Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cowboy Singers:
Folk artists cover songs of the range

I figured it would be fitting to end our contest week with a theme that would help us transition back from the countrified edge of folk. Thus: folk singers covering cowboy songs. Enjoy!

Continuing our discussion from earlier this week: back when the world was acoustic, a guitar and a voice could travel a long way, from back porch to prairie campfire, and be different only by context, and the tone it lends. Since then, of course, our sense of genre has been radically transformed and fully, irreversably exploded into chaos. But once upon a time, folk and country and back porch blues weren't so different, after all.

The irony, then: while modern country music claims the concept of cowboy, today, reducing old cowboy standards back to their essentials is considered folk, where it would have once been just plain song. Crossover songs like these are like a return to the roots of the branching tree that is american music, back when the world seemed all wide open spaces and endless horizon; singing them is like longing for a time when we were a nation of strong, silent types.

Today, then, some cowboy songs in the key of folk: a few true traditionals about the range and the prairie, and a song or two which merely references the once-familiar image. A few are technically country music, but their countrified folk interpetations are old and familiar enough to transcend genre. Most aren't really about cowboys. They're about the idea of cowboys, one of our last remaining clear-cut cultural metaphors.

  • Bill Staines, Home on the Range (trad.)
  • Maria Muldaur, Prairie Lullaby (orig. Billy Hill)
    A pair of quiet western songs from old-timey folk and gospel collection American Lullaby, effectively interpreted by two northeasterners: true New England backcountry folksman Bill Staines and ex-Greenwich Village folk staple Maria Muldaur.

  • Riders in the Sky, Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle (orig. Gene Autry)
  • Riders in the Sky, You've Got A Friend in Me (orig. Randy Newman)
    Cowboy and western band Riders in the Sky have appeared at the Grand Ole Opry over 700 times. They also do a great cover of You've Got A Friend in Me, from Toy Story. Hey, Woody is a cowboy, too.

  • Ry Cooder, Billy The Kid (trad.)
    Billy was technically an outlaw, not a cowboy. But the setting matches, and Ry Cooder gives this traditional song such a wonderfully sparse, jangly, bluesy feel with nothing but mandolin and electrified slide, I couldn't hold back.

  • Lucy Kaplansky, Cowboy Singer (orig. Dave Carter)
    I requested this song at a recent Lucy Kaplansky show; Lucy seemed pleased. It came off dark and thoughtful and sweet all at once, as always. From her penultimate release The Red Thread.

  • Kelly Willis, Don't Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim (orig. Kirsty MacColl)
    One last mellow country song before I go: Kelly Willis does a great version of this old Kirsty MacColl waltz on Easy, all sweet voice and transcendent harmony. You'd never know it was country if you couldn't hear the woodblock downbeat.

  • Suzanne Vega/Bill Frisell/Wayne Horvitz/Syd Straw, Medley Two: Stay Awake/Little Wooden Head/Blue Shadows On The Trail (orig. Disney)
    The annoying thing about 80s-era Disney cover album Stay Awake is the way the songs are impossible to separate from each other. The lovely thing about this medley is that all the pieces work. I posted it for Syd Straw's cowboy song; we'll consider the Suzanne Vega and Bill Frisell Disney covers a bonus.

As always, artist and album links above lead to artists' preferred source for purchase wherever possible. Buy what you like; like yourself better for buying local and direct.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Good News, Bad News: A Metapost Interlude

The good news is, thanks to a totally random process involving a five year old and 29 small pieces of paper, one of YOU has just won an autographed copy of Shelby Lynne's new Dusty Springfield tribute Just A Little Lovin'. Thanks to the fine folks at Filter for making this contest possible!

Unfortunately, Shelby Lynne's label has also requested that we NOT post any full-length songs from the new record -- a real shame, as the new album has a few wonderful folk cuts among the pop and smooth jazz, most especially Willie and Laura Mae Jones and How Can I Be Sure. This label-approved half-sized streaming clip of Dusty classic Breakfast in Bed says what it needs to, though...

  • PARTIAL CLIP: Shelby Lynne, Breakfast in Bed

    As a consolation prize, the nice folks at Filter gave us a SECOND autographed CD for a very lucky secret second place winner -- and this time, we let the dog pick the winning number. Show your appreciation by buying Just a Little Lovin' from their store, instead of a megastore. You can also download the sole Shelby Lynne original from that album over at Twangville, just below info about the new Willie Nelson release. And you can still hear some two-minute song samples at Shelby Lynne's website.

    In the meantime, the above confusion leaves me post-less at the eleventh hour. But never fear! I'll have a Wednesday post up soon...

  • Sunday, January 27, 2008

    Shelby Lynne Covers:
    Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton
    plus covers from Allison Moorer, Steve Earle, and Cash, too!

    Just a few days left to win an autographed copy of Just A Little Lovin', Shelby Lynne's new acoustic country tribute to the songs of Dusty Springfield! To tempt you a little more, today we're featuring a pair of older covers by this perpetually on-the-verge singer-songwriter, plus a matching set by her equally talented sister Allison Moorer.

