Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Covered In Kidfolk, Part 3:
Moral Tales for Wildchildren and Mischief Makers

Much of the subject material of kids music is lyrical fluff, and that's not a bad thing: kids need all the playful silliness and sweet sleepytime nothings that hip moms and dads with heart can bring them. On the other hand, play and sleep alone aren't enough, and kids ain't gonna grow up by themselves. The bigger they get, the more we have to show and tell them the right ways to move through the world.

Thankfully, song is an especially effective way to pass along morals and messages. That's partially because a spoonful of sugar really does make the medicine go down, I suppose. But it's also because children see music as coming from everywhere. As such, using music to pass along values helps universalize a message, making it less about "Daddy's way" and more about the right way to do things.

Folksong has a long history of carrying morals to and for cultures. That doesn't make all folksong successful: as with all styles of music, performing songs which mean is much more difficult. Far too much kidsmusic that tries to say what needs saying ends up sounding sappy and preachy. Happily, a few musicians get it right, making something which manages to be both musically powerful and lyrically meaningful. The best songs of this type stick in the soul, planting valuable seeds which compliment our most deliberate parenting on our best days.

Today, then, some covered kidsongs which take a lighthearted approach to some very serious subjects, from inner life to external behavior, from the social to the ecological. Your kids may not notice the messages as they hear them, of course. But if the true affection that these modern singer-songwriters have for these old songs tells us anything, it is that years from now, these songs will be remembered. And that's not nothin'.

  • Moxy Fruvous, Green Eggs and Ham (orig. Dr. Seuss)
    Sadly defunct folkband Moxy Fruvous makes a popcult-heavy, anti-commercialist folk-rap out of this Dr. Seuss classic. A repost, and out-of-print, but relevant.
    Moral: How do you know you won't like it if you won't even try it?

  • Ann Percival, I Don't Want To Live On The Moon (orig. Ernie)
    If it were up to my littlest one, we'd never leave the house. This is her favorite song, and she always asks for it when we first get into the car. She likes Ernie's original, but I think contradance chanteuse Ann Percival makes it more palatable for the whole family. From The Sweetest Hour, which is.
    Moral: The imaginative world is fun to visit, but there's no place like home.

  • Taj Mahal, Don't You Push Me Down (orig. Woody Guthrie)
    A reggae beat, the classic kidsong rasp of bluesman Taj Mahal, and a message originally intended both to help kids learn how to play fair and, later in life, to feel justified in standing up for what they believe in. Via Sing Along with Putumayo.
    Moral: Leave your sister alone.

  • Willie Nelson, Rainbow Connection (orig. Kermit)
    An especially poignant take on this old Muppet standard. I've got nothing against Dixie Chicks twang and Sarah McLachlan dreampop, but of all the covers of this song I've got kicking around, it's Willie Nelson who really brings the fragile, shortlived nature of the subject to life.
    Moral: Wishes come true. Never stop dreaming.

  • Rex Hobart, It's Not Easy Being Green (orig. Kermit)
    I've posted this track before too, but it bears repeating. From The Bottle Let Me Down -- kids like indiecountry, right? Bonus points: the lyrics are almost open enough for you to use this song to talk with your kids about "being green" in the more post-millenium, save-the-earth way.
    Moral: Celebrate diversity; be who you are.

  • Jack Johnson, The 3 R's (orig. Bob Dorough)
    This half-cover from mellow surfer and fratfolk god Jack Johnson is based on jazzman Bob Dorough's old Schoolhouse Rock standard Three Is A Magic Number. Johnson gets bonus points for helping me sit through Curious George for the tenth time.
    Moral: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

  • Dan Zanes, We Shall Not Be Moved (trad.)
    Dan Zanes remakes this old protest song with banjo and spunk; like Elizabeth Mitchell, Zanes knows how to speak to adults and kids about what really matters. Warning: side effects may include strong-willed children.
    Moral: Stand your ground. Together, we shall not be moved.

  • Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the Roadmasters, This Land Is Your Land (orig. Woody Guthrie)
    Technically, this one isn't a kidsong either. Kind of socialist, too. But I learned it as a kid, and so did you. And who wants kids who grow up thinking this land isn't theirs to care for? From Funky Kidz, an amazing new compilation of classic kidsongs by a dozen of New Orleans’ best and funkiest; proceeds benefit music education in New Orleans and nationally.
    Moral: This land was made for you and me.

