Friday, November 30, 2007

(Re)Covered: More of and from...
Cat Stevens, Neil Finn, The Wainwright Family, and Bill Morrissey

I certainly wasn't planning to post four times this week. But I've unearthed some great-but-late cuts that just begged to be passed along. And this past holiday weekend left me feeling thankful for all those who write and say such nice things about Cover Lay Down. Guess the urge to keep giving was just too much to bear.

Today, the second installment in our (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover songs that dropped through the cracks too late to make it into the posts where they belonged. Enjoy!

I've had several requests for the popcovers I mentioned in last week's Cat Stevens post -- they're not folk, but Stevens is, and both Natalie Merchant and Sheryl Crow have folk cred (the former from her recent solo work, the latter from her early pre-stardom days). So here are Peace Train and The First Cut Is The Deepest. Along with a sweet, ragged, just-unearthed version of Wild World by antipopsters The Format. Plus Australian indiefolkers New Buffalo's slow, grungy acoustic take on that Nina Simone song that Yusuf covers, just for comparison's sake. Oh, and a wonderful, sparse, sleepytime Here Comes My Baby cover from previously featured kidfolk songstress Elizabeth Mitchell. Ask, and ye shall receive, and then some.

  • 10,000 Maniacs, Peace Train
  • Sheryl Crow, The First Cut Is The Deepest
  • The Format, Wild World
  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Here Comes My Baby
  • New Buffalo, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (orig. Nina Simone)

I also picked up a few wonderful solo acoustic covers from Neil Finn last week that I couldn't resist passing along; they would have been great bonus songs from our October feature on the songs of Neil and Tim Finn, if I'd had 'em, but that's what our (Re)Covered feature is for. He's not folk, and neither are the original artists of these two pop songs, but the brightly optimistic singer-songwriter treatment Finn gives these two pop songs would be perfectly appropriate on any folk festival stage in the country.

  • Neil Finn, Billie Jean (orig. Michael Jackson)
  • Neil Finn, Sexual Healing (orig. Marvin Gaye)

Lest we lose sight of our core mission, here's some folk covering folk: a wonderful Bill Morrissey and Greg Brown cover of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me I rediscovered just after posting Bill Morrissey's tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. It's a traditional folksong you might recognize as covered by the Grateful Dead under the alternate title Been All Around This World; I'm saving that for a long-overdue Garcia and Grisman feature, but in the meantime, here's another sweet version of the same song by new neotraditionalist Canadian alt-folkies The Deep Dark Woods.

  • Bill Morrissey w/ Greg Brown, Hang Me, Oh Hang Me
  • The Deep Dark Woods, Hang Me, Oh Hang Me

And finally, not one but two beautiful songs which really speak to the whole twisted family dynamic of the Wainwrights, who we featured in our first Folk Family Friday. First, in a burst of typical irony, Rufus and Martha cover father Loudon Wainwright III's One Man Guy, then -- just to show there's no hard feelings -- Kate and Anna McGarrigle once again bring together family friend Emmylou Harris and ex-spouse Loudon for a jangly take on the traditional Green, Green Rocky Road.

  • Rufus Wainwright w/ Martha Wainwright, One Man Guy
  • The McGarrigles, Green, Green Rocky Road

As always, all artist links here on Cover Lay Down go directly to the artists' preferred source for purchasing music. Please, folks: if you like what you hear, both here and out there in the wild world, buy the music, and support the continued production of incredible sound from those who eschew the easy top 40 route to fame and fortune.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rani Arbo Covers:
The Beatles, Springsteen, Holiday Songs and more!

Rani Arbo knows good music. As sole female member of New England's premier folkgrass roots combo Salamander Crossing, she was the stunning, crystal-clear voice behind some of my absolute favorite originals and interpretations of songs from the traditional to the popular. She was also founding member of honkytonk act Girl Howdy, where she lent her crisp fiddle-playing to a fun, authentic group of women that moved on without her before recording a lick. And, since the turn of the century, as the leader of Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, she's been consistently blowing the minds of those who thought folk-tinged bluegrass was nothing more than country music in disguise.

I've been lucky enough to have seen this amazing artist in small venues in all three of her musical incarnations. Over that time, I've seen Arbo -- who originally presented herself as just one vocalist/instrumentalist among several in Salamander Crossing's first release -- grow into a powerful vocalist, arranger, and bandleader, first tentatively, and then with the kind of easy, grinning confidence and control that brings her name to the front of the marquee.

There's a reason why reviewers compared Salamander Crossing's later work favorably to that of Alison Krauss and Union Station. But since then, as leader of Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem -- a band which also features fellow ex-Salamander Crossing member Andrew Kinsey and Arbo's husband, percussionist Scott Kessel -- Rani and her cohorts have gone far beyond the simple genre-work of Krauss. From their first release, each Daisy Mayhem album has spanned an incredibly broad spectrum of style, from honkytonk to folk to blues to bluegrass to swing -- and with the support of her powerful bandmates, each of whom contributes to authorship, arrangement, and leadership, Rani makes it all work exquisitely.

Rani Arbo's life hit a snag a few years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer just around the time she and Kessel became parents. During that time, Rani stopped touring much, and we moved away from the Northern Massachusetts region that Rani calls home; I haven't seen her live in a while, with or without her incredible band of musical cohorts. But now, after a four year gap between albums, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem are back in swing. Critics love their newest release Big Old Life, which like their previous ventures, is a solid mix of up- and down-tempo traditional songs, originals, and just plain fun. (It also includes some sweet covers of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs.) I think you'll love it, too.