    If Shelby Lynne was pure contemporary country, you'd not find her here on a coverblog devoted to folk music. But though she's made her share of slick pop country albums, since the confessional turn of 1999 recording I Am Shelby Lynne, which garnered her a much-belated Grammy for Best New Artist in 2001, Shelby Lynne no longer considers herself a country music artist in the same vein as Carrie Underwood or Shanaia Twain, and it's not hard to see - or hear - why.

    The relationship between country music and folk music is complex, especially since the advent of alt-country. In one way, it's true, for example, that bluegrass is to country as folk and blues are to rock...but it is equally true that bluegrass, folk, and the more traditional forms of country music share more with the modern alt-country movement, and more with each other, than they do with the kind of pop country that makes the crossover to what's left of the mainstream radio spectrum.

    It is not necessary to reconcile these parallel truths in order to enjoy Shelby Lynne's wonderful new release Just A Little Lovin'. That's not to say it defies categorization, necessarily; if anything, with a few powerful exceptions, this is both a sweet in-genre tribute to a seminal 60s-era pop-folk artist and a sultry pop record, in the same vein as KD Lang's later work, or the best of Diana Krall, if a little farther South, geographically speaking. But where Lang and Krall slip too easily into softpop torch songs, Lynne's choices on this powerful collection of Dusty Springfield covers span a wider, warmer spectrum, from the piano bar ballad to the smooth bass-and-snare jazz trio to the pulsing, driving alt-country of Lucinda Williams or Michelle Shocked.

    It's all good. At its best, in cuts like the dark, bluesy Willie and Laura Mae Jones, or the deep, slow jazz of the title cut, Lynne's delivery bleeds raw at the edges, creating a nuanced, powerful, mature balance between vocal control and roots-ragged empathy. Her ability to truly reinterpret Dusty is both honorably unique and, on an emotional level, uncannily accurate. And the stripped down acoustic instrumentation, heavy on the languid piano and acoustic guitar, supports this sound exceptionally well.

    I've been asked not to post tracks from Just A Little Lovin' until Tuesday, the album's official release date; as we come to the end of our contest, I'll able to share a few tracks to tempt you one more time. Happily, however, Shelby Lynne's previous coverwork is diverse enough to speak to both the complicated relationship between folk and country, and the overwhelming power of this Grammy-winning vocalist at her interpretive best. Here's two of my favorites: A truly country Johnny Cash cover, and an absolutely stunning folked-down version of Dolly Parton's The Seeker which hints at her work-to-come.

    Interested in hearing for yourself? Hedge your bets: pre-order Just A Little Lovin' directly from the fine folks at Filter, and enter our contest to win an autographed copy!

    Today's bonus coversongs continue in a countrified vein, with a unique twist: I was able to find both a companion Cash cover and a companion Dolly Parton cover from Shelby Lynne's sister, the equally wonderful, slightly more alt-country chanteuse Allison Moorer, who is also slated to release a coveralbum in the coming months:

    And, just for fun, Allison's husband, country folk rocker Steve Earle, with his own take on a Cash tune...and Johnny Cash himself, with a cover of Earle, for the extra point:

    Thursday, January 24, 2008

    WIN Shelby Lynne Covering the Songs of Dusty Springfield

    No music today, folks...just a promise of what's to come.

    Singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne's new album Just A Little Lovin', a stripped-down acoustic set of covers of Dusty Springfield songs (plus one Dusty-esque original), comes out on January 29th, and I can't wait. Shelby was once pure Nashville Country, but she left that behind long before her 2001 Grammy for Best New Artist; her newest work floats a set of masterful vocals over acoustic guitar and piano, resulting in a sound comparable to the better, sparser works of Alison Krauss or even Norah Jones: folk-tinged, with a twang and a fully mature control over her own sound. If the cuts I've heard are any indication, we're in for a real treat.

    And if you're as excited as I am -- or just intrigued enough to care -- now's the time to pay attention. Because thanks to Lost Highway Records, Filter, and the other good folks behind this record, I've been given the chance to offer one of you your very own autographed copy of Just A Little Lovin'.

    I'll be posting a few songs from Just A Little Lovin', plus some other great covers from Shelby Lynne, in the next few days. In the meantime, if you'd like to take a crack at winning an autographed copy of Shelby Lynne's sweet new cover album, leave a shout-out and your email address in the comments below. I'll pick a winner sometime next week.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008

    Covered in Folk: Simon and Garfunkel
    (Indigo Girls, Jonatha Brooke, Shawn Colvin, and more!)

    Hope no one minds two Covered in Folk features in the same week; in my other life I've got student grades to process and a new term starting up Thursday, so I needed something quick. Upcoming features include the coversong repertoires of some stellar voices from across the folk spectrum; in the meantime, here's a post I've been sitting on for a few weeks, ever since our feature on the solosongs of Paul Simon.

    You need me to say something about Simon and Garfunkel? THE Simon and Garfunkel? Okay, how about this: every single person I know knows the lyrics to at least one Simon and Garfunkel song. Me? I can sing Cecilia in my sleep. In harmony.

    Rolling Stone lists Simon and Garfunkel at #40 on their most influential artists ever; by "influential", they're talking about the effect of this American folk rock duo on the world of professional music, the stuff that garnered them a lifetime achievement award at the 2003 Grammy awards. But much more noteworthy is the fact that, three generations later, their songs have become part of the base set of popular tunes which pepper the sonic landscape for the developing ear in suburban American culture.