  • Lynn Miles, Everybody Cries (orig. Jim Cuddy)
    There are a surprising number of songs out there which address this subject, but Cuddy's is as comprehensive as it comes, and Lynn Miles makes a gentle yet powerful case for buying into the complexities, and growing into responsibility. I promise this is the last song I'll share from the incredible kidfolk compilation Down At The Sea Hotel.
    Moral: Life isn't always easy, but it's worth it. Try, fail, and try again; I'll always be there to hold you.

  • Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Teddy Bears' Picnic (Bratton/Kennedy)
    An always-successful bedtime selection, given the teddy bear motif and the mellow voices and mandolins of Garcia and Grisman's Not For Kids Only. But have you ever really listened to the lyrics?
    Moral: Teddy bears are scary. If you must go in the woods, bring a buddy.

If this list seems heavy on the Jim Henson and protest songs, it's not just you. After all, like me, many of these artists grew up in the early days of PBS, back when kidculture refused to speak down to us, and our parents were just emerging from a feelgood sixties adolescence. We may have cut our hair since then, but the values we found in those old songs still matter.

So click on the links above to buy these albums direct from the artists and labels, just to show your kids how to best support the music that matters. And once the CDs arrive, play 'em early and often. But take good care of them, too, so one day, you can pass them down to your children's children. Because somehow, I can't see the greatest hits of Barney or Dora the Explorer having this kind of credibility when our kids grow up to become folksingers.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Covered in Folk: Donovan
(Richard Thompson, Rickie Lee Jones, Lindsay Buckingham, etc.)

It's been suggested that this will be the year of the British band at blogfave musicfest SXSW. Ironically, however, last year’s SXSW featured a pair of sets by a seminal member of the original British Invasion, and hardly anyone seemed to notice, or remember. So while others prep for the indiefest, I thought it was high time to take a look back at a man who is so underrated in the US that none of the current generation of folk-rockers seem to bother listening to him, despite obvious musical similarities between today’s indiepop and his better-known tunes. Ladies and gentlemen, the songs of Donovan.

When sixties folk-rocker Donovan appeared at the 1981 Amnesty International benefit The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball alongside Sting, Bob Geldoff, John Cleese, and other famous musicians and comedians known for their commitment to the cause, his contemporaries Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton were immediately recognized and applauded by the audience. But although Donovan’s songs were given their due, he himself was not so well recognized. Instead, as he took the stage, one audience member bellowed "I thought you were dead!" Donovan's response? "Not yet!"

Wikipedia goes on to suggest that the warm reception which followed this exchange "proves" that one-time flower child Donovan was still popular, despite the "anti-sixties" sentiment that existed at the time. More than anything, what the initial exchange says to me is that even as early as 1981, some folks had no idea that Donovan was anything more than a long-gone fragment of the past.

There’s a lot more to Donovan Leitch than Mellow Yellow. He’s an uncredited cowriter of the Beatles song Yellow Submarine. Friend of Dylan; father of actress Ione Skye, best known as Lloyd Dobler's girlfriend in Say Anything. A man who remains committed to Transcendental Meditation, long after most folks packed it away with their macramĂ© and love beads; who is, in fact, starting a TM university devoted to world peace and something called "the universal field" with the support of filmmaker David Lynch.

Okay, that last bit is a bit much. But the main point stands: though most folks remember Donovan for his celebration of hippie drug culture through his lifestyle and his lyrics, once upon a time, Donovan was a singer-songwriter who stood for peace, and was celebrated for his anti-war songs. He gets credit, even today, from others of his generation, who still play his songs in concert, and put them on their late-in-life releases. And in my opinion, he deserves it.

But unlike many of our other Covered In Folk feature artists, despite a minor renaissance in the coversongs of grungerockers Hole and the Butthole Surfers, and a mediocre 1992 grunge/indieband tribute album Islands of Circles, Donovan's abilities as a songsmith seem to have been forgotten by today’s up-and-coming artists, especially the American folk community.

How the mighty have fallen. Today, Donovan still records, and tours Europe and his native London. He has true indiefolk cred, with a myspace and no major label support. He remains a musician constantly trying to recapture the magic. But while so many of his fellow sixties icons successfully reinvent themselves for modern audiences, in America, with the exception of a small but significant fan base, most folks still think Donovan is dead.

