Wednesday, July 2, 2008

(Re)Covered VI: More Covers of and from
Freak Folk, Gillian Welch, James Taylor, and Boxing Songs

A long weekend of solo parenting while my wife headed off to Sonoma County for a long-overdue vacation has left me too exhausted for deep thought. Happily, thanks to reader emails, new releases and new discoveries, I've got plenty of material for yet another installment of our popular (Re)Covered series, wherein we recover songs that dropped through the cracks too late to make it into the posts where they belonged.


A few weeks back, when my laptop went kablooie, Jamie -- host of the ever-miraculous coverblog Fong Songs -- stepped in to save the day with a fascinating guest themepost on Boxing coversongs. Jamie is one of the good guys, and he's been a great friend since we started Cover Lay Down, giving me an open invitation to share the occasional non-folk set of covers over at his place, and even encouraging his own readers to take advantage of our great promotion for artist-friendly music source Amie Street. So I was thrilled when his guest post turned out to be one of the most popular posts we've had here at Cover Lay Down. You guys have good taste.

As a tip of the hat to this fine coverblogging peer, here's two more covers of that most obvious Simon and Garfunkel classic from a few great women on the edge of the folkworld: the slow but bright post-country popfolk of Deana Carter (with vocals from Paul Simon's eldest son), and a surprisingly old-timey take from Emmylou Harris just dripping with tight countryfolk harmony.



Though our Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Freak Folk is long past, I continue to struggle with Freak Folk and its relationship to folk music writ large. I called it a subgenre when I blogged about it, but the lines around it remain fuzzy, and the question of whether this counts as folk or not remains too entwined with the new indie usurpation of the term "folk" for me to feel totally confident, even now, that I got it right.

Looking back, I think I agree that Iron and Wine probably doesn't belong in the roster, despite critical clumping, though I continue to believe that Sufjan shares more sensibility with Devendra Banhart, both as a performer and as a composer, than, say, Vetiver, who tend towards the electronic end of things. But looking at my ever-growing roster of song, I would have no problem including both "chamber pop" singer Antony and the Johnsons and "dream-folk" singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler in any feature on Freak Folk as a subgenre of folk music if I was to post it today. In addition to sharing Banhart's peculiar wavery lyrical delicacy, both go for a swim of sound which is mystical and grand and personal all at once. It's eminently folk, and eminently authentic. Freak Folk may be hard to describe, but this music matches my sense of what it is.



In the comments section of what was otherwise a pretty thorough exploration-through-covers of the songs of Gillian Welch way back in January, several folks mentioned that Over the Rhine covers Orphan Girl live in concert. Having just become a fan of these post-folkers after hearing (and reviewing) their holiday album, I spent the next few months gathering in bootlegs, and -- though the piano is a little heavy in spots -- have come to the conclusion that the "official" version from their Live from Nowhere, Vol. 2 album remains the best recording of a great, fleshed-out anthemic approach to this song.

While we're on the subject, how about another couple of covers of and from the mistress of the new "American Primitive" movement? It's a little to the left of center, as folk goes, but I just love this americana/ alt-country cover of Look at Miss Ohio from newcomers The New Frontiers. And I've been looking for an excuse to post Welch's dreamy cover of Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty for ages, since it combines one of my favorite songs with one of my absolute famous performers. (PS: Gillian Welch's entire catalog is newly available at Amie Street, too...)



Finally, we've been slamming the feedreaders this week over at collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine with our Fifty States theme: I missed the Massachusetts connection, but was happy to provide a few great songs (originals and covers) for the likes of Rhode Island (Erin McKeown, Blossom Dearie, Jennifer O'Connor), North Dakota (Lyle Lovett), New Jersey (John Gorka, Cliff Eberhardt), and Virginia (Johnny Cash, Dave Alvin, and Crooked Still).

The planning process took me back to our Carolina Coverfolk series week; while I was there, I found I had missed a few great songs. I ended up choosing a favorite John Hartford song about North Carolina for Star Maker Machine. But since we're looking back, here's an old kidsong from North Carolina tradsong savior Doc Watson, and one more Sam Cooke cover from North Carolina emigrant James Taylor, that really shouldn't have been missed....plus a bonus pair: local singer-songwriter and labor activist Tom Juravich with a true campfire folk cover of James Taylor's Millworker, and a cover of Fire and Rain by alt-rock/pop/folk artist Dido, just because it made me totally rethink her musicianship.