    It's not just that I know all the words to a song older than me. It's that I learned them when I was fourteen, and I still remember them. Even in an earbud age, kids still come home from summer camp with the songs of James Taylor, the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel in their ears, because this is the canon of the acoustic guitar, passed down from older teen counselor to song circle. Now that's folk. It's truths like that which give us hope for the next generation, and the next beyond that, too.

    Today we present a carefully chosen, predominantly female-voiced set of Simon and Garfunkel covers, firmly grounded in the folk world but willing to veer towards alt-country (Johnny Cash), folk pop (The Indigo Girls), and indiefolk (The Purple Raiders, Emiliana Torinni) where the song warrants it. Nothing comprehensive, mind you. Just some great songs, performed and interpreted with love and guitars. And isn't that the best kind of tribute?

  • Indigo Girls, Mrs. Robinson
    The tomboyish, politicized folk harmonies of the Indigo Girls charge every word with a gleeful yearning, create the perfect happy medium between the original song and that amazing cover by the Lemonheads.

  • The Purple Raiders, Mrs. Robinson
    ...though this even more ragged demo might have more indiecred. I'd say more about alt-country upstarts The Purple Raiders, but their website is all in German.

  • Johnny Cash w/ Fiona Apple, Bridge over Troubled Water
    This one got lost among the Nine Inch Nails and U2 in the last cover-heavy years of Cash's career. Some sappy synth-vocals in the background, but Johnny Cash's broken-voiced hope clears the maudlin bar.

  • Emiliana Torrini, Sound of Silence
    Folk rock at its psychadelic, Icelandic best. Once a stand-in for Bjork, Emiliana Torrini can turn a great song on its ear without straying too far from the original sound. She can also build a hell of a wall of sound.

  • Brobdingnagian Bards, Scarborough Faire (trad.)
    A tradsong popularized by Simon and Garfunkel, done over by faux buskers the Brobdingnagian Bards on the punnishly-titled A Faire to Remember. Our first nod to the filksong and re-creationist fairefolk movements here on Cover Lay Down.

  • Jonatha Brooke, Bleecker Street
    Musicians and music lovers of a certain age know we're a bit too young to know Bleecker Street as it was in the heydey of the American folk revival. But we sure recognize a debt to our forefathers when we see it, and Jonatha Brooke pays hers back with interest. Absolutely stunning. From the incredible out-of-print folkscene tribute album Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The 60's.

  • Shawn Colvin, The Only Living Boy in New York
    A repost from our first few weeks, but I couldn't resist: Shawn Colvin's sweet, soaring, just-before-9-11 cover of this song is the archetype for the truly great Paul Simon cover. Feel the love, and own it, too.

  • Alison Brown w/ Indigo Girls, Homeward Bound
    Jazzfolk fusion bluegrass banjo wizard (and Compass Records founder) Alison Brown generally brings guest vocalists in for her coversongs; here, the sweet harmonies of the Indigo Girls bring us back full circle.

    As always, all artist links above go to artists' preferred source for purchase; if you like what you hear, pick up the recorded works of these modern inheritors of the folk world by clicking on their names above.

    And here's a little bonus section coverfolk from Paul Simon's oft-forgotten partner -- a man who has read one thousand twenty three books since June of 1968, and wanted to put a Bach chorale piece on Bridge Over Troubled Waters. There are others, but this Art Garfunkel stuff's a little too lite for my ears.

  • Monday, January 21, 2008

    I Have A Dream:
    Coversongs of the Civil Rights Movement

    No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

    It saddens me how much Dr. King's I Have A Dream speech continues to resonate today. Sad, too, that so much of the rising generation thinks of today as just another day off.

    May these few still, small, unsatisfied voices in the wilderness remind us of how far we have come -- and how far we have yet to go.

    Saturday, January 19, 2008

    Covered In Folk: Gillian Welch
    (Glen Phillips, Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss, Crooked Still)

    Hope no one minds an early "Sunday" post this week; my brother and his wife are on their way in from Brooklyn for the long weekend, and I don't get to see them as often as I'd like. I'll have a short post up for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, if I can; in the meantime, enjoy today's feature on "American Primitive" folkartist Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, the tenth post in our popular Covered in Folk series, where we pay tribute to the songwriting talents of a single artist.

    I saw Gillian Welch at the Green River Festival a while back, and it was a revelation. From ten rows back, her summer dress blowing in the hot breeze, her twanged voice, the doubled guitars, her narratives of Southern poverty and pain, all conspired to bring the hot scent of jasmine and Southern dust on the breeze even as we lounged on the New England grass. The crowd swelled. The rest of the afternoon passed in a haze.

    Though it was her vocal talents in O Brother, Where Art Thou which put her on a mass-marketable par with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, it was clear to anyone watching that, as a musical phenomenon, Gillian Welch was a force to be reckoned with in the growing americana folk movement.

    More often than not, Gillian Welch is the performing name for two musicians, Welch herself and her ubiquitous partner David Rawlings; when they work with others each gets billing, but in performance as a duo, the pronoun "she" is the standard convention. Welch appears as frontwoman, and can certainly stand her own as a powerful force in a particular subgenre of american folk music, but they share writing credit on many songs, and their harmonies -- vocal and guitar -- are notable and recognizable.

