Hiatt)

Chris Smither sells all his in-print works, from 1984's amazing It Ain't Easy to last year's solid Leave The Light On, through his website, so you know where he'd prefer you buy them. Unfortunately, if you'd like to go back to his work from before the resurrection, you'll have to scour the used recordshops -- but they're well worth the vintage price, if you find one in good condition.

Today's bonus coversongs are a full house, too:

  • Smoothjazz chanteuse Diana Krall covers Smither's Love Me Like A Man
  • Bonnie Raitt covers Love Me Like A Man, too (live, from Road Tested)
  • Chris Smither's original 1970 version of Love You Like A Man
    (our first NON-cover here on Cover Lay Down!)
  • Smither makes Roly Sally's Killin' the Blues his own
  • Shawn Colvin covers Smither's version of Killing the Blues

Friday, October 26, 2007

Covered In Folk: The Beatles, Part 1
"More popular than Jesus"

Is there really anything left to say about the Beatles? Given the covercontext, perhaps only this:

The Beatles canon is etched indelibly on the popular psyche. On one level, these are all folk songs, if only by their memetic virtue. Sooner or later they are played on every busker's corner. And every one of us smiles and sings, faintly, under our breath as they pass by.

And one reason the songbook sticks so well in the brainpan is how simple, how elegant, how open the pages are to interpretation. Chords, lyric, tone and timbre, their mutability in the hands of even a single genre is astounding.

I have almost as many folk covers of Beatles songs as I do covers of Dylan songs. Most are excellent. Today, I'll be using our first of what promises to be a very fruitful Covered In Folk series on the Fab Four to introduce a few deserving folksingers and coversources we just plain hadn't heard from yet. For some reason, today's songs all begin with the letter I.

  • Sam Phillips, I Wanna Be Your Man
  • Alison Krauss, I Will
  • The Paperboys, I've Just Seen A Face
  • Allison Crowe, In My Life
  • Nellie McKay, If I Needed Someone

That last cut, at least, is from This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul. You need this record; happily, the folks who made it want to sell it to you.

The Sam Phillips cover is from a recent all-covers soundtrack to Crossing Jordan; the soundtrack is so amazing, it almost makes me wish we had television in my house. You'll be hearing more of this disk here over the next few years, but get it now, because CD Universe has it for under 8 bucks!

Now That I've Found You, a collection of Alison Krauss covers and B-sides, is available direct from the Rounder Records label; it's a great CD to start with if you don't own any of her work.

Songwriter and mistress of coversongs Allison Crowe beat out Johnny Cash, Ben Lee, Chantal Kreviazuk and Shawn Colvin covers of In My Life at the last minute. Buy or download all Crowe's albums via Rubenesque - her own label - and you'll know why this Canadian youngster is one to watch for the next half-century.

The Paperboys bring in da Canadian Celtic folk-rock via CD Baby so you can bring it on home. They do a great All Along The Watchtower, too.

Today's bonus coversong beginning with I:

  • Keb' Mo' covers Lennon's Imagine

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Victoria Williams Covers:
Harry Nilsson, Greg Brown, and more

Victoria Williams is a songwriter's songwriter's songwriter, a darling of the in-crowd: married to underground folkstar Peter Case when she released her first album in the mid-eighties, she has spent the bulk of her married life with Mark Olsen of the Jayhawks, with whom she cofounded the Creekdippers (aka several other names that have the word "creekdipper" in them). The turn-out for Sweet Relief, a benefit concert/recording made shortly after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1993, included acts from Pearl Jam and Soul Asylum to alt/indie luminaries Lou Reed, Michael Penn, Evan Dando, and Lucinda Williams.

But let us not think that Williams is worth celebrating merely because of who she knows. Her lyrical scope is voracious, if the lyrics themselves endearingly dorky; she is just as able writing a cute song about shoes or weeds as she is at telling stories of the smalltown and Southern. Her light voice has a quiver and a rasp that lends itself especially well to the loose stringed rhythms and the playful instrumental and back-vocal layers she favors in her performance; it floats beautifully over even the strongest production, like a hymn on a broken guitar.

And she's a sonic folk experimentalist of the first degree. In a world populated by Devendra Banhart and Marilyn Manson, Rolling Stone calls her weird, and they mean it as a compliment; it's no wonder she's so well respected by insiders well known for pushing the envelope of the sparse, the soulful, and the grungy.