Today, a history in covers -- both in the hopes that you'll support Rani and the rest by picking up their catalog, and in celebration of an artist that, like the beautiful and ever-changing musical phoenix that she is, keeps rising from the ashes to shine once again. Listen for a range of musical styles, the playful stretching of a still-evolving musician comfortable in every mode from slow ballad to acoustic swing to the familiar bluegrass style made popular by Alison Krauss. Then listen again. Then buy. And repeat, ad infinitum.

One note before we get to the tuneage. There's a lot of music here today, but only because it was damn hard to keep from posting every song on every album. Instead of just going for the "popular" covers, why not try 'em all for once? I promise your ears will thank you.

  • Salamander Crossing, Things We Said Today (orig. The Beatles)
    (from Salamander Crossing)

  • Salamander Crossing, Two Faces Have I (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
    (from Passion Train)

  • Salamander Crossing, Five Days in May (orig. Blue Rodeo)
  • Salamander Crossing, Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow (trad.)
    (from Bottleneck Dreams)

  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Limo To Memphis (orig. Guy Clark)
  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, I Do My Cryin' At Night (orig. Lefty Frizzel)
    (from Cocktail Swing)

  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, O, Death (trad. / Bessie Jones)
  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Turtle Dove (trad.)
    (from Gambling Eden)

  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Oil in My Vessel (trad.)
    (from Big Old Life)

  • Rani Arbo, I Saw Three Ships (trad.)
  • Waters, Moore, and Arbo, Nowell Sing We (trad.)
    (from Wonderland: A Winter's Solstice Celebration)

Still wavering? To make purchasing easy, I've linked each album mentioned above directly to a purchase page at long-time Pioneer Valley folklabel Signature Sounds, which is currently offering their yearly artist sampler free with any purchase. This years sampler includes Winterpills, Crooked Still, new work from previously featured folkartist Peter Mulvey, unreleased Erin McKeown and more!

Today's bonus coversongs:

  • Electric bar-blues band the Tarbox Ramblers cover O, Death
  • Mountain music pioneer Ralph Stanley covers O, Death, too

Yesterday's bonus coversongs:

Monday, November 26, 2007

Covered in Fluff...I Mean, Folk:
Songs from Disney's Winnie the Pooh

This is Kurtis from Covering the Mouse sharing a little bit of my Disney collection with all of you folk lovers! Boyhowdy has been a guest poster on my site a few times and now he has asked me to be one for his site! And I am more than happy to help him out! And if you're looking for Boyhowdy, then you'd better head on over to Fong Songs where he is today's guest poster!

I have chosen a trio of Winnie the Pooh songs for today's post by three very different acts. But first let me bring everyone who has been living under a rock up to speed about Winnie the Pooh:

Winnie the Pooh is a book series by A.A. Milne from the 20s. The bear in the book is based on a stuffed bear owned by his son, Christopher Robin Milne. The stuffed bear is based on Winnipeg, a bear from the London Zoo originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Christopher named his bear Winnie and asked his dad to write some stories about him.

In the sixties, the Walt Disney company adapted the stories into a trio of animated shorts. It is here that we are introduced to the characters as we now know them as well as the classic theme song.

The theme song was written by Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman for the 1966 short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. It is one of the most recognized of all Disney songs and is heard in almost every Pooh production ever made by Disney.

But enough about history, let's get to the covers!

  • Carly Simon, Winnie the Pooh
    While Simon's main body of work filled the rock world in the 70s and 80s, she has really mellowed out having released albums of standard, lullabies and two soundtracks for Winnie the Pooh movies. This cover was written for the 2003 feature film Piglet's Big Movie and was heard again in Pooh's Heffalump Movie in 2005. She adds a really nice folk touch to the song and the only part that I really don't like is when it breaks into the string bridge. Otherwise, it's a great cover! The track can be found on both soundtrack albums.

  • The Chieftains, Winnie the Pooh
    Boyhowdy wrote up a review of this cover on my site and reviewed it better than I could so I encourage you to visit that post by clicking here.

  • Tommy and Amanda Emmanuel, Pooh Bear Medley
    It is said that Tommy Emmanuel is the best guitar player in Australia. He started playing when he was four and never stopped learning and practicing. He has had several albums since the seventies and if you listen to them you will hear that they he is an excellent guitarist. In the cover, off the sadly out-of-print Disney Duets: A Family Celebration, he plays a medley of two songs: The classic Winnie the Pooh theme as well as his version of the theme song from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh television series from 1988. Interspersed throughout the track are readings from the book by Tommy's daughter Amanda. The father/daughter team up is very touching and really captures the essence of the silly old bear.

Today's bonus coversongs:

I've included two Jungle Book tunes for you to hear. Please check out my site for more information about these artists.

  • Michelle Shocked, Bare Necessities
  • Gabriel Rios, I Wanna Be Like You

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Single Song Sunday: Joni Mitchell's River
(Holiday Coverfolk, Part 1)

Though each year brings a few wonderful additions to the caroling songbook, eventually, every truly great holiday song gets covered and recovered in a multitude of genres and styles. Which is to say: there's plenty of folk covermusic for the holidays. As we slide towards December, stay tuned for a cornucopia of features on Christmas albums, folk musicians, and folksinger favorites, from the Roches We Three Kings to the very best label-driven holiday compilations.

Today we begin our foray into the holiday coverfolk spirit with a focus on perhaps the first truly modern folk song to be brought into the cycle of once-a-year covers that is the Christmas Canon: Joni Mitchell's River.

For a Christmas standard, Joni Mitchell's River is extraordinarily complex. The subtle piano instrumentation and tongue-in-cheek intro lend itself to holiday ballad; even in the original, the way the sharp chords of Jingle Bells segue into a flowing, languid piano and Joni's soaring vocals calls up images of drinks by the fireside, snow falling outside frosted glass. But below the surface, this song reveals its songwriter's mental state. And Joni's not feeling very Christmassy.