    And what is the Gillian Welch sound? Welch's voice is well-suited for the raw, backporch paces she puts it through; together, as songwriters and performers, these two musicians build on this vocal base to create an americana sound Welch calls "American Primitive", something simultanously sparer and more richly nuanced than anything a solo artist could do with guitar or voice. Call it old-timey folk -- unproduced and jangly, sparse and stripped down from the more traditional old-timey sound of groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, Welch and Rawlings' musical compatriots and touring partners.

    There are times when Gillian Welch sounds like an old Alan Lomax field recording, something timeless, raw and elegant in its simplicity and honest rough presentation. The lyrics, too, tend towards the trope and narrative themes -- rural life, loss and hardship -- of early American southern field folk. Given all that, it's no wonder that over the last decade or so, since even before the release of debut album Revival in 1996, the folk end of the americana movement has begun to pick up her songs and give them the traditional treatment.

    Today, some select covers from the increasingly vast spectrum of sound that pays tribute to this weathered, shy, still-young matriarch of the new americana folk set. Interesting, how many retain the original Welch/Rawlings close harmonies, as if the tenor echo were as much a part of the original text to be covered as the powerful words, melody, and chord. Perhaps it is.

    • Crooked Still, Orphan Girl
    • Emmylou Harris, Orphan Girl
    • Dakota Blonde, Orphan Girl
      Crooked Still hops with cello, banjo and bass; Emmylou Harris fills out the sound in her inimitable style; newcomers Dakota Blonde mourn a life alone with accordian and guitar and drumthunder. The infinite possibility of nuance and power keeps this oft-covered, well-worn tune fresh, despite its weary lyric.

    • Ryan Adams, Revelator
    • Glen Phillips, Revelator
      Two electrified covers which take this heavy tune to its natural folk rock conclusion. Alt-country rocker Ryan Adams' shortened version, off the Destroyer Sessions, is full-on Neil Young, guitars and vocals tangled up in angst. Singer-songwriter and ex-Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips' version is darker, more pensive, more beautiful.

    • Peter Mulvey, Caleb Meyer
    • Red Molly, Caleb Meyer
      At first listen, Peter Mulvey's classically-fingerpicked version teeters on the overly maudlin, and previously-posted girlgroup Red Molly's three-voiced approach seems to cost them emotive potential. But listen again -- these grow on you.

    • Alison Krauss & Union Station, New Favorite
      Fellow Gillian Welch O Brother, Where Are Thou muse Alison Krauss and her star-studded band Union Station make a sweet live bluegrass ballad of an old-timey wallflower's love song.

    • Elizabeth Mitchell, Winter's Come and Gone
      Kidfolk queen Elizabeth Mitchell brings us a light-hearted tale well-suited for the bedtime ears of the next generation of traditional folk fans.

    • Elan Mehler Quartet, Elvis Presley Blues
      This sultry gospel-jazz take from the Elan Mehler Quartet is sweet with breathy sax and slow-rolling piano. It isn't folk, but it makes the perfect capstone to any set of Gillian Welch covers.

    Don't forget to click on artist names above to purchase the best of the modern folk world from bluegrass to bluesfolk direct from the source. And, if you don't already have them, buy Gillian Welch's four incredible albums direct from her website.

    Today's bonus coversongs hold back a bit, that we might eventually bring you a full post of Gillian Welch covering other artists. But here's two collaborative efforts that give Rawlings and Welch their own billing, to tide you over until then:

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008

    The Jones Street Boys Cover:
    The Band, John Hartford, Bill Monroe, Peter Rowan

    Brooklyn-based folkgrass band The Jones Street Boys released their first album, Overcome, back in October of 2007; since then, they've raised a couple of eyebrows on the americana and alt-country blogs, but not nearly enough. I heard them for the first time last week, but I'm not afraid to be late for the party when I've got such a great housewarming gift for all those out there who appreciate the No Depression end of modern folk music.

    At heart, The Jones Street Boys are a bluegrass band; their members have played Merlefest alongside Gillian Welch and Nickel Creek, and their instrumentation is heavy on the banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin and upright bass. But add a sweet harmonica worthy of Springsteen, a barrel-house piano, and the ragged, heartfelt delivery of Wilco or The Band, and the result is gorgeous, stripped down, pulled back, intimate blues-tinged americana.

    If this is bluegrass at all, it's lo-fi alt-country bluegrass music with a hint of midnight trainsongs and fireside song circles, a dollop of happy roots rock, and the pure infectious joy of making plumb great music. In fact, their sound is so damn infectious, I haven't listened to anything else in days.

    The range of these five top-notch musicians is impressive, too. Their ability to hold back and control the flow, floating the sparse harmonica and lead vocals over a bed of solid bass, mandolin, and drumkit and some sweet campfire harmonies, creates a ragged alt-country tension that lends the perfect note of longing and exhaustion to their slower songs. And when they cut loose, the result is pure acoustic glee.