Though Williams' mass popularity has never truly caught up with her famous fan-base, it's certainly not for lack of determination. Fourteen years post-diagnosis she's still performing -- mostly with the California-based alt-grass jam band The Thriftstore Allstars, though according to her fan site, she's been on the road with indie darling M. Ward enough to be considering a co-release.

And she still turns up on the occasional folk tribute. Today, typically odd-choice cuts off of a Harry Nilsson tribute and a Greg Brown tribute, each of which shows, in its own weirdly produced way, the instincts of a pro pushing the envelope, setting surrealist stages for the interpretive power of that wavery, strangely beautiful voice:

  • Victoria Williams, The Puppy Song (orig. Nilsson)
  • Victoria Williams, Early (orig. Brown)

Victoria William's most recent projects have not yet produced much beyond buzz and bootlegs, but you can still hear her voice in recent releases by hubby Mark Olsen, including 2007's Salvation Blues, over at Olsen's Myspace page. I also highly recommend her older work with and without the Creekdippers, and her 2002 collection of old-time covers Victoria Williams Sings Some Ol' Songs, all available via the Creekdipper website store. You know, just to tide you over while you wait for that M. Ward / Victoria Williams release to materialize.

Today's bonus coversongs:

  • The Creekdippers explore Gram Parsons' In My Hour Of Darkness
  • Michael Penn does justice to Williams' Weeds (live at Sweet Relief)
  • M. Ward covers Bowie classic Let's Dance (live on KCRW)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Single Song Sunday: Amazing Grace

Good morning, and welcome to our first Single Song Sunday, an occasional feature here on Cover Lay Down in which we consider several folkversions of just one song. And what better way to initiate an occasional Sunday series than to begin with not one but five great folk covers of church hymn and spiritual Amazing Grace?

One of the things that makes the hymnal an interesting source for folkmusicians and audience alike is the way the traditionally full-bodied plainsong harmonies and oft-included church organ give way to the sparse plucked-string instrumentation and more gentle, albeit more secular and impure, vocalization of the folk musician, bringing a sense of daily toil and heartache to what can otherwise seems like just another Sunday morning stand-up between platepassing and sermon.

Which is to say: once in a wonderful while the folk tradition turns to the hymnal, and not just because that's where you find the songs everyone knows.

But to best appreciate the case of today's featured song, the Christian hymn Amazing Grace (originally known as New Britain; lyrics written by John Newton, who is pictured above), we must remember that most Americans first hear this song as a gospel tune. For many, it was the transitional gospel that first bent the tune beyond the straightness of the pew, pointing the way toward the kind of secularized, humanized ownership of song which marks the folk tradition.

That many of the best folk versions of Amazing Grace seem more grounded in the gospel than the church itself is no surprise; after all, here's a rare beast that is easy to sing at first glance, and is both lyrically and musically simple and elegant enough for a multitude of meanings and methodological approaches. And despite origins in different communities, folk and gospel go way, way back: both traditions share a sense of songs as communally owned, and both celebrate intent and interpretation over note-for-note perfection.

To further explore this curious drift from church to coffeehouse, today, we feature a set of five folk interpretations of this well-covered spiritual: the high-produced uptempo stomp of Laura Love's cover, the simple, plaintive pluck of Sufjan Stevens' banjo, the crossing a capella harmonies of folksisters Chris and Meredith Thompson, Mark O'Connor's nearly-classical fiddle, and lo, even Barbara Cohen's twangy, almost alt-country steelstring-and-singer heartache.

Our list is by no means a complete one, but in its breadth, the potential of the hymn as folksong, the clear folk connection between the heard and the played, and the very diversity of the folk genre itself shine through like a light unto the lord.

Let there be light:

As always, all purchase links go to the artist's preferred source. Can I get an amen?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Covered In Folk: Lou Reed / The Velvet Underground
(Of second generation anti-folk and modern indie kids)

Alt-folk artist and producer Joe Henry and I are doing double duty today, folks: Henry's amazing cover of Pale Blue Eyes appears below, but I've also guest-posted a write-up of his coverwork over at Disney cover blog Covering The Mouse for this month's "When You Wish Upon A Star Week". Thanks to CTM host Kurtis for inviting me over to play, and don't forget to head on over for the bonus Joe Henry tuneage after you're finished here!

