Sunday, March 30, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Forward:
On Half a Year of CLD
plus more covers of and from your favorites and mine

Image copyright Adam Pesch, 2003
Six months ago today I jumped into the world of music blogging with both feet and no expectations. Since then, Cover Lay Down has become many things to many people.

To me, Cover Lay Down is sometimes a haven, often a playspace, always a way to try to put into words why I love what I love. But even though it is work, it is never a burden. And it is a place I am proud to call my home on the web.

But as a home is nothing without a constant stream of dinner companions, houseguests and couchcrashers, a blog is nothing without its readership. Though I only hear from a tiny percentage of the thousand or so of you who visit on an average day, it is clear from those who do share thoughts and songs that Cover Lay Down has served you well. The outpouring of interest, support, and kind words has been validating. I treasure every comment and email, and consider many of you friends.

More surprising has been the relatively recent recognition by promoters, labels, and artists themselves. It has always been my aim to support artists first and foremost, as organically as possible, but as a cover blogger, I never expected to hit the radar. Thanks to every promoter that reaches out to me, to every small label that works with me to keep the focus on artists and songs, and especially, to every artist who has not only shared their gifts, but more and more often, their words of encouragement.

It is a rare privilege to serve as a bridge between the music I love and the community I cherish. Thank you, all, for your trust, your recommendations, and your encouragement. Together, we really are making a difference.

For those who are curious about what this place looks like behind the scenes, it's worth noting that careful hit-tracking shows a steady rise in readership pushed by periodic blips of discovery from the blogosphere and web-based press. It is neat to be noticed, and I really appreciate recent mentions from the likes of Muruch, Berkeley Place, Copy, Right via WFMU's Beware the Blog, and many others I truly respect. I owe these folks, too, and am proud to consider them mentors and peers.

But even if not all posts make The Houston Chronicle, Weblog Wannabe, or what appears to be the German version of MTV, or garner notice on those carefully selected linklists of incredible folk and coverblogs you see to the right, I am proud that such recognition keeps driving the average size of our readership ever upwards. I may be wrong, but I'd like to think our growth after each blip underscores the fact that so many who find this place come back on their own -- which in turn validates the continued good balance we've managed to create between featuring songs and songwriters, and the performers that cover them.

I enjoy writing them all, though I am proudest of the continued work trying to define the myriad ways and means of folk itself -- a thread that wends its way through every post, whether it explores the possibility of a single subgenre or song, or focuses on a given singer or songwriter. And, now that labels and artists have begun sending me their work, I am increasingly excited about the unique opportunity to use cover songs as a vehicle for audiences like yourselves to find new artists.

But today is as much about looking back as looking ahead, and we meet here for the music more than anything. So enough about us -- let's get to the coversongs, shall we? Today, a very special installment of our (Re)Covered series, wherein we revisit the past, and add new value to older posts. After all, isn't building bridges between the past and the now, too, what folk is all about?

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I was so blown away by South of Delia, the new cover album by singer-songwriter Richard Shindell, that I needed to share it with the world. Since then, I keep coming back to that amazing album, and to the artist who recorded it, who recently released the first in what promises to be a wonderful series of live concert recordings. It seems especially fitting to look back to that first post today, for a deeper look at Richard Shindell, plus young folk group We're About 9 with an a capella cover of one of his most poignant songs.

  • Richard Shindell, Lawrence, KS (orig. Josh Ritter)
  • Richard Shindell, Fourth of July, Asbury Park (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
  • Richard Shindell, Darkness, Darkness (orig. Jesse Colin Young)
  • We're About 9, Money For Floods (orig. Richard Shindell)

    Most of our first few months we were seriously under the radar. Though my early look at Britney Spears -- a post originally intended as a Halloween "mask" -- brought some recognition, it says something that even as family friend Sam Amidon garners mention in Rolling Stone and Spin, and even though my look at him was more exhaustive than any I have read, no one seems to remember that we, too, did a feature on Sam Amidon way back in November of last year, before many of the big guns spotted him. Here's a trifecta of Amidon covers I originally posted way back when, one each from his new work and his two previous albums; pick up a bunch more of his cuts at that original post.

  • Sam Amidon, Head Over Heels (orig. Tears for Fears)
  • Sam Amidon, Louis Collins (orig. Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Sam Amidon, Little Johnny Brown (trad./ arr. Ella Jenkins)

    Just before the momentum really started to build, I put up a gigantic but generally unnoticed post about local folkfaves Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, and mentioned I hadn't yet heard their newest album Big Old Life. Since then, I've made friends with the folks at Signature Sounds, a wonderful label/studio who first produced the work of Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna, and currently work with folkblog fave Eilen Jewell and previously-covered Jeffrey Foucault and Caroline Herring; they sent me a copy of Big Old Life, and I'm happy to report it was all I had hoped for: fun, quirky, and full of surprises. Rani deserves a real shot at my current audience, so here's two of my favorite tracks; the Dylan, especially, is both wonderful and awesomely odd.