    Overcome runs a pretty broad spectrum, from full-bore youngfolks jams to sparse, weary americana; of these, the three covers that appear on this self-produced album hover around the americana end, but I'm not complaining. All are excellent, as covers and as song. Their cover of Twilight, my favorite song by The Band, bears the sound of encores at midnight; John Hartford's Tall Buildings, which closes the album, beats Gillian Welch's version hands down. And in these capable hands, lesser-known bluegrass classic Walls of Time, originally by Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan, becomes a majestic, bittersweet masterpiece.

    This is great stuff, a perfect meld of traditional blues-and-bluegrass instrumentation and No Depression-esque sensibility. Thanks to The Planetary Group for allowing us to pass along these covers, that you, too, might get The Jones Street Boys stuck in your head.

    Want to hear more? Stream the entire album over at The Jones Street Boys website, and then buy Overcome via Insound, the band's preferred source for purchase. And when you do, keep an ear open for Argentina, a beautiful, uptempo original easily worth the price of purchase.

    Today's bonus coversongs offer other artist's versions of the same songs covered on Overcome, for comparison's sake. It says what it needs to about the genius of The Jones Street Boys that, in other contexts, these covers would stand out more.

    Sunday, January 13, 2008

    Covered In Folk: Birthday Boys
    T-Bone Burnett, Dave Grohl, LL Cool J, Allen Toussaint

    It is my honor to share a birthday with a seminal hip hop balladeer, a grunge god, the hands-down master of New Orleans R&B songwriting, and the best soundtrack and pop-americana producer in the business. Since it was too hard to pick just one, instead of focusing on a single artist or genre today, I'm featuring some of my absolutely favorite covers of the work of LL Cool J, Dave Grohl, Allen Toussaint, and T-Bone Burnett, all of whom were born on January 14.

    If I didn't have an outlet for celebrating these four incredible musicians, I'd probably spend the day moping around the house, feeling old. Instead, I get to spend a few hours researching, listening to, and celebrating the songs of their younger days, and mine. Not bad for the last day of my 34th year. Though to be fair, it also helps to realize that I'm younger than all of them.

    Today's piece de resistance is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' incredible cover of Fortune Teller from Raising Sand, their recent all-cover release, which owes its existence to not one but two of these four deities of the musical realm. But the rest of this fine set is worthy of your consideration, too. The envelope, please...

    Though Allen Toussaint (b. 1938) has always been recognized as a performer and songwriter in hs own right, most of the songs he's written found fame in either his own hands or the hands of other R&B and rock artists. But his works are so prevalent, they show up in the folk world, too, especially where folk and blues-tinged rock meet. Bonnie Raitt's funky cover of Toussaint's 1970 hit What Is Success pays tribute to both the R and the B. Meanwhile, Fortune Teller, penned pseudonymically by Toussaint's alter ego Naomi Neville, and recorded by bands from the Rolling Stones to the Who, is just incredible in the hands of Plant, Krauss, and our next birthday boy.

    T-Bone Burnett (b. 1948) spends most of his time behind the scenes in the music world. But even if you've never heard his work as a roots rock Country singer-songwriter, you know his work as a Grammy-winning producer and song-writer for a bevy of musicians you really do admire (Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Spinal Tap, his wife Sam Phillips) and for a rash of award-winning soundtracks (Cold Mountain, O Brother Where Art Thou, Walk The Line). Burnett plays guitar on the above-mentioned Fortune Teller, and produced the album, too; here's four more amazing covers of songs he either arranged or co-wrote.

    Hip hop artist and actor LL Cool J was born in 1968, and he dropped his first album of major label tracks at 17 years old, which makes the entire hip-hop genre older than you thought. Here's a pair of playful indiepop folk covers of 1987 Def Jam release I Need Love, the first "romantic hip-hop ballad" to hit the top of the pop charts, just to prove it can be done, and done well; irish folk-rock singer-songwriter Luka Bloom and indie folktronic group Sexton Blake do excellent coverwork here and elsewhere, and come highly recommended.

    Before he formed the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl (b. 1969) was Nirvana's last and most famous drummer. The folk scene is long overdue for some good Foo Fighters covers; while we wait, check out Laura Love's sparse bass and vocal, Patti Smith's soft banjo-tinged americana, and Kathryn Williams tense string quartet jazz folk -- some of the best from an infinite series of covers of Nirvana songs penned and recorded during Grohl's tenure.

    All artist and album links above go direct to label and musician homepages, so you can best support artists directly, and avoid supporting the faceless megacorporations which commodify those artists. Please, folks: buy what you hear if you like what you hear, and help me realize my birthday wish for a future bright enough to contain the infinite possibility of homegrown music, in a world in which artists can sustain themselves without having to keep their day jobs.

    Just can't get enough? Cover Lay Down publishes every Sunday and Wednesday, and some Fridays and Holidays. Our archives are open late, but they don't stay up forever, so don't forget to hit up older posts before the songs go back to the ages from whence they came.

    Friday, January 11, 2008

    Elseblog, New and (Re)Covered:
    Folk Covers of The Smiths Here, Pop Punk Covers of Folk Songs at Fong Songs

    I'm guest hosting over at Fong Songs again today, throwing down a feature on Pop Punk covers of folk songs while Fong heads off to Las Vegas for some culture. (I'd say more, but you know what they say about what happens in Vegas.) If your ears can take the hard stuff, join me at Fong Songs for the sweet non-folk sounds of The Lemonheads, Sonic Youth, P.J. Harvey, Dinosaur Jr., and a bunch of other 80s alt-punk rockers.