It's hard to mistake Lou Reed for a folk artist. As primary songwriter for pre-grunge, early lo-fi champions Velvet Underground, Reed wrote for a sound wailing with feedback and screaming with the heady rush of an early rock and drug culture. And though the simpler streetmajesty of his early solo work, most notably 1972 single Take a Walk on the Wild Side, comes across as not so far off in both voice and production from contemporaries Leonard Cohen (a true folkie) or Springsteen (who has always teetered on the folk-rock edge), his work over the last few decades has tended more towards the odd, the electronic, and the experimental.

But many of today's singer-songwriters cut their teeth on their parent's Velvet Underground records long before the colored girls sang "doot doo doot" on classic rock radio. And Reed's songwriting, its vivid imagery grounded in the muted browns and grays of streetcorners and the seamy underbelly of urban life, still speaks to a generation growing up alienated from place, in part by the very medium that carries these words from me to you. Covers of Lou Reed's work are everywhere, and more often than not, they sound like folk.

Today in celebration of the singer-songwriter as folk artist, we present a quintet of Lou Reed covers by a set of musicians from the periphery of folk. The cuts below mostly feature young and blog-popular indie musicians, though I'm allowing father figure Joe Henry into the fold because of his work producing such neo-folk musicians as Teddy Thompson and ani difranco. Though few of these folks self-identify as folk artists, their primarily acoustic, rough-voiced, low-production styles ground them in the genre nonetheless, even as these same qualities call to the original tone and temper of Reed's beautifully brokenvoiced anthems of broken boulevards and counterculture dreams.

  • Martha Berner, Sunday Morning (orig. Reed/Cale)
  • Clem Snide, I'll Be Your Mirror
  • Cat Power, I Found a Reason
  • Iron and Wine w/ Calexico, All Tomorrow's Parties
  • Joe Henry, Pale Blue Eyes

If you're old, like me, you've probably got your old Velvet Underground and Lou Reed albums packed away on their original vinyl format; you can upgrade for the digital age here, and get Lou Reed's newer work via Hi Fidelity.

All other artists listed today sell their disks directly through their web pages or labels; just click on their names to buy and browse: Martha Berner, Clem Snide, Cat Power, Iron and Wine w/ Calexico, Joe Henry.

Today's bonus coversongs:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Peter Mulvey: Ten Thousand Mornings
(Los Lobos, The Beatles, U2, and more)

I first encountered Peter Mulvey at the 2003 Green River Festival, where he appeared as part of lo-fi folk covergroup Redbird along with folk blues artist Jeffrey Foucault and his recent bride, the full-voiced Kris Delmhorst. Though at the time I was more impressed with the others, it is Mulvey's interpretations I keep coming back to -- though Delmhort's work is sweet simplicity, and Foucault can play the blues like nobody's business, it is Mulvey who has the versatility of the true cover artist, and the knack of bringing new meaning to a wide breadth of song.

Peter Mulvey fans speak mostly of his songwriting and guitarplay, which play off the similar strings but equally defined style of his constant sideman and collaborator David "Goody" Goodrich to create a rich slackstring sound; Mulvey's voice falls more into the Tom Waits and Dylan camps, full of feeling but hardly melodic. As a member of Redbird, this lends a rough edge to harmonies. As a solo cover artist, though, the spare voice recasts lyrics powerfully.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Ten Thousand Mornings, a 2002 album of covers -- the up-and-coming folksinger's bread and butter -- recorded live in Mulvey's old stomping grounds: the Davis Square subway station just outside of Boston. It's a neat concept, designed to call to his roots as a struggling busker, and it works exceptionally well: the echoes of the brick and tile underground lend an air of realism, and the trains and passersby screech and shuss, becoming part of the music, making the experience -- and the songs -- truly live.

It's hard to pick just two cuts from this album, both because there's so many gems and because there's a surprising diversity among them, given that most are just a guy and his guitar (and his guy, and his guitar). In the end, I decided to save his best covers of folk artists for other posts, so you'll have to wait for his amazing interpretation of Dar Williams' The Ocean, and his Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, and Dylan covers. Two of my remaining favorites from the subway series, the second with backup from Jennifer Kimball Anita Suhanin (thanks, anonymous fact-checker!):

  • Peter Mulvey, Two Janes (orig. Los Lobos)
  • Peter Mulvey, For No One (orig. The Beatles)

Ten Thousand Mornings is one of many fine Peter Mulvey records from folk label Signature Sounds; Mulvey sells them directly through his website, so you know where he prefers that you buy them. And now you know why you should, too.