A challenge, then, to the new generation of American singer-songwriters. If – as today’s covers demonstrate - Donovan’s songs resonate so well on shows like Crossing Jordan and Party of Five, then there’s clearly still an audience for these lyrics and tunes. And certainly, now more than ever, the world needs songs of peace. Why not try one on, to see how it feels? Here’s some of Donovan’s peers to show you how it’s done, with bonus covers by Donovan both then and now to remind you of his talent.

Today's bonus coversongs feature Donovan's 1965 anti-Vietnam anthem The War Drags On, which many have heard but few realize is a cover of fellow sixties folkster Mick Softley. Those who think of Donovan as hippierock will be surprised; this is true acoustic singer-songwriter folk, worth trying if you've never really listened. Plus a few more recent interpretations recorded in the last decade, just to prove Donovan's still got the chops: a cut from the two-disk Pete Seeger tribute Where Have All The Flowers Gone, a nice version of traditional folksong The Cuckoo from Beat Café, Donovan's underrated 2004 return to beatnik jazzfolk, and a "cover" of a Dylan Thomas poem from that same album.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Caroline Herring, Lantana:
covers of Kate Wolf and All The Pretty Little Horses

Ever wonder what happens to the artists who win Best New Artist at SXSW? If they're Caroline Herring, they release a strong second album and then disappear, putting their recording career on hold to focus on marriage and motherhood. Now, after a long hiatus, Herring returns to the forefront of the folkworld with Lantana, a stunning, intimate collection which I've already shortlisted as one of my top ten folk/roots/Americana albums of 2008.

Taking time off for family is an especially risky move in today's music world, where momentum is king -- bloggers, who constantly seek "the next big thing", share no small responsibility for accelerating this process. But with true genius, Herring turns her time out of the limelight to her advantage, treating it as both subject and sustenance, crafting a strong, polished set of tunes which speak to the the complex balance between traditional family roles and career ambitions which women are asked to internalize in modern society.

The result is a revelation. Herring's five years out of the studio only intensified what was already a stellar ability to create and deliver poignant, powerful songs about the world around her in a pure, rich southern-twanged voice reminiscent of some of the the best female folksingers of the past thirty years. The songs on Lantana are simultaneously authentic and new, applying traditional folk storytelling and verse structure to stories of women in today's rural South who, like Herring herself, have struggled to find their place between the demands of the heart and post-feminist possibility.

At its best, this album is haunting and beautiful, combining strong songwriting with solid, effective production and stunning vocal delivery. Paper Gown, a murder ballad of the finest order which retells the chilling story of Susan Smith, is especially gorgeous example of Herring's ability to create song of the first order: catchy, thoughtful, sympathetic, and deep, the song roots itself in your soul, lingering long after the music has faded from the ears. Even in her quieter, more peaceful numbers -- including a deceptively simple cover of traditional lullaby All the Pretty Little Horses and a beautiful, wistful version of Kate Wolf's Midnight on the Water, both of which we feature below -- Herring brings a depth of emotion which few contemporaries can muster

Universally accessible yet rooted deeply in the sounds of Herring's native south, Lantana is the best singer-songwriter CD I've heard in a very long time. Let's hope it's the first of many more to come from this up-and-second-coming talent.

Lantana doesn't come out until March 4th, but you want more of Caroline Herring as soon as possible, so pre-order Lantana over at Signature Sounds today. Act now, and you can pick up this magnificent album for under ten dollars -- a real steal in today's market.

Still not convinced? Check out Paper Gown over at fellow folkblog Here Comes The Flood. Their description of Caroline Herring's sound as "gothic country" is right on the money.

Today's bonus coversongs include another take on Kate Wolf, and a set of songs which used to be my favorite versions of the slave lullaby All The Pretty Little Horses before Caroline Herring hit it on the nose:

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bluegrass Coverfolk: The Joe Val Festival
(Covers of Elvis, Waylon Jennings, The Grateful Dead, Steve Goodman, Gospel and more!)

By most popular definitions, bluegrass isn't folk music. Where modern singer-songwriter folk teeters on the edge of pop, rock, and blues, today's bluegrass bands find radioplay on the country end of the dial, if at all. And though there are certainly plenty of crossover alt-country and Americana musicians out there who are welcome at both bluegrass and folk festivals, most music festivals tend to be firmly either/or.