Like the rest of Joni's 1971 album Blue, River bears the bitter mark of Joni post-relationship, struggling to put words to a feeling of defenseless fragility. The lyrics are explicit: though it helps to know that Joni was in sunny California at the time she wrote this song, far from the Christmas cold of her native Canada, the litany of faults and life failures which causes Joni to long for a river to "skate away on" certainly transcends mere geographical dissatisfaction.

Has River become a Christmas standard in denial of its wistful, cynical core? Or is Christmas, in our modern, overcommercialized world world, becoming something from which we long to escape? It's hard to say. Certainly the song has been disproportionately covered in the last decade: according to one authority, there are over 130 recorded versions floating out there in the ether. But most are saccharine sweet holiday pap, and many change neither instrumentation or voice much beyond adding a few layers of this era's production. Only a tiny few truly reinterpret this simple hymn of longing and regret.

But those few are treasures. For despite how easily it slides into the repertoire of the pop balladeer, and regardless of what it says about our changing feelings toward Christmas, River is eminently a song worth saving.

Today -- in a reluctant nod to the fact that half of our local radio stations have already switched over to holiday music -- we offer a short list of the best and folkiest.

Each manages to make the familiar meaningful again -- whether it is Peter Mulvey's low, broken voice bringing out the true core of Joni's longing and sadness, or just James Taylor being James Taylor, bright and full of hope even in acknowledgement of the deepest depression.

Each truly brings new light to an aging standard. Most notably, Angus Stone's re-rhythming of the song into a light, bouncy, fully orchestrated work of strings and guitar casts the work as a product of the modern mellow indie-folk movement without losing a drop of poignancy. Allison Crowe's solo piano version and Rachael Yamagata's piano-with-bass cover may not sound so different from the original at first, but listen again and the subtleties stand out: Yamagata's slurred, cracked breathiness lends tears to the sadness, while Crowe's majestic tonal read turns the song on its ear.

And each is eminently listenable. Listen to the way the waterfall tinkle of the harpsichord compliments the string-and-piano (and jingle bell) poppiness of Aimee Mann's version. And, sure, Sarah McLachlan is hardly folk, but this fellow Canadian still manages to bring the fireside feel of winter to her electrified popversion.

Enjoy today's covers, the first of many gifts from us to you as we celebrate the holiday season here at Cover Lay Down. And remember: without the bittersweet world for context, we could not so love our songs of comfort, joy, and peace.

We'll host a full Joni Mitchell edition of Covered in Folk sometime in 2008, but if you just can't wait for your coverfix, buy Blue, and start catching up on one of the truly seminal artists of American folk music.

Or head over to Coverville to download The Joni Mitchell Cover Story II, which ends with the incredible title cut from Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters.

Or visit The Late Greats for an incredible 30-song post of songs with the word river in them, including both Joni's original and an amazing version from Madeleine Peyroux and kd lang.

Or, whet your appetite with today's bonus coversongs:

Come back Monday for a very special feature on folk covers of Disney's Winnie The Pooh, guest hosted by Kurtis of Disney coverblog Covering the Mouse! Meanwhile, I'll be over at eclectic coverblog Fong Songs analysing covers and original of The Smiths' Girlfriend In A Coma, while Fong closes the loop with a sweet write-up of yet another Winnie the Pooh cover over at Covering the Mouse. It's coverblog musical chairs!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thankful Folk:
A Thanksgiving Holiday Special

The web is full of Thanksgiving originals this week: Alice's Restaurant, Loudon Wainwright III's Thanksgiving, songs about helping others, the odd song about pie or turkey. Here at the Boyhowdy House, we're feeling grateful for a few choice folk-tinged coversongs of thanks and blessing-counting that stand out in a small pond of hymns and secular songs just right for the season. Without further ado, here's some particularily Thankful Folk.

  • Chris Smither, Thanks To You (orig. Jesse Winchester)
    The opening cut from previously featured Chris Smither's powerful, well-produced Small Revelations, this cover just plain rocks, from the first bass growl (I know I'm a sinner/I ain't no beginner) to the last sustained blues lick.

  • Erin McKeown, Thanks For The Boogie Ride (orig. Buck/Mitchell)
    This short, crisp boogie-woogie tune from diminuative-yet-powerful folkartist Erin McKeown comes from Sing You Sinners, her full album of old Tin Pan Alley tunes. You can hear her infectious grin throughout.

  • Dave Van Ronk, God Bless The Child (orig. Billie Holiday)
  • Eva Cassidy, God Bless The Child (orig. Billie Holiday)
    Two blues versions of this Holiday tune from two very different folk artists stolen from this world far too soon. Dave Van Ronk's slow, bluesy solo acoustic fingerpick and Eva Cassidy's electrified loungeclub blues swoon make the perfect counterpart. Off Your Basic Dave Van Ronk and American Tune, respectively.

  • Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, The Farmer Is The Man(orig. J. Carson)
    A mournful paean for the oft-invisibles who bring our table's bounty and a gruff, loose-fiddled reminder to those who would forget. From Gambling Eden, which, like most of Arbo's work, is chock full of wonderful interpretations of old folk and gospel tunes. (Buy before 2008, get free shipping! And 10% of all profits go to Rock and Roll camp for girls!)

  • Sufjan Stevens, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (trad.)
    My absolute favorite hymn, ever since I heard Sufjan's five-EP set Songs For Christmas last year. Our hymnal lists this song as a hymn of Thanksgiving, so there's no need to wait a month to hear the beautifully torn banjo-jangle plainsong approach Sufjan brings to it.

As always here on Cover Lay Down, wherever possible, all artist/album links above go to that artist's preferred purchase source. Help make some artist thankful -- buy their music today!