    Before you go, here's some earcandy, a half-pint (Re)Covered set of folk covers of songs by seminal 80s alt-pop band The Smiths and their lead singer Morrissey, collected on the blogosphere and unearthed while digging through the tracks for last week's post on Billy Bragg. Regular readers will remember that my first guest post over at Fong Songs was a feature on Smiths coversongs, too. And so the world comes full-circle.

    From Sandie Shaw's solo acoustic punk folk to Scott Matthews's rich-toned atmospheric indiefolk, the below tracks are worth a second listen. Also included: Decemberist Colin Meloy's solo-with-harmonies cover of two Morrissey tunes, and Joshua Radin's amazing Girlfriend in a Coma, which hit the Fong Songs post late in the game.

    Enjoy the music, both here and elseblog. And remember to click on artist names to learn more and purchase music if you like what you hear.

    Wednesday, January 9, 2008

    (Re)Covered III: More Coverfolk From...
    Moxy Fruvous, Billy Bragg, Brooks Williams, Zydeco

    Songsources are ever pouring forth new and unearthed sounds: the forgotten track, the new release, your own wonderful recommendations via email or post comments. Sometimes the perfect folksong pops onto the radar (or hits the blogosphere) and demands to be shared, no matter how after-the-fact.

    Today, our third installment of (Re)Covered, a regular feature in which we recover a few songs that dropped through the cracks just a little too late to make it into the posts where they belonged. Better late than never, I say. Thanks to all who share music, that we might revisit, and rejoice.

    Ever wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you missed something? These Moxy Fruvous kidsongs truly belonged at the core of last month's post on silly songs and dancearounds for cool moms and dads. Canadian eco-political folk rockers Moxy Fruvous used to rock the house at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival each year, but they could also play a college student center lounge like nobody's business; their take on the Talking Heads isn't technically kids music, but it seemed right for the occasion. Their "cover" of seminal kidlit text Green Eggs and Ham is not just hilarious, it's quite possibly the best folk rap song you'll ever hear.

    Researching those kidfolk posts has brought me new appreciation for the kids CD rack at our local library; here's a fun little Marley cover I found on Putumayo's Carribean Playground that would have been perfect for our Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Zydeco music. The first few bars suffer from some cheesy electronic keyboards, but they get swallowed by the great Zydeco sound quick enough. Also included: Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys with a houserockin' version of traditional proto-Cajun tune La Danse De Mardi Gras. Coming eventually: a full post on folk covers of Bob Marley songs.

    A few bonus Brooks Williams coversongs got stuck in my head after our feature on this incredible singer-songwriting guitar wizard. You probably know Angie as a Simon and Garfunkel tune off Sounds of Silence, though folk-rocker Davey Graham gave it first voice; Brooks Williams and Jim Henry's deceptively simple instrumental version is crisp and reinvigorating. Their gleeful cover of Stefane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt string-jazz tune Minor Swing was too tempting to leave out.

    • Brooks Williams + Jim Henry, Angie (orig. Davey Graham)
    • Brooks Williams + Jim Henry, Minor Swing (orig. Grappelli/Reinhardt)

    Finally, I'm still kicking myself for not including kidsong I Was Born in last week's post on Billy Bragg, cover artist. Like his other work with Wilco and Natalie Merchant, the song is a half-cover -- lyrics by Guthrie, music by Bragg -- but it captures the Guthrie sensibility so well, you'd think they were channeling the old folkie. His Dylan and Tim Hardin covers are similarly authentic; you probably know the latter as a Rod Stewart piece, but this is a thousand times more real.

    Don't forget to come back on Friday, when I'll be doing double duty: a few choice folk covers of songs by 80s alternative rock band The Smiths here at Cover Lay Down, and a guest post on the Pop Punk movement over at Fong Songs.

    Sunday, January 6, 2008

    Single Song Sunday: House Carpenter
    (Natalie Merchant, Nickel Creek, Roger McGuinn, Tim O'Brien)

    It's been some week here at Cover Lay Down. Features on popular singer-songwriters Billy Bragg and Paul Simon brought us to the top of the charts at musicblog aggregator The Hype Machine and a linkback from New York magazine's Vulture blog. On Friday, almost 900 of you visited the site, a new record; download tracking shows that many of you came in for one song, but stuck around to try something new. Welcome, kudos, and thanks for validating our goals here at Cover Lay Down.

    But a slow day at home and a new branch of our local library system got me thinking about our roots, both as a folk blog and as community members. Popular artists and indieacts may have got you here, but there's more to folk music than the indiefolk and Grammy winners of the last decades. Above all, it is our goal at Cover Lay Down to broaden your horizons, even while we serve your existing biases and favorites.

    Today, we return to our roots for the fourth in our very popular Single Song Sunday series with a feature on Child Ballad #243 in the canonical collection of British folk ballads, a song more commonly known as
    House Carpenter.