But as I’ve noted previously, folk and bluegrass have much in common. Both stem from the same early American folk tree; both depend heavily on the acoustic guitar; both use traditional forms of rhyme, verse structure, trope and storytelling in their lyrics and song structure. Wikipedia lists bluegrass as a form of country music, it's true, but it also refers to it as a form of American roots music, or Americana – the category which encompasses the "folk" forms of American music.

Which is to say: we’re bluegrass fans here at Cover Lay Down. And though owning up to this has probably already lost me some hardcore folkies over the months since we started, I make no apologies for the bluegrass among the folk. The acoustic nature of the two forms, and their shared roots in African-American blues, British folk ballads, and appalachian music, makes for a clear commonality, even if the sounds are clearly different.

One significant distinction between bluegrass and modern folk music is the vastly different ways in which the two forms approach harmony. Where folk music performance tends to prioritize the singer-songwriter, both as vocalist and instrumentalist, the best bluegrass is about balance – between instruments, and among voices. The bluegrass sound is thus typified by close harmonies that span the range from high male tenor to bass, and a wide range of acoustic stringed instruments – typically bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle – which echo that vocal range, and, through alternating-beat use of bass and percussive high-stringed chords, provide an equally rich, full sound.

Bluegrass gets a bad rap in the world of covers -- all those anonymous session musicians cutting albums of Phish and Nine Inch Nails and Led Zeppelin covers just to pay the rent doesn't help. But bluegrass music is much more than country music's poor country cousin. The covers you'll find featured in today's post are the real deal, performed with love and respect. Even if you're not usually the bluegrass type, I highly recommend giving them a try.

To those unschooled in the history of bluegrass music, the Framingham, MA, Sheraton might seem an especially odd choice for the International Bluegrass Music Association's 2006 Event of the Year. But the popular stereotype which casts bluegrass music as a form of southern music belies a rich and long-standing tradition of New England bluegrass. And remembering that Scots-Irish dance tunes and English ballads are but one of several primary influences on the bluegrass form does help one come to terms with the fact that the Sheraton is built like a giant Irish castle, and thus looks more like a venue for a jousting tournament than a site for a bluegrass festival.

Once you get over the strange dissonance between the snow-capped castle turrets outside and the sound of a thousand banjos, basses, high tenors and mandolins inside, The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is a great gig. Incredibly, festival sponsor the Boston Bluegrass Association manages to successfully reproduce the feel of a great outdoor festival indoors in the dead of winter. The atmosphere is infectiously fun, from the ubiquitous hallway jam sessions to the ballroom mainstage to the conference rooms stuffed with product demos and instrumental workshops.

And the musical talent is out of this world. The Joe Val Festival, which celebrates the life of seminal 1960's New England bluegrass mandolin player Joe Val, attracts a significant share of IBMA award winners, both old and new. As such, it's a good way to whet one's appetite for the cornucopia of summer festivals which pepper New England in the warmer months. And it's a great vehicle for us to consider the place of bluegrass in the spectrum of American folk forms.

Today, we feature a select set of covers from the artists I’ve been lucky enough to see at Joe Val in the past two years. Together, they explore the surprisingly vast potential of the bluegrass sound, running the gamut from country singer-songwriter (Claire Lynch, Miller's Crossing) to gospel (The Bluegrass Gospel Project, David Parmley), from old-school (Seldom Scene) to new school (The Grascals, Steep Canyon Rangers). It was a genuine pleasure to see them all, and it's a genuine pleasure to share their work with you. (PS: I've saved the best of the bunch for the bonus song, so don't forget to read all the way through.)

As always, all album and artist links lead directly to band and artist websites, where albums can be purchased, tours can be charted, and fan appetites can be whetted. If you live in New England, you might also be interested in knowing that the Boston Bluegrass Union, which sponsors the Joe Val Festival, puts on great shows throughout the year.

Today's bonus bluegrass artists stand alone, because they deserve it:

  • The SteelDrivers, Higher Than The Wall (orig. Patty Loveless)
      Though this song was first recorded by Patty Loveless on Your Way Home, Higher Than The Wall was written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton of roots/blues bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, so it's not technically a cover. But discovering this band at this year's festival was by far the most incredible musical experience I have had in months, and I just couldn't resist sharing this live track. I cannot recommend any music higher than the new self-titled album from The SteelDrivers. Heck, I'm so impressed, I'm going to totally break the cover mold: here's a second original song of theirs from that same live session.
  • The SteelDrivers, If It Hadn't Been For Love (original; live 11/2006)

    Coming soon on Cover Lay Down: fuzzfolkie Mary Lou Lord, covers of Donovan songs, and a review of SXSW 2002 Best New Artist Caroline Herring's new album Lantana. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

  • Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    The Opposite of Fear:
    Songs Of Hope and Love For Valentines

    I remember the night we drove everywhere just to find a place to commit ourselves to a future together. It was cold, like tonight is cold.