Psst! Looking ahead towards our next holiday? I usually try to hold off on celebrating too early, but yesterday, on our way home from an authentic 1830s Thanksgiving feast, we passed a family cutting down trees and putting up reindeer, and it reminded me of a song lyric. So stay tight until Sunday for our first post of the 2007 holiday season: a Single Song Sunday feature on Joni Mitchell's River.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Covered In Folk: Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam
(Jack Johnson, Kristen Hersh, Gary Jules, Johnny Cash)

I shouldn't have to tell you about the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Though his albums haven't sold much since his conversion to Islam in the late seventies, his songs remain firmly in the popular psyche, both as soft-oldies radio standards and as fodder for the interpretive skills of newer generations. Of the latter, the best cuts include those from the popworld, and they tend to hit the charts about once a decade; depending on who you ask, these might include 10,000 Maniacs rockin' cover of Peace Train, and Sheryl Crow's recent chartbusting re-remake of The First Cut Is The Deepest.

Though I saw 10,000 Maniacs in the right era to have seen their Peace Train live, I was born too late, and came to folk rock too late in life, to be a true Cat Stevens fan. With a few exceptions -- most notably his 2006 pop album An Other Cup, his first mainstream release since 1978, which includes a gorgeous, brooding, poignantly yearning cover of Nina Simone's Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood -- the music he's produced since a near-death experience caused him to change his name to Yusuf Islam, while beautiful in its own way, is truly designed for less Western ears than my own.

And though his back catalog continues to garner recognition, the Western world hasn't been kind to Yusuf Islam the man. His chance for a triumphant return to the global stage was stolen when he was bumped from Live Aid in 1985 after Elton John went long. He made the news in the late eighties for comments which were perceived at the time as support for the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, and again in 2004 when the US refused to pull him from their no-fly list, which tainted this icon of non-violence with an unproven association with terrorist causes.

But the more I encounter his older songs through the performance of talented others, the more I appreciate his skills as a songwriter -- and the more it becomes evident that an uncanny ability to put words and melody to peace, love, and a connection to the earth has always existed in Cat Stevens.

Such is the lot of the great cover: while it stands on its own as a performance, it also reminds us of the genius and truth of those that pen and first perform those songs. And such is the lot of the coverblog, too, for as long as there are still folks out there who think Sheryl Crow was covering Rod Stewart, it falls to us to set the record straight. What better way to do so than to celebrate those who, like Stevens himself, eschew the electric guitar wail, preferring instead to find the simple, melodic core of these songs, that quiet, spiritual peace which made them beautiful and memorable in the first place?

Today, then, the folkworld's best stripped-down Cat Stevens covers, which expose the heart of song and songwriter through the acoustic and the slow. And bonus songs: the aforementioned Cat-as-Yusuf cover of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, which serves as a powerful response to a Western world from an Islamic ambassador of peace who has himself been misunderstood, and a sweet solo acoustic cover of Where Do The Children Play from Jack Johnson woven skillfully into one of his own. You won't hear these songs on the radio, but you'll be glad you heard them.

  • Kristen Hersh, Trouble
  • Gary Jules, How Can I Tell You
  • Eli, Morning Has Broken
  • Johnny Cash w/ Fiona Apple, Father and Son
  • Liz Durrett, How Can I Tell You
  • The Holmes Brothers, Trouble

Yusuf Islam's 2006 An Other Cup is a stellar return to pop and circumstance well worth owning; keep reading to hear a choice cut, and get his entire catalog here.

Throwing Muse Kristen Hersh's majestic Trouble lends a modern indie sensibility to an old standard; find it on soloproject Sunny Border Blue.

Gary Jules brings his subtle orchestration and an uncanny Stevens-esque vocalization to How Can I Tell You on out-of-print all-cover Valentines Day compilation Sweetheart 2005: Love Songs.

Christian folksinger Eli bends Morning Has Broken -- a hymn made famous by Stevens -- just barely enough to sweeten it; thanks to Tim for promoting song and singer.

Johnny Cash and Fiona Apple collaborate to bring us a memorable, raw Father and Son retold through the haze of time. From Cash outtake collection Unearthed.

Liz Durrett's breathy-soft, tinkly How Can I Tell You is available from her website; pick up her three solo albums while you're there.

Today's genre-appropriate take on Trouble from rootsy folk/bluesmen The Holmes Brothers is available on the previously mentioned Crossing Jordan soundtrack, but you can and should buy their 2007 release State of Grace from Aligator Records.

Today's bonus coversongs:

  • Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam covers Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (orig. Nina Simone)
  • Jack Johnson's Fall Line segues into Where Do The Children Play

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sam Amidon Covers:
Tears for Fears, Mississippi John Hurt, Ella Jenkins

The Amidon Family is about as local as a folkband can get. Stars of the artistically self-sustaining Brattleboro, Vermont music scene for decades, parents Peter and Mary Alice were carrying their love for Shaker plainsongs and traditional folkmusic from local farmer's markets to a roadmap of traditional folkfans long before I moved to the area in the early nineties. Boys Stefan (drums) and Sam Amidon (fiddle, banjo, guitar) have been accompanying their parents since childhood; they formed Assembly (then called Popcorn Behavior) and set out on the contradance circuit before puberty, wowing audiences with their young virtuosity and bringing a faster pace than their parents had to the traditional folkreel set.

True, contradance and localfolk occupy a small niche even within the larger realm of folk music. But today, though both brothers support the increasingly avant-folk Assembly and The Amidon Family, neither Sam Amidon nor his music are local anymore. And the result -- so far -- has been a revelation.

Just four years after recording an entire album of overly-traditional solo fiddle tunes, Sam Amidon has begun to stretch the boundaries of traditional folk, bringing his banjo to support such Brooklyn experimentalists Doveman and Stars Like Fleas, and his interpretive style to a series of increasingly vivid recordings with a diversity of artists. Now, just a year after releasing an album of sparse, drum-machine-rich reinterpretations of traditional appalachian songs, Sam has been signed to tiny Icelandic indie superlabel Bedroom Community, where he's poised to take the indiefolk world by storm with the full sound and moody, practically Bjork-like production of his upcoming solo release All Is Well.