  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Farewell, Angelina (orig. Bob Dylan)
  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Heart with No Compassion (orig. Leonard Cohen)

    Speaking of Leonard Cohen: if email responses were the best measure of success, our Single Song Sundays would hands down be counted as our most popular entries. In almost every case, from features on tradfolk songs like House Carpenter and Amazing Grace to heavily covered singer-songwriter cuts like Joni Mitchell's River and Dylan's Girl of the North Country, posting multiple versions of a song has brought in choice submissions from fans and artists alike. I truly appreciate these emails, and love learning about new artists this way. Here's the best of what came in after my most recent post on Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat, with much thanks to two new e-friends for introducing me to Antje Duvekot and Karen Jo Fields, two singer-songwriters I'll be listening to over the next few months.

  • Antje Duvekot, Famous Blue Raincoat (orig. Leonard Cohen)
  • Karen Jo Fields, Famous Blue Raincoat (ibid.)

    What's next on Cover Lay Down? Plenty. I'm working with several artists I love to bring forward some great covers they've done over the years, and anxiously awaiting word on a few "in the works" cover projects from folksters new and old. With the folk festival season soon upon us, I expect to be more in tune with what's new in the folkworld, and hope, as well, to be able to renew and strengthen connections with artists, fans, and promoters.

    In other words, much of what you'll continue to see here is that which we do best, only deeper. But even that is not static. Folk is culture, so as culture changes, folk changes, too. As long as new gems and rising stars shine among the new and unheard CDs that clutter my desktop, it is my hope to add more short features on newer artists still below the radar. I'll have an experiment of sorts in that vein coming along later this week. But to the extent that we can say so, I think the model we've created together is largely a success. Expect more of the same as we go forward.

    One last word before I go. In the end, the purpose of this blog truly is to best support folk music, and the artists who make it. Regular visitors may have noticed that we disdain mass market commercial sources for music here wherever possible. My recent connections with artists and labels has only strengthened my belief that the best way to support the music we love is not just to buy it, it is to buy it through the artists themselves, at shows, on artist websites, and through distribution centers like CD Baby -- sources which genuinely send the bulk of the profit back to the artist herself.

    Please, folks: if you like what you hear, buy, and buy local. Else one day, there might be nothing left for us to talk about except the oldies. And if I could ask for anything back from all of you, it would not be words. It would be that this community, this scene, this sound is still vibrant a hundred years from now, for our children and theirs.

    Thanks for staying with me for so long, both tonight and since you found this place. We'll be back Wednesday, and again on Sunday, ad infinitum. But come back any time you like. For you, the door is always open.

  • Thursday, March 27, 2008

    Disney Funk at Covering the Mouse

    Just a quick redirect to Covering the Mouse, the incredible one-a-day Disney coverblog, where Kurtis has graciously allowed me to guest host for the day to continue spreading the word about an amazing new album of "funkified classic hits for children and adults featuring New Orleans finest."

    I first mentioned Funky Kidz a few weeks ago when I posted Walter "Wolfman" Washington's delta blues take on This Land Is Your Land for our popular Covered in Kidfolk series. Since then, the album has been on heavy rotation in the family car. It's not folk in the modern sense, but it is chock full of authentically regional American folk forms. And every track is a gem, sure to please whether you've got kids or just like a good second line cover set.

    So head on over to Covering the Mouse for Bonerama's seriously funky brass band cover of Randy Newman's Toy Story theme You've Got A Friend In Me. And then y'all come back now, hear? We'll be back Sunday with a long-overdue look back at a few favorite posts from our first six months on the mp3blog map.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008

    Covered In Folk: Classical Music
    (Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, David Wilcox, Brooks Williams, etc.)

    Most people think of modern folk music as inherently coupled with the singer-songwriter movement. And it is true that, once upon a time, those who would grow up to become the folk troubadors of their own tomorrows learned their songs the traditional way, at the knees of their elders, that they, too, might pass old songs on to a new generation, and tell their own stories in familiar forms.

    But the primary instruments of folk music turn out to be more versatile than the folk tradition would suggest. And though many modern musicians surely came to folk the old-fashioned way, through listening and picking, plenty others have grown up in modern home environments and schools where formal lessons are a norm. Today's radio dial speaks in a variety of tongues and timbres. And a parent's treasured record collection allows for a broad base of source material far richer than that which can be learned from the old folkie or bluesman next door.

    The result has been a world in which the potential for early imitation can come from almost anywhere, and does. And as the ways we listen, store, pass along and learn our music change, so does the method by which musicians gain their craft, and stretch it out. It is a world of crossover, in which classical cellist Yo Yo Ma sits in with James Taylor in concert, The Kronos Quartet plays the hell out of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, and bluegrass musicians like Bela Fleck cut entire albums of classical music. And, since all these remain the music of the folk, for the folk, and by the folk, when the sound comes together just right, it's still folk music if we want it to be.

    On one level, then, like indiefolk, folk rock, and Celtic Punk, the inclusion of classical music in the folk musician's repertoire is just another example of the hyphenate hybridization of genre which is so common in the world of modern music. But on another level, I think there is reason to celebrate this phenomenon as something very special.

    For one thing, the ability to interpret classical themes and motifs effectively is not something that all kinds of folk musicians are even capable of. Doing so calls upon a kind of technical adeptness that is anathema to the strum patterns so prevalent in folk musicians who have learned their trade from blues or rock.

    On an even grander scale, making classical music "come out" as folk collapses an exceptional historical dichotomy which presents classical music as the exact opposite of folk music. To take a form which its composers and its audiences have long maintained is so complex, so rarified, that it can only be fully appreciated after years of careful listening and quiet appreciation, and put it in the hands of musicians and instruments which are, by definition, "jus' folk", is a revolutionary act on a scale far beyond that of any other folk hybrid form.