Today's bonus coversongs:

  • Peter Mulvey unplugs and overhauls U2's The Fly
  • Mulvey croons 1930s classic You Meet The Nicest People In Your Dreams
  • Redbird make Moonglow their own

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lucy Kaplansky Covers: Just About Everybody
(Nick Lowe, Sting, Roxy Music, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Dylan...)

You almost never got to hear of Lucy Kaplansky: An 18 year old member of the early 80s new folk movement, she made it as far as plans for a recording venture with Shawn Colvin, only to change her mind at the last moment. For the next decade, Kaplansky continued to do light session work, most notably as a backup singer on early Suzanne Vega albums, but spent most of her time plying her newly minted PhD in Psychology as a therapist in New York. It was a hard loss for the folk community: her voice had been a sweet standout in the crowd even then, as evidenced by Fast Folk recordings from the era.

Thankfully, in the mid 90s Lucy came back to the folk fold. Since then, though she still supposedly sees patients, she's produced six absolutely incredible albums, chock-full of masterful songwriting. It's tempting to see her therapist's eye in her lyrical tendency towards storysongs of family, the lifestruggle of generational difference and the passage of time, the closing of distances metaphoric and real. But regardless of the source, there's nothing like her ability to find the right pace for a song, the right tone for a line, the right note of etherial melody for a story.

Kaplansky remains in high demand as a backup vocalist for fellow folkies on the road or in the studios; her pure voice and New York accent can be heard on almost every Colvin, Shindell, Nancy Griffith, and John Gorka album. Her ear is incredible -- I've seen her on stage with a good half dozen performers, and she seems to be arranging her harmonies on the spot, making good songs great with a subtle yet powerful touch.

But though in concert she tends to focus on her own stunning songwriting, Dr. Kaplansky's cheerful delight at singing and arranging the tunes of others translates to her own recordings, too: her albums tend to come in at about one-third covers, and her taste is impeccable. Over the last thirteen years, she has come to be known as much for her sterling interpretations of the songs of others as she is for her own material.

In fact, Lucy Kaplansky is such a prolific and powerful cover artist, I had real trouble narrowing down the choices, so today we're offering one cover from each of her six major albums, presented in chronological order:

Lucy Kaplansky covers...

You can hear more Lucy tracks at her website, but every single Lucy Kaplansky album from 1994 release The Tide to this year's Over The Hills belongs in your collection, and you can buy them all direct from her label Red House Records. So do it. Period.

Today's bonus coversongs:

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Covered In Folk: the Down Under Edition:
Kasey Chambers and others cover Tim and Neil Finn of Crowded House

I saw Tim and Neil Finn open for 10,000 Maniacs way back in the hairspray eighties, before Natalie Merchant turned into a banjo-playing folk recluse. Though back then my tastes ran to the produced radioplay of Finn-led popgroup Crowded House, there was something arresting in the simple guitar interplay and close harmonies of the Brothers Finn, riding high on first big Crowded House single Don't Dream It's Over. Their songs revealed a surprising poignancy once the wall of sound came down -- one that still comes through powerfully, despite the ravages of age in their voices, on their recent Finn Brothers release, and in the newly-reincarnated Crowded House that was all the rage at Coachella this year.

Since then, I've learned that Tim's the new-waver and Neil's the pop star. Tim's solo work includes singles but no hits, which is a shame, really: he writes decent if simple melodies, and his more recent work is stark and fine, but he's spent much of his career burying it under synthesizer and make-up. The rest of the record-buying public seems to appreciate Neil's slightly softer songwriting more, if sales are an accurate indication. In my experience, though, when they write together, as they did for most of 1991 album Woodface, the end result is the best of both worlds.