Bloggers who know -- including stereogum, Motel de Moka, and Said the Gramophone -- use words like amazing and haunting and pretty fucking special to describe Sam's recent work, both as a solo artist and as Samamidon (with Popcorn Behavior cofounder Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett). They're not wrong: Amidon should be on the cusp of indie greatness. Though Sam's love of traditional folk tunes has not faded -- every song in his forthcoming work is in the public domain -- his approach to them is unique and experimental, favoring the kind of moody piano-and-strings wash-of-sound production which fills the indie airwaves these days. There's something of the careful, rich strumsounds and organmoods (and trumpets) of Sufjan Stevens and Jose Gonzales and Damien Jurado in here, and it's as stellar in in the young Sam as it is in his forefathers.

How nice to find another take on the banjo- and guitarstrings so rich, so powerful, so respectful of tradition. While we wait with baited breath for February, here's a few gorgeous covertunes from Sam, from the sparse to the orchestral: three from 2007 Samamidon release But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, and three from the upcoming All Is Well. Plus a couple of pretty coversongs from his Mother's recent release Keys to the Kingdom, which Sam produced in between gigs.

Update: Stats show no one's downloading anything but the Tears For Fears cover below. I know it's tempting to just snag the song you're familiar with...but try at least one of the other Amidon covers, eh? Your ears will thank you.

Get Sam Amidon's But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted while you wait for All Is Well to come out.

To support Sam in all his incarnations, plus a full breadth of young folkartists from alt-indie to rural country dancemusic, check out Assembly's new jazz-influenced January EP, too, which features Sam on Irish fiddle and Stefan on percussion, and the myspace pages of NYC indiefolker Doveman and experimental indiekids Stars Like Fleas.

Tradfolk fans will also enjoy Peter and Mary Alice's work, available via their website.

And see the Contra Corners map for the contradance nearest you -- you never know when one or more Amidons will show up to play the dance.

Today's bonus contradance coversongs:

(Full disclosure: the Amidons were my wife's music teachers in elementary school; most of her immediate family has sung under Peter Amidon's direction. Nice folks, all around.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Double Feature Folk:
Bill Morrisey Covers Mississippi John Hurt

In rare cases, a performer goes beyond the traditional one-song cover approach to cover a full set of an artist's catalog. At their best, from Jennifer Warnes' full album of Leonard Cohen songs to Billy Bragg and Wilco's reinterpretation of the works of Woody Guthrie, such devoted efforts to reimagine a whole body of work go beyond mere song interpretations to cast new light on a deserving talent.

We call it Double Feature Folk -- a case of featuring an artist who is himself featuring another -- and we start today with Bill Morrissey's 1999 tribute to the Songs of Mississippi John Hurt.

Mississippi John Hurt was one of those classic early blues artists from the days of Lomax and Leadbelly. Lost for years with but two mid-depression pressings to his name, he was tracked down in his twilight through a song reference to his hometown of Avalon, and given a few shining years in the sun -- including a set at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival -- as a revered elder statesman of the country blues before his death in 1966.

When he released his Songs of Mississippi John Hurt in 1999, Bill Morrissey was himself an elder statesman of the Fast Folk folk scene. Morrissey had cut his teeth on the blues, finding a balance between the New York folk scene of the sixties one one side, and the early lo-lo-fi sounds of Hurt and his country contemporaries on the other. Ten Grammy nominations later, he was known for having forged a unique brand of laconic early alt-americana focused on the milltown depression that hit his native New England in the late seventies and eighties.

So why a full album of Mississippi John Hurt songs? Hurt's greatest hits were in no real danger of getting lost -- this is a man whose early version of Stagger Lee is considered definitive. Instead, it seems likely that, even as folk and blues seemed to be giving way to the post-grunge and lo-fi indie movements of the late nineties, Hurt himself was starting to be forgotten.

For Morrissey, who attributed his right hand work "purely" to his discovery and subsequent embrace of the blues stylings of Mississippi John Hurt, this must have been a tragedy. Here was the antithesis of the Delta blues -- a man who, in Morrissey's words, was "elegantly melodic and funny" -- and all that he was remembered for was a few old chestnuts he had made his own.

Reminding the growing fourth-wave folk community of its roots while pulling Hurt's less iconic songs back together under his name seems, in this light, almost a noble ambition on Morrissey's behalf. In celebrating those roots -- the bouncy, playful blues lyric, the acoustic blues fingerplay -- Morrissey redefined post-blues folk, a group which would include equally playful and lighthearted contemporaries Greg Brown and Chris Smither, just in time for a new generation of artists such as Peter Mulvey and Jeffrey Foucault.

And it works, too. Morrissey's creaky, almost anti-melodic vocal style lends itself well to the surprisingly sweet songs of this iconic sharecropper. His eclectic acoustic arrangements bring horn, harmonica, and harmony without making these songs anything but lighthearted and fun.

Today, three tunes from Morrissey's tribute to Mississippi John Hurt -- plus a whole mess of covers, both by and of Morrissey and Hurt -- which showcase the startling commonality of voice, perception, and style between two half-forgotten A-listers of their respective musical generations.

  • Bill Morrissey, I'm Satisfied (Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Bill Morrissey, Louis Collins (Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Bill Morrissey, Funky Butt (Mississippi John Hurt)

Bill Morrissey's entire awardwinning catalog, including the fifteen-track Songs of Mississippi John Hurt, is available directly from Rounder Records. Mississippi John Hurt tracks are available on practically every good blues compilation, but all good bluesfans should have at least one copy of the Complete Studio Recordings of Mississippi John Hurt box set.