    In other words: it takes both skill and guts to do this. And perhaps this is why, though the passage of melody and theme from the commonfolk to the highbrow has been a common theme in classical music for over a century, from Bartok to Copeland, it remains rare to hear serious application of classical music to the instrumentation of folk, at least in the hands of musicians who themselves identify as coming from the folk tradition.

    Today's coversongs involve neither songwriting nor singing, for the most part. Instead, here's a surprisingly diverse set of genuine classical music played on acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and other rude country noisemakers by a set of musicians from many folk traditions: contradance, "true" folk, flamenco, Klezmer, the bluegrass and appalachian camps. One hand, this is nothing more than another example of the same phenomenon that makes electronic folk a legitimate (albeit still very fuzzy) term in the hands of promoters and artists. On another level, this is more folk than anything else, a set of adept artists bravely trading on their popular cache to bring cake to the breadline. Relax, and enjoy.

    As always here on Cover Lay Down, all song and artist links above go direct to label and artist websites, where you can and should purchase these and other incredible soundscapes. Because while buying your music instead of downloading it might be a classical model, supporting artists without the middlemen is most definitely folk.

    Sunday, March 23, 2008

    John Gorka Covers:
    Townes Van Zandt, Kate Wolf, Pete Seeger, Stan Rogers

    I've strayed from the folkfold a bit over the past weeks, testing the limits of folk subgenres and hybridization, trying to feel out just how far one can throw the modern conceit in which everything is a slash-folk hyphenate. I make no apologies for this -- folk is a big tent, with many murky corners worthy of exploration. It is also, by definition, tied to the listening culture in intimate, cyclical ways which make it natural for folk to be in a state of constant interaction and integration with...well, everything. Including other forms of music.

    But he who would claim to run a folk music blog cannot spend all his time at the periphery of the genre. It's time to get back to the core of modern folk music, where the artists who made their name performing intimate acoustic songs to tiny bohemian audiences still lug their backseat guitars from city to city on the coffeehouse circuit. And I can think of no more worthy subject for such a triumphant return to the core of modern American folk music than John Gorka.

    I've seen John Gorka perform live more than any other musician, and I haven't had to work too hard at it. Since his early days in the Fast Folk songwriter/performer cooperative, Gorka has been one of the hardest working singer-songwriters in the folk business, an anchor for folk festival lineups and a crowd-pleaser at struggling coffeehouses. One year I saw him six times -- twice indoors, four times outdoors -- and by the end of the season, we were nodding recognition to each other as we passed among the folk fest food vendors.

    John Gorka came up through the ranks the hard way, opening for Bill Morrisey and Nanci Griffith before taking first place at the 1984 Kerrville Folk Festival at the age of 26. Three years later, upon the release his first album I Know, Rolling Stone named him "the voice of 'new folk'". Since then, he has released ten albums, five of which I listened all the way through this evening, trying to put words to Gorka's greatness.

    And let me tell you, I've had a hell of a time trying to pin down what it is about John Gorka that makes his work so powerful.

    It's not his humor, though Gorka can write light, wry, self-effacing and funny better than most. It is not his elder-statesman status among the post-Fast Folk generation, though it's always good to listen to those folks who the folks you love are listening to. It is not anything especially adept about his technique, though that rich, clear baritone and gentle way with a guitar comprise a powerful instrument. And it is not his infamous kindness, though I have never seen a performer take more genuine grateful pleasure, more sincere and untainted glee, in being given the gift of sharing his songs...and though there is nothing more folk than the way Gorka grins that infectious crooked grin, like Dennis Quaid without the mischief, in the face of applause.

    For many listeners and critics, the above is more than anough to secure Gorka's place in the pantheon of folk gods. But for once, I'm not going to try to speak to what makes Gorka good in any objective sense. Because, to me, what makes Gorka the epitome of folk is that he has the ability to truly speak to a part of me that, once realized through his music, turns out to be exactly what I have always felt.

    Gorka is the only songwriter I know that, so often and so well, speaks for the secret, sensitive part of me that rails against the trappings of what our overcommericalized, testosterone-laden culture says a man should be. His ability to capture and express deep love and commitment as brave, honorable, and bittersweet, through deceptively simple guitarwork and an unusually rich, pure voice, is both uncanny and perfectly expressed.

    And Gorka does this better, and more often, than any musician I know. He gives voice to a particularly sincere, masculine ownership of self as fragile and human which I have heard in other artists, and he applies this sensibility to more aspects of who I am - father, son, lover, laborer, wanderer - than any other musician I have heard.

    Perhaps this subjectivity is not so subjective. Perhaps, though it is our commonality of white male experience which makes this work on one level, it is also true that, like with Joni's longing for Canada or Josh Ritter's unfinished adolescence, anyone can find their own emotional story in Gorka's tales of blue collar labor, parenthood, and love. If so, then this is the kind of folk artist that makes you feel things you didn't know you felt, in ways that are clearer than you knew possible.