    Habitat for HumanityThey're building one of those Habitat for Humanity houses in our town, just along the main road, out past the edge of what counts for downtown in these rural one-bar parts. A few weeks ago our local church helped make lunch for the crew -- chili and cornbread, the kind of early winter comfort food that can be soaked up quickly, and keeps the fires going for hours. I wasn't there, but the story goes that they had plenty of leftovers, primarily due to the fact that the workforce that day was a group of local college girls, doing their community service. The girls ate all the clementines, though. I guess we made the food with heartier carpenters in mind.

    The 18th Century folk ballad House Carpenter, officially titled either James Harris or Demon Lover, isn't about hope, or new beginnings. Quite the opposite. It's a morality play, in which a woman is tempted by a finer life with an old flame, gives in, leaves her new little babe in the care of her carpenter husband, regrets it too late, and drowns for her sins. It's about the perils of choosing style over substance; it's about the consequences of valuing speed and beauty over community and commitment. Like our Habitat for Humanity project, it's not about house carpenters: it's about the girls who showed up to be house carpenters, and the church making lunch; a reminder of the value of all who help make a house, a home, a community.

    That authenticity is hard to come by in the world today is an oft-repeated trope in folk music; it is the universality of the sentiment, as much as the plaintive beauty of House Carpenter's simple tune, which explains why the song continues to find voice in each new generation of folksinger. In some ways, it's frustrating to find that the message is still needed, hundreds of years after it was first found necessary. But the house goes up, nonetheless. Looks like it's going to be a cosy place, too.

    Work on our local Habitat house seems to have been put on pause for the winter. The girls who came that day to help have gone back to their lives with a new entry for their graduate school applications and, hopefully, a true sense of having participated in something selfless and pride-worthy. May their lots and ours be better than the lot of our alternate-verse narrator, who sinks and goes to hell for one bad decision. If their work on the house is any indication, they're already headed for a better life.

    Unlike Rain and Snow, the emotion of this oft-covered song is set in the lyrics; as such, most interpretations aim for a melancholic delivery. But as today's featured artists demonstrate, there's a wide potential for instrumentation and tone, even within a limited emotional range.

    The fast-paced storyteller's banjo on Pete Seeger and Clarence Ashley's ancient versions creates a tension which serves the piece equally, if differently, from the languid brushstrokes, etherial harmonies and skeletal bass of The Tami Show's haunted cover, the sweet, rich mysticism of Mick McAuley's celtic ballad, or the fuller instrumentation and nuanced tonal ebb and flow of Tim O'Brien's moody, celtic-flavored bluegrass.

    The sparse, cracked doublevoiced tones of Roger McGuinn are a world away from the mournful, driving blues Natalie Merchant brings to the piece. And interpretations by folkfave youngsters The Mammals and Nickel Creek provide a study in contrast, two new-folkgrass bands taking the song through vastly distinct but equally powerful paces.

    Try 'em all. Find your favorite. It is, after all, the personal connection that makes us folk.

    As always, all album and label links above take you direct to the source for your musical purchase. Buy local, support community: it's that simple.

    Friday, January 4, 2008

    Billy Bragg Covers:
    The Beatles, The Smiths, Seeger, Guthrie, etc.

    The coversongs of Brit-folker Billy Bragg have been hovering on the edge of my consciousness for decades. His lovely, raw cover of She’s Leaving Home was the earworm on 1988’s alternative UK-band coveralbum Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father. His folk-pop work interpreting the lost works of Woody Guthrie in the late nineties reminded me of the genius of both Bragg and genre-defining alt-country musician Jeff Tweedy even as the albums brought the musicians themselves from fringe fandom to full-blown mass market appeal.

    Then today, as I crested the mountain in the frigid New England winter air, our local early-morning folkshow played Bragg’s now-seminal, pained 2002 version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’
    Tracks of My Tears. And I knew it was time to pay tribute to the collected covers of a man who’s made the journey from punk to folk, and come out smiling, without losing his radical political heart.

    Ladies and gentlemen, Billy Bragg: folksinger, cover artist, and man of the people.

    Billy Bragg’s bio describes his early work as that of a one-man Clash, an electrified punker with singer-songwriter style. More generally, he is often categorized as anti-folk, though his early work is punk folk, an umbrella that includes such smashingly loud, mosh-pit bands as Flogging Molly and The Pogues. His politically charged lyrics and angry street-broken voice are known for how they speak to the plight of the working class, while making explicit reference to a political arena which is both resonant with and alien to the American ear.

    Perhaps because of this tendency to ground himself in the styles and politics of the United Kingdom, for most of his career, Bragg’s work didn’t show much on this side of the Atlantic. I first heard that Beatles cover, for example, on imported vinyl brought into our home by my younger brother, who was primarily in it for the much weirder stuff.

    But while it's true that Bragg still shares an anarchist's sensibility with his fellow folk punk luminaries, in his later years, like fellow countryman Elvis Costello, Bragg has mellowed out musically, joining forces with Wilco to pay tribute to one of the seminal authors of the great American songbook, and turning his voice, already torn from the anger of his early punkfolk days, to an almost Americana sensibility.

    The combination of new sound and old credibility, of socially aware soul and mellow mature interpreter, fits perfectly into the modern post-folk world of Grammy recognition and blog cred. It says what it needs to that when no less an authority than Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora was looking for someone to write music for two albums worth of unset Woody Guthrie lyrics, she considered Bragg enough of an inheritor of the Guthrie voice-of-the-people, politically and musically, to ask him to do it.