Today's bonus Bill Morrissey coversongs:

And today's bonus Mississippi John Hurt coversongs:

Don't forget to come back Sunday for a very special feature on up-and-coming indiefolkster Sam Amidon, including covers of Tears for Fears, some souped-up traditional americana, and more Mississippi John Hurt!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Beck Covers:
Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, The Flaming Lips, Nick Drake

I saw Beck from a great distance in the heyday of Odelay, sandwiched between Primus and Toad the Wet Sprocket: it was the early nineties, it was Horde, we were bopping on the throbbing lawn, and folk was the farthest thing from anyone's mind. Fifteen years later I'm married to the girl I took to the concert, Beck's still cranking out the pophits, my hard drive is stuffed with folk music, and I pick up every Beck album as it comes out.

Is Beck a folk musician? Not if measured by his hits, no. Technically, his most popular work is post-modern alt-rock, if anything. But there's plenty of reasons why Wikipedia includes the artist formerly known as Bek David Campbell in its list of American folk singers, and uses the term "folk song" to describe a vast swath of his work (I swear, it said that even before I showed up). Beck spent his early days as a busker and coffeeshop player, which gives him the folk street cred; he even opened for Johnny Cash in 1995. He can play a slide guitar and twang his postadolescent voice like no one's business; some of his songs from that period and before come across as almost alt-country.

Beck's songwriting, too, lends itself well to the cadence of the folksinger, as both his less highly-produced projects and covers of his work demonstrate. Today's bonus selections, by KT Tunstall, Tom Petty, and Marianne Faithful, provide some tasty versions from the folkier side of this versatile performer's songbook, just to show how folk these songs really are. But Beck's 2002 album Sea Change, especially, represents a stripped-down acoustic style that leans on his rough interpretation and a simple, indiefolk production style -- even if the occasional synthpulse in the background belies his post-modern hip hop heritage.

And when Beck takes on the songs of others, he generally chooses to slow them down, letting his quavery voice and lo-fi, sparse acoustic instrumentation recreate tone and timbre until everything is wistful, hazy, and raw. Live or B-side, tribute album or hidden track, Beck's penchant towards funereal alt-folk pieces, like Ryan Adams or Gillian Welch at their slow and melodramatic best, legitimizes his inclusion in a blog devoted to folk covers.

Want proof? Today we bring you a broad set of covers from Beck's folksinger side: the dreamlike echoes and hawaiian guitar of Your Cheatin' Heart, the strings and lo-fi drumkit pulse of James Warren's Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes, the slow, ragged-harmonies of Beck and Emmylou Harris covering Gram Parson's countryband ballad Sin City, an in-studio acoustic cover of the Flaming Lips, and the eerie, gorgeously dark Nick Drake covers Pink Moon, Which Will, and Parasite. Are they folk songs? Absolutely. Is Beck an unsung folkstar? Listen up, and decide for yourself:

Regardless of categorization, Beck's work is available directly through his online store. Folkfans should probably start with Sea Change; if your ears can take the bouncier, harder stuff, I also highly recommend Odelay and Guero.

Today's bonus coversongs:

Friday, November 9, 2007

More folk covers of Britney, Lou Reed, Chris Smither, Amazing Grace

In order to maintain quality over quantity, this is our last regular Friday post here at Cover Lay Down; from now on, you'll still get ten or more carefully vetted songs a week, but with a few notable exceptions (holidays, the occasional Folk Family Friday), posts will appear on Sundays and Wednesdays.

Today, for a "final" Friday post, we recover a few songs that dropped through the cracks just a little too late to make it into the posts where they belonged. Ladies and Gentlemen: our last regular Friday, our first

My Halloween post on Britney Spears folk-covers seems to have started a trend: if you haven't already, head on over to Cover Freak and new blog Cover Me for a whole mess o' popcovers from across the musical spectrum. Especially recommended for folkfans: Shawn Colvin's cover of Gnarls Barkley summersong Crazy, Matt Weddle's reinterpretation of Outcast hit Hey Ya, the term "Pop Tart" to describe a certain type of female pop singer. Not recommended: Nickel Creek's cover of Toxic, which I download and delete every few months -- it was probably hilariously wonderful in concert, but the recording suffers from some abysmal recording quality.

But the popcover flood isn't over yet: in addition to sparking a coverblog meme, my own post brought several direct submissions out of the ether. You'll see a few of these in future posts; in the meantime, here's a few of the best Britney Spears covers I received in the past few days:

  • Irish folkrocker Glen Hansard of the Frames covers Britney's Everytime (Thanks, Rose!)
  • Another chilling version of Toxic from Dutch folkgoddess Stevie Ann, this one in-studio and sans sax (Thanks, the_red_shoes!)
  • More from Guuzbourg:
    • a light sweet version of Toxic from the Chapin Sisters
    • a Klezmer-esque Toxic from Global Kryner.

In other news, I also found a great "bonus" for last week's Lou Reed folk coverpost while flipping through some old entries in retropsychadeliablog Garden of Delights. June Tabor and The Oyster Band's 1990 version of Velvet Underground classic All Tomorrow's Parties has strong ties to the traditional Irish/British countrysongs at the core of folk rock as first defined by Pentangle, Donovan, and Steeleye Span in the 1970s.

  • June Tabor and The Oyster Band, All Tomorrow's Parties

After weeks of scouring local public libraries, I finally found Bonnie Raitt's absolutely marvelous cover of Chris Smither's I Feel The Same and the produced version of his Love Me Like A Man on her 1990 retrospective The Bonnie Raitt Collection. I've loved this pair of covers ever since I was a kid; listening to them again brings me right back to the hardwood floor in front of my father's stereo, carefully sliding records out of their sleeves. I posted a live version of the latter last week, but the produced versions are better.