    The intimate connection I feel with Gorka's music may affect my ability to judge the path of his career more objectively. Though all his albums have topped the folk charts -- his 2006 release Writing in the Margins won numerous "best of" awards in the folkworld -- in my opinion, some of Gorka's recent work has been a bit erratic. His newer political songs are weaker; tracks on his recent albums suffer from overproduction which drags them out past their power. Though his later work speaks brilliantly to the bittersweetness of fatherhood, his cover of Marc Cohn's Things We've Handed Down on a recent kidfolk compilation is an unfortunate trainwreck, pitched far too high for his voice. And though Gorka brings life to Stan Rogers' poignant The Lockkeeper on Writing in the Margins, his older live version is far better.

    But even on an objective level, this is minor quibbling; Gorka's output has been so strong for decades, it is easy to excuse an occasional lapse in concentration. In live performance, and in recent tracks like Townes Van Zandt's Snow Don't Fall, Gorka can still call up an absolutely stunning power. And happily for cover fans, over three decades of performing and recording at the center of the folkworld, Gorka has contributed songs to many folk cover compilations and tribute albums, where, invariably, his song choices and his performance stand out from the crowd.

    Today, a select few songs Gorka has chosen to make his own over the years.* All are good, and many are great; take them with my blessing, and be prepared to be spoken to. I cannot claim that you will feel what I feel, but by all accounts, this is what folk is supposed to be.

    Everyone who reads this blog should have at least one John Gorka album in their collection. There are many, including Pure John Gorka, a "best of" compilation of the five albums Gorka released on the Windham Hill label between 1990 and 1996, but if you're just starting your collection, I absolutely recommend Gorka's second, his major label debut Land of the Bottom Line. From there, pick up his debut, and his last four CDs, at Red House Records, which celebrates 25 years in the folk business this year. Even better, pick up Gorka's in-print albums directly through John Gorka's website, where autographs come with every CD at no additional charge.

    Today's bonus coversongs include two Gorka originals covered with care and beauty; David Wilcox, especially, captures the best of Gorka's emotive power in a song originally cobbled from an old prayer written by a soldier in wartime. Plus a fun, familiar song with Gorka on backup, just to show off that voice a little more:

    Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • John Gorka covers Girl of the North Country
  • John Gorka covers one of many Christmas Songs Written By Jews

    *I am also desperately seeking a recording of John Gorka covering Dylan's Love Minus Zero/No Limit, which appeared on the out of print A Tribute to Bob Dylan, Vol. II (Sister Ruby Records: 1994).

  • Friday, March 21, 2008

    Songs Inspired by Literature at Audiography

    Just dropped a sprawling post over at "collaborative music blog" Audiography, where this week's theme is "songs inspired by literature." It's not all covers, and some tracks have been posted here already, but head on over for a decent smorgasbord of sound, plus the usual diverse set of on-topic contributions from the rest of the community.

    My own offerings include a couple of great folkrock takes on Dylan's biblical apocalypse All Along The Watchtower, reposts of The Indigo Girls covering Mark Knopfler's Romeo and Juliet and a few great kidfolk tunes by The Chieftains and Moxy Fruvous, and two original versions (produced and live acoustic) of Tell Your Story Walking, a stunning, award-winning song based on Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, written and recorded by singer-songwriter Deb Talan before she became half of The Weepies.

    Before you go, here's a Cover Lay Down exclusive: Jose Gonzalez' new Swedish indiefolk band Junip covering Springsteen's ode to The Grapes of Wrath, and a funky countrygrass romp through the world of Lewis Carroll, as filtered through the psychadelic sixties, recorded live at Kerrville Folk Fest a few years back.

    Back Sunday with yet another tribute to the best cover artists of the folkworld. Enjoy the long weekend!

    Wednesday, March 19, 2008

    Spring Has Sprung:
    Soft Coversongs of Hope and Renewal

    Tomorrow is the first day of Spring, and someone forgot to tell the sky.

    In the morning, says the weatherman, the world will turn to slush. And if we are truly blessed, all our sins will be washed away.

    Outside the snow sulks in great mounds where the plows have pushed it aside. Hard ice falls on three-inch shoots and tufts of new grass. We stay up late, and sit by the window together, and wait for the rains that do not come.

    Send rain, O Lord. For it has been a hard Winter, and we are ready for Spring.

    Happy Spring, everyone. May the darkness turn, and the world turn green and alive for each of us.

    Sunday, March 16, 2008

    Sinéad O'Connor Covers:
    from Disney to Dolly, from Nirvana to Nilsson

    I toyed with using today's post to address some of the unsung heroes of traditional Irish Folk Music, but I'm no expert on the subject. Berkeley Place got to Van Morrison first, I've only got a few good U2 covers left, and Wednesday's post on Celtic Punk was pretty thorough. And even with the SXSW posts starting to get a bit thick on the ground, there's still plenty of bloggers out there dropping diverse sets of Irish and Celtic music on you this weekend.

    But never fear, faithful reader: I'm not about to leave you empty handed on the eve of St. Patrick's Day. I may not remember how to code that little accented e in her name, but I do know that the more I hear of her, the more impressed I've been with the deliberate interpetive power of one particular Irish folkrocker. And since she's terribly underrated in the American soundscape, what better way to celebrate the fire of the Irish than to provide an introduction to Sinead O'Connor?

    In fact, in many ways, Sinead O'Connor is the perfect counterpart and compliment to our earlier post on Celtic Punk. Behaviorally, Sinead is sociopolitical punk: the shaved head, the infamous pope-shredding on Saturday Night Live. But sonically, Sinead is anything but. Her voice is little-girl innocent, even when angered to a shaky open-throated vibrato; though she can rock with the best of them, her preferred arrangements and phrasing, especially in coversong, tend towards that full sound which best supports her slow phrasing and lush, languid tone.