    It wasn't Valentine's Day. But it was love.

    Looking back, I can't believe it took me so long to accept that the feelings I had for you were real, and worth risking everything. All that time I thought I was too broken, too battered. All that time, I thought a fool like me didn't deserve a woman like you.

    But you always believed. And every morning when I kiss you in your sleep before I leave, I thank you for that calm certainty. Without your willingness to wait forever, I might never have found the courage to jump into the abyss.

    A companion post to Sunday's songs of Love and Fear, then: a soundtrack for that long shared silence; a short sweet story of the miracle of us. If I could give you anything, it would be this feeling, always. No longer afraid, I fly with you.

  • Rosie Thomas, Songbird (orig. Fleetwood Mac)
    (from These Friends of Mine)

  • Swati, I'm On Fire (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
    (from Small Gods)

  • Liz Durrett, How Can I Tell You (orig. Cat Stevens)
    (from Liz Durrett's website)

  • Richard Shindell, My Love Will Follow You (orig. Buddy & Julie Miller)
    (from Somewhere Near Patterson)

  • Matthew Good, True Love Will Find You In The End (orig. Daniel Johnston)
    (from Hospital Music)

  • Patty Larkin, Have A Little Faith In Me (orig. John Hiatt)
    (from Rollin' Into Memphis: The Songs of John Hiatt; more Patty here)

  • M. Ward, Let My Love Open The Door (orig. Pete Townshend)
    (from Sweetheart 2005: Love Songs; more M. Ward here)

  • Alison Krauss, I Will (orig. The Beatles)
    (from Now That I've Found You: A Collection)

    Thanks to all who come, read, sample, and support artists.

    May you, too, find love.

  • Monday, February 11, 2008

    Love, Afraid: Coversongs
    to Prepare the Heart for Valentine's Day

    I spent all morning trying to script a post about songs which struggle with the infinite and indescribably complex mysteries of love. The idea was to celebrate this complexity, and acknowledge as valid the stuff that often holds us back from putting a name to what we feel, lest we call it wrong and mess everything up.

    But every time I try to put words to love, things fall apart. Love's like that, I think. I guess that was the point, after all.

    Instead, in anticipation of Valentine's Day, here's a mixed bag of folk-tinged coversongs that address the myriad and multiple fears we have about love: naming it, finding it, losing it, and losing ourselves to it.

    May each of us, regardless of our romantic status, find something in the words of these poets and songwriters which speaks to our secret heart - the better to withstand the oversimplified, candy-red onslaught of emotion sure to come by Thursday.

  • Feist, Secret Heart (orig. Ron Sexsmith)
    (live at KEXP; also available on Let It Die)

  • Jose Gonzalez, Love Will Tear Us Apart (orig. Joy Division)
    (from Remain)

  • Marc Cohn, I Hope I Don't Fall In Love With You (orig. Tom Waits)
    (from the Prince & Me soundtrack; more Marc here)

  • Emiliana Torrini, I Hope I Don't Fall In Love With You (ibid.)
    (from Merman)

  • Aimee Mann, The Scientist (orig. Coldplay)
    (live; from the Lost In Space Special Edition)

  • Evan Rachel Wood, If I Fell (orig. Beatles)
    (from the Across the Universe soundtrack; Evan's not a recording artist, but her movies rock)

  • Jonatha Brooke, God Only Knows (orig. The Beach Boys)
    (from Back In The Circus)

  • Peter Malick Group w/ Norah Jones, Heart of Mine (orig. Bob Dylan)
    (from New York City)

  • Amy Winehouse, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (Goffin/King)
    (from the Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason soundtrack; more Amy everywhere but the Grammys)

  • Nanci Griffith, Are You Tired Of Me My Darling (Cook/Roland)
    (from Other Voices, Other Rooms)

  • Eva Cassidy, If I Give You My Heart (orig. Doris Day)
    (live 1994 bootleg; more Eva here)

  • Evan Dando, How Will I Know (orig. Whitney Houston)
    (live, unknown origin; more Evan here)

    As always, all artist and album links above go to artist websites and stores, the better to show our love for the folks who speak for us when we run out of words.