  • Bonnie Raitt, I Feel The Same
  • Bonnie Raitt, Love Me Like A Man

Had I began researching this week's post on folksong lullabies earlier, I would have discovered classicalfolk guitarist and composer John T. La Barbera's version of Who's Goin' To Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot in time to include it in my post on Amazing Grace and the folk/gospel tradition. They're not the same song, but the music is almost identical; for the first half a minute, La Barbera's soft, gorgeously lush instrumental could be either.

  • John La Barbera, Who's Goin' To Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot (trad.)

Finally, thanks to all who send, tout, and post music -- keep those afterpost suggestions coming in, folks! And don't forget to come back on Sunday for a very special ten-song feature on the folkier side of Beck!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Red Molly: Never Been To Vegas
(Gillian Welch, Susan Werner, Elvis and more)

Though I spend plenty of time at the foot of the stage, I don't usually care much for live recordings: I prefer the perfection of the studio to the roar of the imaginary crowd, and poor sound quality bothers my ears. But every once in a while, when there's a good engineer at the sound board, something truly special results. Such is the case with Red Molly's strong first full-length album Never Been To Vegas -- which, when added to their four-song in-studio EP, is the sum total of their recordings.

And, with the exception of a few previously-sung notables by Red Molly dobro player Abbie Gardner, every single song on these albums is a coversong.

The three folksingers that comprise Red Molly -- Gardner, bass player/mandolinist Carolann Solobelo, and banjo/guitarist Laurie MacAllister -- met around covers, so it's no surprise that their entire recorded output consists of them. Formed from the early morning remnants of a latenight songcircle high above the darkened mainstage of Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, the trio returned to the festival two years later to win the highly-competitive FRFF Emerging Artist showcase. (Full disclosure: I'm crew chief for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival teen crew).

Since then, the girls of Red Molly have toured with the other 2006 showcase winners, opened for such luminaries as Jonathan Edwards and John Hammond, and come back to Falcon Ridge as featured performers, wowing crowds and winning admiration from fellow musicians with their sweet harmonies and full acoustic sound. Throughout, they've been playing covers -- banking admiration for such time as they might return to either their own solo work, or a fuller existence as the rarest of American folk creatures: the folk group.

Mostly, Red Molly's interpretations lean towards the Americana end of folk music -- coverchoices include Gillian Welch, Hank Williams, and old traditional folk/gospel songs such as Darlin' Corey and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder. But regardless of subject, their tight crystal-clear harmonies and brightstringed musicianship bring each song forward as a gift to be shared, a glittering gospel.

Today we feature a trio of songs from the folktrio's Never Been To Vegas, with kudos to engineer Dae Bennett for changing my mind about live recordings, even if this one turns out to have been recorded in a studio, not a coffeehouse. Don't forget to check out the bonus songs below for a sweet pair of covers from their self-titled EP, and a wonderful version of You Gotta Move by Abbie and fellow 2006 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Showcase winner Pat Wictor.

  • Red Molly, Caleb Meyer (orig. Gillian Welch)
  • Red Molly, Coal Tattoo (orig. Billy Edd Wheeler)
  • Red Molly, Blue Night (orig. Kirk McGee)

Support these fast-rising, red-wearin' women by buying Red Molly, plus solo albums from Abbie, Laurie, and Carolann, from CD Baby via the Red Molly website. While you're there, follow the link to pick up this year's Naked Folk Calendar (the girls of Red Molly were the November 2006 pin-up); all calendar profits go towards health insurance for struggling folk musicians.

Today's bonus coversongs:

  • Red Molly wrings new life from old Elvis-covered chestnut Are You Lonesome Tonight...
  • ...and jams through Susan Werner's Yellow House
  • Abbie Gardner and Pat Wictor wail the doublesteel blues on You Gotta Move (orig. Mississippi Fred McDowell)
  • Previously posted: Red Molly covers Patty Griffin

Monday, November 5, 2007

Elseblogging: over at Covering The Mouse
The Chieftains cover Winnie the Pooh

Just a quick between-post redirect to Covering The Mouse, where Kurtis is king of the obscure, the odd, and the occasionally awful Disney cover. My guestblog there today covers the Chieftains doing Winnie The Pooh; if you like Disney, or Irish jigs, I highly recommend a visit. (Why? Because we like you!)

Disney lovers may also have noted that yesterday's kidsong post also includes bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss' sweet cover of Baby Mine, originally from Dumbo. And our previous post about a certain ex-mouseketeer continues to get hits. So much Disneyfolk, so little time...

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Covered in Kidfolk:
Lullabies and Softsongs For Cool Moms and Dads

I've been a teacher for almost fifteen years, and a Daddy for five; I'm lucky to be able to live in a world where I can be with kids, and play. But other than a short period of time where my daughter's favorite song was Andrew W.K.'s thrashpunk anthem She Is Beautiful, this means there's a constant struggle in my house between what I like to call "that same damn circus record" and what the kids dismissively refer to as "Daddy's music".

But listen up, Dads (and Moms): when the kids demand more appropriate age-specific earcandy, we don't really have to lose. In a world where an entire generation is trying to keep their cool in the face of diapers and snailspace trick or treating, you don't have to listen to that pap that passed for kids music in the disco era. Or Barney songs. Or that awful, too-chipper CD of baby-fied classics your mother picked up at her local all-natural toy store (sorry, mom). There's a brand new crop of kidsingers out there -- a holy host, from Dan Zanes to a thousand younger artists -- and they're not afraid to get 'em while they're young.