    Though they're not usually clustered, this puts Sinead in a select group of like-voiced and like-minded women, such as Dar Williams, Bjork, and Ani DiFranco: contemporaries who set the standard for serious world-changing worldbeat-slash-folk music clothed in breathy high-vibrato vocal sweetness and pop production value.

    Of these women, though I love Dar, and respect Ani, when we're talking about coversong I'd have to put Sinead at the top of the panetheon. Primarily, this is because Sinead has an especially gifted ability to play the tension between punk sensibility and sweet, sultry performance effectively in other people's songs. Few performers of any type can do this as well, and with as much versatility. If all you've heard of Sinead's cover songs is her poppy take on Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U, even if you love her angsty take to pieces, you've probably been guilty of severely underestimating this pop punk pixie.

    As a cover artist, Sinead brings an unparalleled range to her performances. Her softer song choices clearly are designed to maximize the potential for interpretation to bring new and often ironic meaning to familiar song. Her breathy take on Someday My Prince Will Come isn't wistful; it's resigned, conflicted, and startlingly feminist. The echoing ghost-like etherial beauty she brings to Nirvana's once-grungy All Apologies isn't restrained so much as angelic: loving and deliberate, it sounds like it comes from Cobain's coffin.

    But Sinead isn't a one-trick pony, choosing songs to suit a particular strength of interpretation. When a song inherently speaks to the sort of tension she can create through lyrical interpretation, she forgoes use of dissonance between song and voice, letting herself go.

    The results are diverse, and equally impressive. Her cover of older political Irish songs like The Foggy Dew tend to be pure and loudly true to the original mournful fife and drum cadence. The build she brings to House of the Rising Sun uses her full spectrum: In five minutes of blues, you can hear an emotional cycle that some artists take a lifetime to scan. And her cover of Dolly Parton's Dagger Through the Heart manages to be both true-blue bluegrass and emphathetically the most incredible take on Parton's original wail and frustration in an otherwise excellent collection.

    Heck, let's skip the Prince cover; it's weak by comparison. Here's the Sinead O'Connor you should have been listening to all along: the songs mentioned above, and a few more that I could go on about for hours. It may not all be pub music, and celebrating a countercultural bisexual critic of the Catholic Church may not make the conservatives happy. But this is music with the true fire of the Irish in every note. And whether you agree with her politics or not, you just can't dismiss her craft, her breadth, or the power of her voice.

    Sinead O'Connor's prolific career has resulted in a vast collection of albums which run the gamut from edgy poprock to atmospheric soundtrack pop to acoustic singer-songwriter folk; though I'm usually reluctant to link to Amazon, Sinead's website uses it, so head on over to buy her work.

    Not sure where to start? Sinead's newest release Theology is a two-disk set which should make everyone happy: one CD offers stripped down versions of her songs; the other recasts the same songs with a full band. Her reworked version of traditional gospel ballad River of Babylon sounds excellent on both, as do her covers of Curtis Mayfield and Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber. Taken as sets, the covers AND the doubled albums speak perfectly to both the diversity and excellence I was getting at above.

    Finally, lest we forget that Sinead is not just a coverartist, today's bonus coversongs show that Sinead's songwriting displays the same power and creative energy she brings to her performance. I saw Bettye LaVette do her a capella version of I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got in a cramped jazz club a while back, just before she hit the blogs; though Bettye's is a totally different sound, it still fits, emotionally.

    Wednesday, March 12, 2008

    Subgenre Coverfolk: Celtic Punk
    from The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, Black 47 and more!

    Now with added Pogues goodness!

    Here's a tiny St. Paddy's Day subgenre for you: Celtic punk, a genre arguably invented by The Pogues, though surely influenced by both the "British" folkrock invasion and the early punk music of The Clash.

    To truly explore the broader implications of this musical form requires deep understanding of many factors: the Irish diaspora, the evolution of fusion forms in music, the confluence of post-punk folk and the adolescent mindset, the modern commercialism of St. Patrick's Day. Such scope is beyond the purview of any blog. But considering the genre as a form of folk sheds new light on what is increasingly a sound recognizable from Galway to Graceland.

    Though genre originators The Pogues came at Celtic punk from the streetpunk movement of our parents' generation, Celtic punk is also legitimately a subset of folk punk, a category which also includes folk rockers The Weakerthans and the early work of Billy Bragg, and is characterized by a sneering, often politicized attitude, high-energy performance, and electrified speed, even in unplugged mode. To this, Celtic punk adds the traditional instruments of Celtic rock music -- guitar, pipes, fiddle, bodhran, and the occasional squeezebox -- and the song structure and lyrical trope of the traditional Irish folk form.

    The result is as diverse as it is distinctive. The definable sonic sector that is Celtic punk includes everything from slightly lilted folk rock ballads to traditional jigs at moshpit speed. Yet despite the differences, the realm is still definable for its lyrical ground in the plight of the working class, and -- perhaps more obvious to the layperson -- its worldbeat sound, full of high pipes and the unmistakable trope of the Irish pubsong.