Sixpence None the Richer does a sicklysweet girlpop cover of Don't Dream It's Over that you've heard a hundred times; their version is probably more true to the original recordings than anything else out there. But the best covers of Finn Brothers' work strip it down to the bare essentials. Want proof? Here's Aussie folk sensation Kasey Chambers with a version of Neil's Better Be Home Soon from 2005 Tim and Neil tribute album She Will Have Her Way that will make you cry, and another simple cover of a song co-written by Tim and Neil, just for comparison's sake:

  • Kasey Chambers covers Better Be Home Soon (orig. Crowded House)
  • New Buffalo covers Four Seasons in One Day (orig. Crowded House)

The above cuts plus other beautiful coverversions, all by female Australasian artists, can be yours with the purchase of She Will Have Her Way; I recommend that you buy the bonus version, which is cheaper and includes all the originals, too! Chambers' solo work is not available through her website, but has acceptable prices. The acoustic intimacy of Finn Brothers release Everyone Is Here is gorgeous; I hear the new Crowded House album Time On Earth is good, too. Or there's always 1991 popgem Woodface, available on the cheap at your local bargain bin.

Today's bonus coversongs:

  • Jennifer Kimball's lush cover of Crowded House hit Fall At Your Feet
  • Neil Finn's live cover of the Smiths' There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
  • Kasey Chambers's amazing cover of Fred Eaglesmith's Freight Train

Extra special bonus:

  • Richard and Teddy Thompson recover* Persuasion (orig. Thompson/Finn)

    *Originally, Persuasion was a Richard Thompson instrumental theme written in 1991 for the movie Sweet Talker; Tim Finn liked it so much that he added lyrics and re-recorded it. Richard and Teddy cut this version with Finn's lyrics in 2000. Technically, that doesn't make it a cover, but I think it qualifies as a "re-cover", so I'm going to let it stand.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Metapost: Covering the Coverblog

Welcome (back) to Cover Lay Down! Just a quick note between cover features today -- I'll try to keep these short, but every once in a while it's useful to pull the curtain aside to speak out and clarify, I think.

First, I am hoping to write up a more formal guide to Cover Lay Down eventually, but I'm focusing on the music right now. In the interim, if you have any questions (like "why is there a Richard Thompson cover of a Squeeze song in yesterday's post about Teddy Thompson?"), the welcome post might be a useful place to start. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Second, a word or two about the method behind the musicposting here at Cover Lay Down. As you have probably noticed, music is being posted on I like because it allows you to play a song before you decide if you want to download it. But capacity is low for free accounts, so songs will probably only be up for a week or two before I take them down again.

This is okay, I think -- after all, the purpose here is to expose and promote musicians and albums, in the hopes that you'll buy the songs. But the clock is ticking on our first few entries, folks. If you haven't heard anything from Richard Shindell's stellar new cover album, or fed your ears with Eliza Gilkyson's amazing Dylan and Greg Brown covers, you're about to miss the boat.

Finally, a thousand thanks to YOU for validating my efforts. In less than two weeks we've had over a thousand downloads, and are closing in on 100 unique hits a day. It's especially nice to see that some of you have been following the links to artist websites and stores. Feel free to drop any suggestions for future post themes, songs, or artists in the comments at any time -- you've all earned it.

And a most special thanks to all who have driven traffic and good vibes my way. It is an honor to be found, and recognized, and welcomed so warmly by some of the very coverlovers and musicbloggers I've admired for years. If you've shown up circuitously, and have yet to visit Fong Songs, The Late Greats, Womenfolk, Cover Freak, Covering the Mouse, Coverville, and Retro Music Snob, head on over -- you're in for a treat.

We'll be back tomorrow with a second round of our Covered in Folk series, featuring folk covers of the songs of Neil and Tim Finn (cf. Crowded House, Split Enz). Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Teddy Thompson Covers:
Leonard Cohen, The Everly Brothers, and King of the Road

British born and New York based alt-musician Teddy Thompson released Up Front and Down Low, an album of classic country covers, in July, and it says what it needs to about his underdog status that a) the disk has only been released in the US, and b) neither the blogosphere nor any other market seems to have noticed. Heck, I was startled to discover it myself as I researched today's entry, and I spent an entire summer listening to nothing else but Thompson's second album Separate Ways, a perfect, crackling masterpiece of self-pity topped off by a hidden Everly Brothers track.

One of several second-generation musicians emerging from under their parent's wing to startle a new generation, Teddy Thompson has not yet managed to ring the bell of fame that fellow secondgen artist and bad influence Rufus Wainwright has. Nor has he found his audience, yet -- being compared to Crowded House in one review and Jackson Browne and David Gray in another provides a pretty broad range. But if Thompson remains unknown, it's not for lack of musicianship (though in the case of his newest outing, it may be because the country market is not his niche).