    This is Bragg's quieter work, to be sure, though I've planted some of Bragg's harder stuff in the bonus section below. The lush fiddle and plainsong treatment of Pete Seeger is more churchmusic than mosh pit; his version of When the Roses Bloom Again falls towards the country ballad side of alt-country. But listen for the yearning, the core of that politicized soul, and you just can’t miss it. Today’s set even begins with that Beatles cover, a harbinger of the softer artist to come: beautiful, broken-voiced, and unequivocally Bragg.

    Most of Billy Bragg's work has been rereleased since his turn-of-the-century Grammy nominations; his back catalog is an incredible journey, if you're up for the boxset collections and compilations. But no matter whether you choose his old work or his new, buy Billy Bragg's work direct from the source, not the megastores. It just wouldn't be cricket, otherwise.

    Today's bonus coversongs:

    • Kirsty MacColl covers Bragg's folkpunk anthem A New England popstyle
    • Jonah Matranga and Frank Turner's indiefolk approach to A New England.
    • Billy Bragg in full-on folk punk mode...
      • Covers psych-folkers Love's Seven and Seven Is in style
      • Does an electrified version of The Smiths' Jeane, live from The Peel Sessions
    Previously on Cover Lay Down:
    Billy Bragg and Wilco, My Flying Saucer (orig. Guthrie)

    Wednesday, January 2, 2008

    Covered in Folk: Paul Simon
    (From Bleeker Street to Indiefolk)

    The ninth post in our very popular Covered In Folk series addresses the solo output of Paul Simon. This is unusual -- with the exception of our ongoing Beatles series (part 1, part 2), previous posts have covered the total output of a given artist; see, for example, posts on the songs of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground and Tim and Neil Finn. It's also backwards, since Simon's solo career is really his second wave of fame, after his first incarnation as a folk icon with partner Art Garfunkel.

    But however tempting it was to address both phases of Paul Simon's career in one post, it was just too much to tackle all at once. And, as you'll see below, there's something especially timely about Paul Simon covers, as regards a specific subsection of the folkworld.

    So stay tuned in the coming weeks for the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, including folkcovers by the Indigo Girls, Jonatha Brooke, Johnny Cash, and Emiliana Torrini. And for those of you that don't otherwise follow the hippest darlings of the blogworld, enjoy today's introduction to a branch of folk music so new, its artists don't even use the term.

    The solo songs of Paul Simon have enjoyed a sort of renaissance in the ears of the indie world recently, due in no small part to three bootlegs floating around the blogs: Swedish indie-pop artist Jens Lekman's radio-station cover of You Can Call Me Al, and two versions of Graceland, one from indie remix experimentalists Hot Chip, the other from Dan Rossen of psychfolk indiedarlings Grizzly Bear.

    I've mentioned my bias towards good sound quality here before; though I know that the swamp of sound is deliberate in the case of the Rossen cover (in the other covers, it's a result of off-the-radio taping), the genuinely hissy, fuzzy quality of all three of these recordings keeps me from passing these songs on without caveat. That said, these songs are worth serious consideration, so they're here today, if you want 'em. Fans of the abovementioned artists either already have these, or need them badly; if you've never heard these artists of the new indie almost-folk movement, these covers provide a decent entry into their core sound, but I highly recommend tracking down more of their work before you decide whether you're a fan or not.

    But though I'm fond of these interpretations, and respect them for the love they clearly show towards the originals, I also think there's better Simoncovers out there, both in and out of the indiefolkworld.

    There's plenty to pick from; Simon's songs address universal themes, and they are eminently singable. There are as many acoustic Paul Simon covers as there are streetcorner buskers. But most merely sandpaper these songs, stripping the instrumentation away to deliver them with broken voice and road guitar. Only a few bring new life to songs which have forever been marked as an emotional mirror for a generation of baby boomers. Now that takes talent, forethought, and perspiration.

    Today, we bring our usual full plate brimming with covers of the post-Simon and Garfunkel work of Paul Simon. Not all manage to surpass the originals, it's true. Like the newest batch, some are imperfect, albeit spectacularly so. But there's something special and wonderful and new in each one. And the best ones, like the best covers of anything once-and-forever-loved, remind you of how wonderful the originals were without sacrificing the power of their interpretation.

    As always, today's songs are a pretty diverse set, though they tend to cluster around the solo acoustic approach. Some are earnestly, almost delicately reinterpreted, others are lo-fi, almost all are live. Very few come from artists that consider themselves folk, but each has just enough folk sensibility to be welcomed into the fold. I'll leave it to each of you to find your own favorites. Just remember: there's more to a great cover than who's doing the covering.

    Follow the links above to artist homepages. Buy compilations, songs, and albums direct from the source. Support labels, stores, and artists. It's just that simple.

    Today's bonus coversongs provide a deeper glimpse into the coverwork of Hot Chip and Grizzly Bear, key players from opposite ends of the new folk-tinged indie movement:

    We'll have a full set of stellar folk covers of Simon and Garfunkel songs soon enough. In the meanwhile, stay tuned for a post on the coverwork of folk punk artist Billy Bragg, yet another Single Song Sunday, and the third installment in our very popular (Re)Covered series, all in the next week or so.