    As a fusion of multiple small-scale subgenres itself, it is no surprise that it is hard to find pure examples of the form. But the small number of pure Celtic punk bands is balanced by the large number of musicians who combine the basic elements of the subgenre. These essential elements are, after all, indigenous to everywhere from Halifax to Boston to the Emerald Isle herself. Where you find political dissatisfaction, post-rock young folks, venues that serve Guinness, and a critical mass of Irish musicians, inevitably, you're going to get something a lot like Celtic punk.

    Today, a short set of tunes from a few bands who define the genre cluster, capture the Celtic punk style, and display a folkpunk political sensibility. Those expecting thrashpunk may be surprised -- though some Celtic punk retains the hard edge of its forefathers, it is sensibility, not hardcore sound, that ultimately lends the punk moniker to the majority of the musical form in a post-Pogues world. Nonetheless, those who come to Cover Lay Down for mellow tradfolk might prefer to skip down to today's bonus song section, which includes a few sparser, slower covers of songs originally written and performed by The Pogues.

    Today's bonus coversongs, for the more mellow among us:

    We'll be back Sunday with more music appropriate for a folk coverblog on St. Patrick's Day. In the meanwhile, click on links above to purchase the works of these artists direct from the source.

    Folkfans looking for more Irish drinking songs should also head on over to the always-excellent Setting the Woods on Fire for more from The Pogues, The Dubliners, and The Clancy Brothers, plus some great tradfolk from the Emerald Isle!

    Previous Subgenre Coverfolk Features:
  • Bluegrass
  • Zydeco

  • Tuesday, March 11, 2008

    Single Shot Coverfolk:
    Damien Rice covers Jeff Buckley covering Hallelujah

    Damien Rice channels Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah at last night's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

    Told you so. Worth watching nonetheless.

    Sunday, March 9, 2008

    Single Song Sunday:
    Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat

    Hands down, the most re-recorded song of the last decade from the vast catalog of Canadian poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is Hallelujah; the newly-reposted MOKB Covers Project: Hallelujah counts over forty recent versions, and the list is by no means complete. I have no complaints about this -- it's a great song, which, like so many of Cohen's best work, moves fluidly between grand mythos and intimate confession to give voice to strong yet otherwise unexpressable feeling. Problematically, however, the vast majority of covers of this song are not truly Leonard Cohen covers, but covers of Jeff Buckley's particularly sparse, soaring version, the most familiar of which was recorded live in 1993 and released on Grace.

    To feature these versions of
    Hallelujah, then, is to feature not Cohen himself, but a particular process by which song ownership and song authorship can be divorced to the betterment of song, one seen more recently in the way Noel Gallagher of Oasis has begun to cover Ryan Adams' setting of Wonderwall in live performance. And, while interesting, getting tangled in the way in which song ownership can truly shift is no way to truly acknowledge the immense impact that Cohen and his songs have had on the development of popular music.

    Luckily, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will acknowledge this Monday, Leonard Cohen is no one-hit wonder. Though it has become essentially impossible to honor this gravel-voiced folksinger and songwriter via
    Hallelujah, there are many, many musicians of greatness who have been moved to interpret the various pages of his deceptively slow songbook. And while I have a particular fondness for a few particularly stunning Leonard Cohen covers -- among them Teddy Thompson's Tonight Will Be Fine, Serena Ryder's Sisters of Mercy, and Regina Spektor's Chelsea Hotel -- today is not a day for breadth, but for focus.

    No, to truly consider the genius of Leonard Cohen as songsmith, we need look no further than a song which was first released way back in 1971, on Songs of Love and Hate: Leonard Cohen's
    Famous Blue Raincoat.

    By most accounts, Famous Blue Raincoat is probably not the song Leonard Cohen would have us choose to honor him with. In a 1993 interview in Details magazine, Cohen describes the song as both powerful and flawed, and I don't think he's wrong; the literary convention of the letter is awkward, especially at the end, and much goes unresolved in the music and narration. Ultimately, says Cohen, the song was "good enough to be used...but lyrically, it's too mysterious, too unclear."

    But whether Cohen intended it or not, I think the flaws here are ultimately what makes the song so effective. In a listener's ears, the wandering narrative, the odd repetitions which seem not to resolve, and even the dubious, damaging choice to filter this story through the awkward form of the letter itself are attributed to the speaker, not the artist. The result is an especially realistic, poignant sort of unreliable narrator perfectly suited to the uneasy truce the singer claims to have made with his woman, the letter's addressee, their shared pasts, and how they found themselves here.

    In the end, in spite of or because of its flaws, the effective pairing of deceptively simple melody and complex emotional story make Famous Blue Raincoat one of the best works of an incredible artist. The complex relationship between these elements is vivid because it is so tangled and indescribable; it's hard to imagine a clearer portrayal of this particular triangle without sacrificing the emotional success of the song overall.

    The care and craft which today's cover artists bring to the song would seem to suggest either that other musicians agree with this assessment, or that the song is so powerful and workable that even a half-hearted approach cannot help but result in a solid performance. Knowing these artists, I'm inclined to assume the former in at least half of the performances below. But notably, in either case, we can attribute much of the success of any cover version to Cohen himself. And that's what it takes to make the Hall of Fame, folks. Listen, and be moved:

    As always here on Cover Lay Down, wherever possible, all album/artist links go to artist homepages and preferred distributors, and never to the megastores that care more for money than art. So click through or head off to your local indie distributor to purchase the best music around. Because paying for your music is good karma, and doing so direct from the source is the best way to support the next generation of hall of famers.