Thompson's music is only folk in the broader sense, but his folk credentials are solid: son of old folkies Richard and Linda Thompson, born and raised in a Sufi commune, Thompson Jr. shares his mother's sweet, clear, etherial voice, and his father's penchant for bitter lyrics full of the seamy underside of fame and drug culture. The combination is powerful, and even if his guitar playing is still on the cusp of maturity, using his parents and peers in the studio has, so far, made up for that lack. I am confident that Thompson's music will eventually win the hearts and minds of a full generation once he returns to his original songwriting.

In the meantime, here's two songs Thompson covered for the 2006 Leonard Cohen tribute film I'm Your Man, where he stood out among some pretty heavy compatriots, including Wainwright himself. Tonight Will Be Fine comes especially recommended -- something about the bittersweet lyrics and the slow pace suits him, I think.

  • Teddy Thompson, Tonight Will Be Fine (orig. Cohen)
  • Teddy Thompson, The Future (orig. Cohen)

Still haven't heard Teddy's newest album, but I'd buy enough copies of Separate Ways for all of you if I had the cash. Since I don't, you should head over to his website and pick it up for yourselves -- and if you get the new one, too, let me know how it turned out, will you?

Today's bonus coversongs:

  • Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright cover King of the Road
  • Teddy and Linda Thompson cover the Everly Brothers' Take A Message To Mary
  • Richard Thompson covers Squeeze's Tempted (because I'm saving his Prince cover and his version of Oops! I Did It Again for another post)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Covered in Folk:
The Dixie Chicks do Patty Griffin

You may not have heard of Patty Griffin. But if you've had your ear to the radio over the past decade, you've heard her songwriting: Griffin is one of those rare singer-songwriters whose songs are bigger than she is, and in her case, it's a shame and a blessing. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the bittersweet lot of the oft-covered and not-yet-famous. We call it Covered in Folk.

According to legend, the production on Patty Griffin's first album obscured her authentic sound so much that her label buried the studio tracks, remastered her demo, and released it pretty much as-is. The result, 1996 release Living With Ghosts, is a comprehensive masterpiece of raw folk power. The siren sounds of the city through her open apartment window only reinforce the realism inherent in the languid grit of her hard-driving guitar, and her hallmark seen-it-all wail.

But we're not here today to talk about Patty's breathy voice, or her rough, busker's streetcorner sound. We're here to talk about her songs.

Those who have seen Patty in concert agree: there's nothing quite like the powerhouse Maine woods twang-and-wail to lay bare the bones of her earlier, darker lyrics of battered women and lost rural souls. But I'd rather have her songs channeled through other voices than let them languish in the A&M vault. And luckily, Griffin's songs are so powerful as written, it's a genuine joy to hear them handled well by others.

No performer in today's market has benefitted more from Griffin's songwriting than country sensations and anti-Bush badgirls the Dixie Chicks, whose three-part harmony and careful handling make the songs their own while retaining all the original power of lyric and melody. Today we offer three Patty Griffin covers, one from each of three different Chicks albums.

  • Let Him Fly, off Dixie Chicks Fly
  • Truth No. 2, off the Dixie Chicks Home
  • Top Of The World, off the Dixie Chicks live album of the same name

The Dixie Chicks are great musicians in their own right, but now that you know the pen behind the music, put your credit where credit is due: pick up Patty Griffin's Living with Ghosts, her stellar opus of smalltown loners 1000 Kisses, and the rest of the Griffin catalog at ecotunes, her preferred sales source.

Today's bonus coversong bonanza:
  • New folkfemme combo Red Molly covers Griffin's Long Ride Home
  • Alt-countrified Emmylou Harris covers Griffin's One Big Love
  • Covergirl chanteuse Maura O'Connell covers Griffins Poor Man's House
  • Patty Griffin covers Springsteen's Stolen Car
  • Patty Griffin covers John Hiatt's Take It Down

Friday, October 5, 2007

Shawn Colvin, Cover Girl:
From Tom Waits to the Talking Heads (and then some)

The profitability of cover albums may be indirect for artists, but as a way to raise awareness, it's a masterstroke. Way back when genres meant something, the internet hadn't changed our music distribution models, and the Adult Alternative label hadn't subsumed well-produced folk music, recording a cover album was a sneaky strategy for folk musicians to broaden the listener base and please the fans all at once.