For the indie and rock crowds, I suppose, this demand for "real" kidmusic does seem to have opened up a new niche market. But folk music has long carried the torch for the authentic in kidsong. My 1970s childhood was filled with acoustic guitar and rough-tinged voices on already-old records from Guthrie and Leadbelly, and newer acts from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bill Staines. When folk music came back for the Fast Folk second wave, it brought along its sense of childlike wonder; the demand bought Grisman and Garcia and Taj Mahal a second round of folkfame, and made way for new acts, like the jamgrass-for-kids Trout Fishing in America.

Since then, as the new generation grows through its indie stages, our favorite streetwise musicians grow up and have kids of their own -- and out come the guitars and the quiet, simple voices, calling up half-remembered favorites from a time when everything was simple and pure. Suddenly, everyone's a folk singer.

Like ice cream comes in vanilla and chocolate, kids songs come in two primary flavors, the quiet and the silly -- but there are infinite variations from creamy to nutty. Next week, maybe, we'll get a case of the sillies, and need to shake it all out. Today, three generations of folksingers -- oldtimers Bill Staines and Garcia/Grisman, fastfolker Shawn Colvin and bluegrass staple Alison Krauss, and a host of newer artists from the wide margins of modern folk -- bring us a set of lullabies and resting songs for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Click on artist/album names to buy some incredible music for the young and the young at heart. And remember, kids: buying music from the artist's preferred source gives you peace of mind so you can sleep like a baby.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Folk Family Friday: The Wainwrights
cover Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Wainwright, et al.

Today, in our first of what promises to be a fine series of Folk Family Fridays, we bring you a family tree of Wainwrights: Loudon, Rufus, Martha, and Kate & Anna McGarrigle, proud and outstanding in their field. Keep an ear and eye open for upcoming posts on the Taylor/Simons, the Thompsons, three generations of Guthries, The Ungars, and anyone else we can connect by blood or marriage in less than six degrees.

Loudon Wainwright III met Kate McGarrigle in Greenwich Village in 1969; she and her sister were darlings of the Quebec folk scene; he was struggling to make a name for himself in the New York folk world. Their marriage didn't last long, but happily for the folk canon, it produced both enough acrimony to provide fodder for their own songwriting for years to come, and future folk-musicians Rufus and Martha, who each went on to make made a name and a niche for themself by continuing the family tradition of using their music to blast out at their family.

(Sidenote: Loudon went on to marry Suzzy Roche of the Roche Sisters; their daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche has performed with Rufus and Loudon, and released some great covers herself. And commenter woolmanite rightly notes that Loudon's sister Sloan is a folk-rocker, too. But we'd be here all night if I didn't stick to the once-nuclear Wainwright/McGarrigle branch of the family tree. Another time, another post...)

If even Vanity Fair has told their story, what else is there to say about the Wainwrights? For starters, consider the potential in tracing not just lyrical roots and commonality among folk families, but in listening to their works sequentially to compare the way nurture and stylistic choice and random genetic mixes produce in some folk families a sort of common voice, while in other families, subsequent generations end up at different poles of the folk spectrum, even while their voices echo their roots, their families, and their genre.

The Wainwrights are a poster family for the latter case; unlike many folk families (see, for example, Arlo and Woody Guthrie), each one of the Canadian-American Wainwrights has their own defined musical style. Yes, there's a faint hint of Kate and Anna's breathy melodies in Martha's airy intonation, Dad's swallowed vowels and a touch of Mama Kate's loose country melody in brother Rufus' torch song approach. The playfulness of lyric and performance, a dominant trait, shine through both sides. But the torch song stylings Rufus favors are all his own, and though she styles herself folkpop, Martha's a darling of the indie movement for a reason.

Of the four -- we'll count Kate and Anna as one -- Rufus is the one who has truly made a name for himself as a coverartist. I posted his co-cover of King of the Road when we covered his co-conspirator and constant companion Teddy Thompson earlier, and live bootlegs of everything from Careless Whisper to his Judy Garland covers bob up to the blogsurface constantly. You've heard his Hallelujah, and so I've posted a different Leonard Cohen cover here.

But as with all true folksingers, the recorded output of each of these prolific singer-songwriters includes enough covers to keep listeners smiling and this post on track. Today, some especially bright gems from the immense coveroutput of a collective century of musical genepool genius. I'm especially enamoured of Loudon's yelping bluegrass interpretation of the traditional Hand Me My Banjo Down. It puts Springsteen's version to shame.

  • Loudon Wainwright III and Tony Trischka, Hand Me My Banjo Down (trad.)

  • Kate & Anna McGarrigle feat. L. Wainwright, Schooldays (orig. L. Wainwright III)

  • Martha Wainwright, Bye Bye Blackbird (orig. Gene Austin)
  • Martha Wainwright, Tower of Song (orig. Leonard Cohen)

  • Rufus Wainwright feat. Kate McGarrigle, Lowlands Away (trad.)
  • Rufus Wainwright, Harvest Moon (orig. Neil Young)
  • Rufus Wainwright, Chelsea Hotel No. 2 (orig. Leonard Cohen)

Expect a few more Wainwright family songs as we approach the holidays; 2005 release The McGarrigle Christmas Hour was one of the finest Christmas albums from the folk camp since the millenium turned over. Maybe I'll confront the Roche/Wainwright connection then -- the Roche Sisters' We Three Kings is a refreshing, crisp winterdisk, too.

In the meantime, instead of creating the world's largest buy-these-discs paragraph, here's a link to the webpages of each Wainwright/McGarrigle mentioned in today's post:

Today's bonus songs are few but precious:

  • Emmylou Harris covers Kate McGarrigle's Going Back to Harlan
  • Regina Spektor covers Chelsea Hotel No. 2

Stay tuned over the next few days for our first KidFolk coverpost (Garcia and Grisman! Alison Krauss! The Be Good Tanyas!) and yet another guest post over at Disney coverblog Covering The Mouse. Enjoy!