    Saturday, March 8, 2008

    Rock 'n Roll is Here To Stay:
    Mellencamp, Madonna, and the Philly Soul of Gamble and Huff

    A small but select group of big names in the music world will be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this Monday. I've got a Single Song Sunday feature on oft-covered fellow inductee Leonard Cohen scheduled for Sunday, and I couldn't find any folk covers of the theme to Hawaii 5-0, but to whet your appetite a bit, here's a few choice covers of and from three other artists who will be strutting their way across the stage to get their due.

    As songwriters and producers, Philadelphia soul pioneers Gamble and Huff had their fingers in the pies of thousands of songs; separately and together they've made 170 gold and platinum records, and you know a bunch of them, including the theme to Soul Train. They're also one of the few major players known for celebrating the use of their music for remixes and as hip-hop beats. Here's a few choice covercuts from their stable of songs. (Winehouse song removed, as it was not a cover after all.)

    The roots rock of John (Cougar) Mellencamp transformed my childhood when a family friend who wrote music reviews for a national weekly gave me a copy of Scarecrow; up until that point, other than a few pop 45s, the only records I owned were Thriller and a used copy of the Bee Gees greatest hits. Today, every time I post a song, I'm paying it forward. Here's two surprisingly well-done Mellencamp tributes to his folk predecessors.

    The wholesale reinvention which typifies Madonna, both as a musician and a cultural icon, is essentially anathema to the whole authenticity thing that practically defines the folkworld; as such, it's especially hard to find earnest acoustic covers of Madonna songs. Neither of the two male coverartists below can keep from laughing at the sheer audacity of trying to take their live covers seriously. All three versions are lighthearted romps worth hearing nonetheless.

    We'll be back Sunday with a short but solid set of covers of my second favorite Leonard Cohen song. Hint: it's not Hallelujah.

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008

    KT Tunstall Covers:
    Radiohead, Beck, Missy Elliot, Bloc Party, Jackson 5
    *now updated w/ US acoustic tour info*

    You might be surprised to find radio popstar darling KT Tunstall on a blog devoted to exploring the boundaries and possibilities of folk. Thanks to our shufflesong culture, many people never truly explore the work of artists like Tunstall beyond chart-toppers like Hold On and Suddenly I See, to name but two beat-heavy guilty pleasures of mine which have infiltrated every inch of our sonic culture.

    But I've long had this Grammy nominee's sweet, simple Under The Weather, with its thick, mellow guitarstrum and longing, trapped in the part of my skull I use for folkmusic. In fact, if you go back to her albums, I think you'll find that a vast majority of KT Tunstall's work is comparable to the singer-songwriter fare of a post-production Kathleen Edwards, Paula Cole, or Aimee Mann.

    Trying to reconcile the sweeter, folkier sounds of her less-heard album cuts with the funky modern edge of her more memorable singles led me to KT Tunstall's Wikipedia entry, which -- sure enough -- reinforced my suspicions by claiming her legitimacy as a folk musician. Which brings us here, today, to explore the folkier side of KT Tunstall.

    I am constantly confused by the relationship between pop and folk music; apparently, so is my local library, which files such staple folk musicians as Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams in the Pop section. But such placement is not arbitrary -- near as I can tell, it's the production of these albums which matters to them. And sure enough, the recorded output of Williams, Colvin, and a whole generation of modern singer-songwriters is produced as if for pop radioplay.

    There's a whole range of artists who genuinely do fall into this folkpop camp, and many of them, like Joan Osborne and Ani DiFranco, identified as folk artists first. But while I think self-definition matters, we here at Cover Lay Down think genre identification is in the sound as much as the sensibility. If this is folk -- and I think it is -- then we'd be remiss in not calling attention to the best of it when it passes by.

    Luckily, it is no stretch to give KT Tunstall the folk treatment. Though her Top 40 work is produced with an eye towards a particularly modern, stomp-and-clap britpop sound, her background, her preference for acoustic guitarplay and balladry, and her live performance belie a sense of song as fundamentally happening between herself, her strings, and her audience. KT Tunstall has a singer-songwriter soul inside her popstar performer mentality, and I like that: it means tasty beats in hit-single production, but plenty of intimate folky cuts between the singles, and lots of stripped-down selections in her live performances.

    The glee with which she reconstructs Missy Elliot’s Get Your Freak On – as seen in the video clip below – is ample evidence: though her penchant towards coversong choices is more rock and roll than anything else, with or without her everpresent foot pedal, Tunstall plays like a folkin' busker. Even in her more upbeat moments. And that ain't bad.

    Tunstall's had a big week in the popworld: a newly-released UK single, and a stunning new video for If Only, can only cement her reputation as one of this generation's bright shining popstars. But if your folkbrain has already forgotten the softer folkpop of her first album, skipped past the moodier cuts on Drastic Fantastic, or missed entirely her sophomore fan release Acoustic Extravaganza, these deep tracks and live cuts that have been making the blogrounds may help you, too, reconsider KT Tunstall’s cred as the modern queen of Scottish folk. The first two cuts are b-sides on her new UK single for If Only, so I'm streaming them in the hopes that my UK readers will pick it up; the rest are already out there, so enjoy.