    Hoping for some more traditional Valentine’s Day fare? Never fear: we’ll back Wednesday with a short, sweet romantic soundtrack for the lucky ones.

  • Friday, February 8, 2008

    (Re)Covered IV: More Covers of and from
    Sam Amidon, Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson, and House Carpenter

    Thanks to email submissions, new releases and discoveries, and a newly-purchased CD repair kit, it's time for yet another edition of (Re)Covered, a monthly feature here on Cover Lay Down 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.

    I saw Lucy Kaplansky last month at the UnCommon Coffeehouse with my father; as always, she turned in a wonderful, intimate set, including great covers of The Beatles' Hey Jude, Robin Batteau's Guinevere, Ron Sexsmith's Speaking with the Angel, and my own request: Cowboy Singer, a Dave Carter tune which she seemed genuinely pleased to play. If you ever get a chance to see Lucy, drop everything and go.

    We covered the works of Lucy Kaplansky in our first month here at Cover Lay Down, and posted Cowboy Singer last week in our feature on folk covers of cowboy songs. But I just can't get enough of this sweet-voiced urbanite. So here's Guinevere, which Lucy cites as her most requested song, plus a gorgeous Billy Joel lullaby from 2007 release Down at the Sea Hotel, a mostly-stellar album of dreamy kidsong covers from the Red House Records stable.

  • Lucy Kaplansky, Goodnight, My Angel (orig. Billy Joel)
  • Lucy Kaplansky, Guinevere (orig. Robin Batteau)

    Oh, and a bonus cover of Nanci Griffith's Midnight in Missoula, one of two great Eliza Gilkyson cuts from that same kids album. We did a feature on Eliza Gilkyson's coverwork a long while back, too. Worth revisiting.

  • Eliza Gilkyson, Midnight in Missoula (orig. Nanci Griffith)

    Since our Single Song Sunday megapost on House Carpenter, a couple of especially solid folkversions came in from the ether. Thanks to my readers for Dylan and live Aussie slidemaster Jeff Lang takes on this truly traditional English country ballad. The Pentangle version, off 1969 release Basket of Light, holds truer to the "original" lyrics than most modern covers but layers those lyrics over a truly psychadelic sixties instrumentation; the CD is out of print, so this cut comes to us courtesy of our local library system.

  • Bob Dylan, House Carpenter (trad.)
  • Jeff Lang, House Carpenter (ibid.)
  • Pentangle, House Carpenter (ibid.)

    And speaking of tradfolk: Sam Amidon's incredible new album All Is Well, which I wrote about several months ago in our post on Sam Amidon's coversong career, finally dropped earlier this week. Here's hoping the slight blogbuzz that accompanied the original hint of this moody all-tradsong indiefolk release turns into a mighty roar as it finally comes to the air. These two further cuts off the upcoming album, plus Sam's own video for Saro, should whet your appetite enough to get in on ordering All Is Well.

  • Sam Amidon, Wild Bill Jones (trad.)
  • Sam Amidon, Wedding Dress (trad.)

  • VIDEO: Sam Amidon, Saro

    As always, links above and in the original posts whisk you off to label- and musician-preferred purchase sites. Support artists best by buying direct: it's just that simple.

  • Wednesday, February 6, 2008

    Jeffrey Foucault Covers:
    Neil Young, Tom Petty, van Zandt, Chuck Berry, CCR, R.E.M.

    The best seat at the Green River Festival is in the shade along the ridge by the side stage, watching the motionless kiteflyers staring at the outfield sky. Because every year, there's that one sidestage artist that comes out of nowhere, a voice and style fully formed, and -- where did HE come from? -- blows you away. You have no idea who you just missed at the main stage, and you don't care.

    Such was the year I discovered Jeffrey Foucault.

    Foucault (pronounced foo-kalt) is a scruffy, shy, self-effacing country boy between songs. But once the guitar strum starts, in just a few notes he transforms into a bluesfolk singer songwriter with a mean slide hand and a voice like the weight of a thousand years. Seeing him live is like being present at a field recording. Even in electric form, as in his jangling juke joint blues cover of Chuck Berry classic Tulane, he has an authenticity that you just don't hear more than a couple of times a generation.