Cover Lay Down is proud to support music through raising awareness, but musicians can't eat awareness. As such, all artist links above lead to websites and stores where you can buy music without having to support corporate cash cows that pay suits better than musicians. And if you're planning on going digital, remember, folks: Amie Street is not only cheaper than most download sources, it gives back 70% of all profits to artists. Use the code coverlaydown when you sign up for Amie Street, and you'll get three bucks towards your music purchase absolutely free!

Coming soon on Cover Lay Down: more folk covers of plenty more popstars, a tribute to my elder child (who turns six in a week and a half), something vaguely patriotic, and a few more single-track cover featurettes from some great new albums and artists which I just can't seem to shake, and wouldn't want to. And it's only two more weeks until Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival!




Still here? Then P.S. and FYI, coverfans:

  1. I don't usually promote upcoming radio shows/podcasts, but the folks at The Waiting Room, a radio show out of Cardiff, Wales (UK), will feature three hours of Tom Waits covers on tonight's broadcast. Their Drunk Covers series is generally good, with vast genre influences, and there's been a spate of Waits covers around this year...so expect to hear some Tom Waits covertracks you've heard here in the last few months...and a whole bunch more you haven't. The show is broadcast on ErrorFM, which can be heard everywhere; podcast available here on Thursday!

  2. If you haven't been to Covering the Mouse recently, now's the time: friend and occasional reciprocal guest-poster Kurtis will be celebrating his one year bloggiversary this month, and to honor the occasion, he's collecting votes on your favorite past posts for a midsummer review of the best and worst Disney covers. Make your mark: vote now!

  3. I'm not thrilled about Doveman's cover of the entire soundtrack to Footloose, but My Old Kentucky Blog seems okay with it. Maybe you'll like it. It's free...

17 comments:

=tyler= said...

tyler from naturalismo here:

ahhh "freak folk," the love of my life and the bane of my existence at the same time. Well, the music that people lump freak folk into is the love of my life but the term itself is so incredibly misleading that I can't help but dislike it. the artists we feature at naturalismo share one thing in common: honesty. Honesty is something that an artist cannot fake; you hear it in their voice, in how they play, in how they conduct their lives. Honest music comes from artists who need to play music to express themselves. In some sense, these artists are cracked. Music is the only way they CAN communicate, not just how they want to. Nick Drake didn't guzzle pills in his bedroom because his girlfriend broke up with him - he did so because music was his only "instrument" of expression, and even that failed him.

I do believe, however, that you can define folk in two different ways and neither one is technically wrong (its just a word after all). I do agree that it is appropriate to label folk as acoustic based music, but it's also appropriate to label folk as music that simply reflects the community in which it was made...which could include anything really. It's almost an outdated expression, because it originally referred to isolated music of ethnic cultures. Now that the world is flat and faceless, what has folk become?

Chris in Happy Valley said...

Love the Antony and the Johnsons and Emmylou tracks.

Hate the Doveman stuff.

That's about all I have for the day!

boyhowdy said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Tyler. I think we're on the same page, in all cases here. That said:

First, Wikipedia defines three senses of the term folk currently in vogue -- and neither of them is the "messy" term meaning "lo fi and acoustic". Instead, the three are:

1. music which is resonant with the ideals and premises of the american folk music revival of the fifties and sixties,

2. the traditional music of a community or people or culture,

3. popular music which is based on traditional music (see #2)

The acoustic thing is a mess, lest we have to call an acoustic session with Nirvana "folk music" -- which is absolutely is not. But despite the multiplicity of "good/useful" meanings, I think the single term still has meaning...if only as a guide, not a destination.

Not sure how that helps us understand the term as applied to "this" sort of music, as the commonality here is not always one of any one of those three types. I think, though, that the term matters here, both because the folks that Devendra et. al. cite as influences are predominantly those who called themselves "folk" (hence, number 1 above is in play), and because, though this is not a reimagining of traditional SONGS, it is an attempt to create or recreate a very. very old sensibility and intimacy, with roots in the two older types of "folk." But then...

...combined with that "other" term, the flavor may change. See the earlier entry (linked to above) for more on the dubious term "freak folk", and the slippery nature of commonality in what may or may not be a group.

I know it's not an ideal term, but like it or not, I think the term "freak folk" has usefulness, which is why I chose it as a lens originally. Most nomenclature does, after all, come from outside. After all, in insider terms, a group is always just "us" -- but from outside, when trying to explore multiples and multitudes, names remain necessary.

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