    Bonus VIDEO CLIP: How KT Tunstall builds Get Your Freak On solo in the studio:

    Samples of (and videos for) KT Tunstall's three major releases are all over her website; links there go to UK Amazon, but our US readers can find her work almost everywhere with little difficulty. Folkfans might start with Acoustic Extravaganza, which is now widely available, but all three albums come with my highest recommendation. (And it's not a cover, but like the video for Under The Weather, the new ski-themed video for If Only has an organic folk authenticity; if you missed the link above, check it out here.)

    UPDATE: more evidence for KT Tunstall's acoustic heart comes to us today via Glide Magazine, which announces that her first major US tour in May "will be a close up personal affair, with Tunstall on acoustic guitar duties while the rest of the band perform various other unplugged acoustic instruments, such as double bass, harmonium, and mandolin."

    Today's bonus coversongs sample a few other well-produced female singer-songwriters covering songs at the intersection of folk and pop:

    Sunday, March 2, 2008

    Covered in Folk: Neil Young
    (Of Tribute Albums and Female Indiefolk)

    I have a love/hate relationship with Neil Young. While I’ve always loved his early work, both solo and with CSNY, as my ears and his voice age, I find it harder to listen to that infamous whine for more than a few minutes at a time. But ever since I wore a used copy of his incredible, confessional album Harvest down to the groove one mopey adolescent summer, I have had nothing but admiration for Neil Young’s ability to pen poetic yet straightforward songs which give voice to the plight of the powerless and the disaffected in modern American culture.

    Young gets his share of covers, though next to Dylan, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springfield, the prolific folk-rocker’s songbook is hardly what we could call well-represented. And given his lyrical bent, it’s unsurprising to find that most of the best covers have emerged from the indie and folk worlds, where musicians and audiences generally share both Young’s socio-political dissatisfaction and his fluid fondness for making music in both acoustic and electric forms. It’s not like my life has been a series of Neil Young-related disappointments.

    However, where it’s easy to find strong tribute albums of Springfield or Dylan, as albums, the few Neil Young tributes I’ve encountered have been less than memorable. Last year's Uncut (UK) magazine freebie Like A Hurricane had some excellent folk artists on the roster, but all but three of those songs had been previously released, and back issues are hard to come by. Other, older tributes, like late eighties alt-rock release The Bridge, had a few good cuts, but with a few exceptions (Sonic Youth, The Pixies), The Bridge is generally considered a set of tepid work from some otherwise incredible artists.

    Which makes Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young for Charity a long-overdue splash of vibrant life in an ocean of mediocrity. This new two-disc set features well-crafted Neil Young covers lovingly recorded by women who, like the previously featured Mary Lou Lord, live and play at the intersection of folk and alternative rock. The songs run the gamut from acoustic folkpop to indiefolk to electrified alternative, and unlike most multi-artist tribute albums, they fit together smoothly, making for a great and well-balanced listen from cover to cover. This is the tribute album Neil Young has deserved for most of his long and prolific career.

    The proof is in the posting: I had originally planned to post this entry earlier, but the nice folks at American Laundromat let me take my pick of the collection, and I spent the first week trying to winnow down a two-CD set of great tracks to something manageable. Even after skimming off amazing songs like Luff's great grungy Tell Me Why, Eurotrash's alt-pop title cut, and Veruca Salt's post-punk Burned -- all of which, while amazing examples of indiegirl altrock in their own right, fall outside even a liberal interpretation of folk -- I had to make some hard choices in selecting which songs to share.

    You’ll have to buy the album for Lori McKenna's countryfolk version of The Needle and the Damage Done, a dreamy rock anthem from Kristen Hirsh, a balanced, edgy cover of Heart of Gold from Tanya Donelly, the sweet indiefolk harmonies of the Watson Twins and Elk City, and more. But ultimately, I think I've selected a short set of streams which represent the breadth and excellence that is Cinnamon Girl.

    No downloads here, folks, though I’ve dropped a few in the bonus section below. But don’t skip ahead. Press play below to hear Jill Sobule’s banjo-tinged folkrock, Kate York's breathy alt-country jam on Comes A Time, the fragile Aimee Mann-like voice-and-piano folkpop of Amilia K Spicer, and my favorite track of many, Dala’s subtle, sultry cover of A Man Need a Maid.

    Kate York, Comes A Time

    Jill Sobule w/ John Doe, Down By The River

    Dala, A Man Needs A Maid

    Note: song has a long fade-in...

    Amilia K Spicer, Only Love Can Break Your Heart

    Told you so. Now head over to American Laundromat to pick up your copy of Cinnamon Girl today. All proceeds go to Casting for Recovery, which provides fly fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors.

    While you're there, take a look around. American Laundromat is an excellent label which specializes in pretty much all the things I like: tribute albums, the music and culture of the late eighties, and some of the best indie voices in the business. If nothing else, take a few minutes to listen to "American Laundromat radio", where you can hear Lori McKenna's cover of Peter Gabriel's classic In Your Eyes, among other tracks from their great and growing stable of tribute albums.

    Today’s bonus coversongs offer up some more Neil Young tributes from the acoustic singer-songwriter branch of the femfolk world:

    Still need more Neil Young coversongs? Cover Me's cover-by-cover reconstruction of Neil Young's On The Beach includes some great cuts from across the musical spectrum, including Jeff Tweedy and The Be Good Tanyas. Act quick, because the links are due to go down in the next week or two.