    As a musician, Foucault is also an intuitive partner. Foucault had come to the Green River Festival that summer as part of Redbird -- a coverfolk trio, with previously-featured Peter Mulvey and coffeehouse folkstar (and eventual Foucault spouse) Kris Delmhorst. The way he used his scratchy Wisconsin blues voice to push and pull his partner's voices like taffy, making something torn and beautiful, sweet and bitter both, out of the three artists' disparate and distinctive styles, was truly extraordinary. Happily, this comes across in recording, too.

    A sparse harmony-centered set, then, mostly B-sides and alternate takes, featuring Foucault solo, with Redbird, and with fellow alt-country folkster Mark Erelli: folks my age, all voices on the verge, part of a particular school of third wave coffeehouse folk that's just now hitting their stride.

    Pick up all of Jeffrey Foucault's work since and including his stellar 2001 debut Miles From the Lightning. Redbird, too. And start booking those folk festivals now, folks: the groundhog may have seen his shadow, but summer's always just around the corner somewhere.

    Today's bonus coversongs:

    Sunday, February 3, 2008

    Single Song Sunday:
    Bob Dylan's Girl from the North Country

    I've been holding off on Bob Dylan here at Cover Lay Down, unsure that I had anything to add to the existing cacaphony in the blogworld. But now that the fervor for the I'm Not There soundtrack been replaced by a reckless affection for the Moldy Peaches, it's time, I think. We begin our journey through the works of Dylan with one of his sweetest confessional ballads, Girl from the North Country.

    I've never been a fan of Dylan the performer -- something about that broken, almost tuneless wail never really touched my soul. But years of listening to coversongs make it impossible to ignore the power and poetry of Bob Dylan, songwriter. It says something that practically every folksinger I've ever heard plays at least one Dylan song regularly in concert. It says something more that I'm actually willing to listen to Dylan himself if it's the only way to hear those songs.

    Happily, a cover collector has plenty of Dylan songs at his disposal. There are hundreds of covers of Girl from the North Country alone; even before the Covers Project over at My Old Kentucky Blog did a feature on it a couple of summers ago, I owned a decent earful of them. Even Dylan covered this one: originally released on 1963 record The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, it was subsequently rerecorded (with Johnny Cash) for 1969's Nashville Skyline, and then featured again on Dylan's 1984 live album.

    If the number of times Dylan recorded this song is any indication, Dylan loved this song as much as the rest of us. And it's not hard to see why. With its timeless rural references, its simple melody, and a trope that rises and falls like wind rippling through wheat, Girl from the North Country sounds more like a traditional folksong than a work of early genius from the guy who electrified American folk music.

    To be fair, the song is based on Scarborough Fair, one of the most popular of those traditional folksongs, thanks to Simon and Garfunkel. But the majority of those who cover it recognize it for what it is: something wholly Dylan, textually sweet and musically elegant, and tailormade for the sparse, yearning, softly regretful touch most artists choose to adopt when covering it.

    Here's nine such tributes, each one a folk gem of a different tone and timbre, each one no less stunning than the song itself. They range from eerie lo-fi guitar-and-pianofolk (Mohave 3, Yo La Tengo) to warm, rich coffehouse folk (John Gorka, Leo Kottke), from syrupy folkpop (Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell) to a heavy concentration of weary-voiced alt-country indiefolksters (Eels w/ strings and piano, Eels w/ strings and squeezebox, a plugged-in, drunken-sounding M. Ward and friends). But it's Jimmy LaFave's slow, wailing Texas folk cover that really brings the song to life for me. No wonder some folks call LaFave the best living interpreter of Dylan songs.

  • John Gorka, Girl from the North Country
    (from A Nod to Bob: An Artist's Tribute To Bob Dylan)

  • Jimmy LaFave, Girl from the North Country
    (live from Kerry's Farm, 1993; more Jimmy LaFave here)

  • Eels, Girl from the North Country
    (live from KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, 2005)

  • Eels, Girl from the North Country
    (from Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall)

  • Leo Kottke, Girl from the North Country
    (live at No Exit Coffeehouse, 1968; used for the film North Country)

  • Mojave 3, Girl from the North Country
    (from Return to Sender)

  • Yo La Tengo, Girl from the North Country
    (live on WFMU, 2006; more Yo La Tengo here)

  • Johnny Cash w/ Joni Mitchell, Girl from the North Country
    (live, 1970; alt. version on The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show)

  • M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Jim James, Girl from the North Country
    (live; more Ward, Oberst, and James)

    As always, wherever possible, all album and artist links above take you towards wonderful, local, artist-centric places to buy albums, and as far away from faceless major-market megastores as possible. I think Dylan would appreciate the authenticity of it all, don't you?