Shawn Colvin's 1989 debut Steady On garnered her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and deservedly so: the combination of Colvin's polished, slightly southern-twanged voice and co-writer and producer John Leventhal's lush sound made for seminal work of modern folk, irresistible to those of us looking for the next Suzanne Vega. But Colvin's sophomore Fat City was less well received -- as with so many musicians who spend decades honing that first pressing, the gems were fewer for the second go-round. How to broaden and recover that fresh-faced folk appeal?

Enter Cover Girl, a 1994 album which primarily took covers from Colvin's live recordings (a staple of the on-the-road folksinger) and added a few in-studio layers of bass and atmospheric noise. The end product required little studio time or rehearsal for Colvin; the strategy allowed her to remain in the public eye while she worked up her next album of original material, and it paid off in music and reputation, if not in actual sales.

Though one or two Cover Girl tracks suffer from overproduction -- including, sadly, her cover of The Police's Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic -- the hit-to-miss ratio here is high. Colvin's simple guitar and little-girl voice breathe new life into a wide swath of material, from bluesman Chris Smither's Killing the Blues to Band b-side Twilight. Here, we hear her bring backroads innocence to one of two Tom Waits cuts, and her wistful, melodic take on a Talking Heads synthpop classic:

  • Shawn Colvin, This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) (orig. Talking Heads)
  • Shawn Colvin, Looking For The Heart of Saturday Night (orig. Tom Waits)

Colvin appears not to sell her CDs direct from her website, so instead of directing you to buy today's featured album via the artist, I'll note that you can, and should, get Cover Girl for $7.69 at CDUniverse.

Today's bonus covertracks:

  • Colvin covers Simon and Garfunkel's The Only Living Boy in New York (live)
  • folkcombo Salamander Crossing try Colvin's Shotgun Down The Avalanche
  • Alison Krauss makes funky, fast bluegrass of Colvin's I Don't Know Why

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Eliza Gilkyson Covers:
Dylan, Greg Brown, and an unexpectedly poignant piece from one hit wonder World Party

Eliza Gilkyson has apparently been flying under the folk radar for quite some time now -- her Wikipedia entry lists no birth date, guesses at her age, and is comprised entirely of a single sentence about her musical family connections and a list of her 15 studio albums over a 28 year career.

I must admit, it was a surprise for me to find Gilkyson so unwritten. If her regular appearance on folk collections is any indication, she's well-respected as a solid voice within the folk community, appearing with names from ani to Shawn Colvin. Heck, someone who played a feature set at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival back when her 2000 cut "Hard Times In Babylon" was all over the folkwaves deserves more than a stub.

To be fair, her relatively recent rise in familiarity, if only within the apparently non-wikipedian folk community, is also due to her appearance on two cover albums -- 2002 Greg Brown tribute Going Driftless and 2001 Dylan recast A Nod To Bob. The former is a masterpiece of the modern folk community; the latter is a generally solid all-folk tribute album to Dylan; both contain covers from a wide breadth of excellent folkies and singer-songwriters, and will surely come up again here on Cover Lay Down.

Gilkyson's cuts on these albums are equally powerful, melodic, raw and twangy; though you can hear the weary age in her voice, there's something plaintive, simple, even hopeful about her interpretations. But don't take my word for it. Take an earful, and hear for yourself.

  • Eliza Gilkyson, Love Minus Zero (orig. Dylan)
  • Eliza Gilkyson, Sleeper (orig. Brown)

Her catalog is vast, and though I can't claim to have heard it all, what I have heard is worth owning. I especially recommend Gilkyson's penultimate album Paradise Hotel, which includes a wonderful cover of 80s one-hitter World Party's Is It Like Today, and her 2000 Red House Records release Hard Times in Babylon, and not just for the title song. Get them direct from the label -- Red House deserves your support. You can hear more Gilkyson on MySpace, too.

Today's Bonus Coversongs:

  • Gilkyson covers World Party's Is It Like Today
  • Greg Brown does Dylan's Pledging My Time
  • Shawn Colvin does Greg Brown's Say a Little Prayer