    One of these days I'll have to do a whole post on the Dylan covers of Jimmy LaFave. In the meantime, pick up the original Girl from the North Country, plus a heck of a lot more covers, at My Old Kentucky Blog. It's not all folk over there, but a lot of it's worth hearing, especially Sam Bush, The Waterboys, and Dear Nora.

    Single Song Sunday collections previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • Saturday, February 2, 2008

    Covered in Folk: Pavement
    (Kathryn Williams, Nickel Creek, Cat Power, Casey Dienel)

    Late Saturday night, a couple of weeks ago: my brother's in from out of town, and he's flipping through my iPod. We've always had vastly different ears for music, though we passed plenty back and forth through the years; he's looking, but he isn't seeing much he's in the mood for. Still, keeping a folk blog means finding commonality in strange places. As in:

    "Wait, how many folk covers of Pavement could there be?"

    Just enough, man. Just enough.

    I dropped out of college in 1992, just around the time mid-nineties alt-rockers Pavement were hitting the ground running. My post-adolescent rejection of radio as a primary source for music immediately precedes Pavement's mid-nineties heyday as minor indie alt-rock radio gods. And I just plumb never discovered their earliest work as a fuzzed-out post punk group.

    Okay, I'm old. But I'm not too old to recognize that, to a particular generation just out of my reach, Pavement's indiefolk cred is impeccable. That's partially because Pavement's sound is so prototypical of its time, able to represent fully a particular sound in an otherwise dried-up musicial historical moment. It's also because Pavement is considered by many to be the first truly indie modern rock band, the ones who showed the rest of the world it was possible to make it that big without the benefit of major label promotion and corporate backing.

    It is this folk politic, plus the unique timing of their fame and significance, which makes Pavement worth knowing. And it is this curiously narrow window of time which has brought a certain next-gen group of blog-favored musicians to just begin covering Pavement songs, almost always with reverence and a certain glee, a nod and a wink between indie listener and ripening singer-songwriters paying tribute to their past.

    These covers tend to be pretty diverse. Pavement's sound drifted significantly through their short career; finding its way from post punk through an almost classic early nineties alt-rock sound to 1995 release Wowee Zowee, which would turn heads later, but was a bit too eclectic to catch fire at the time of its release. By the time the band broke up just before the turn of the century, their sound had passed through its college-rock stage to become something both more experimental and more melodic. Along the way, they picked up a small generation of pre-indie fans -- one reason why, today, bloggers and musicians of a certain age need no introduction.

    There's not that much in the way of pure folk covers of Pavement, though there's certainly plenty in the non-folk indie world, as befits the band's proto-indie status. But we aim for quality, not quantity, here on Cover Lay Down, and the following songs are the cream of a very recent indiefolk crop.

    A short Friday set, then, just enough to turn you on: scratch-voiced blogfave Cat Power, the pianopop of still-rising youngster Casey Dienel, and two acoustic covers of Spit on a Stranger -- Nickel Creek's sweet newgrass version, and a slower, more mystical take by UK alt-folkstar Kathryn Williams. I'm older than all of them, I think. Plus bonus tracks to follow, as always.

    Want to hear more Pavement? Start with Hype Machine; though Pavement is no more, and half the guys who started it have day jobs, these days founder and core member Stephen Malkmus is a darling of the indie world.

    Once you get hooked, pick up the diverse collected works of Pavement over at Matador Records (Also Cat Power's label). Folk fans who like a little alt-rock in the mix might start with Terror Twilight, their final album. The new CD by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks is pretty sweet, too.

    Bonus tracks? Sure, they're on the playlist, too. Here's a few recent Malkmus-does-Dylan cuts from the I'm Not There soundtrack, to give you a sense of his more recent sound.

    And, just for fun, something lo-fi and grungy and feedback-y from near the end of Pavement's career, after they had moved on past traditional song structure, before they started turning into a Stephen Malkmus project. It's totally not folk, but most definitely a Pavement cover you'll love if you're of a certain Schoolhouse Rock age.