Now that my email inbox is finally back to ground zero, it's time to take a look at the best of the recent crop of shiny plastic that has once again begun to pile up beside the alumni mags and kitchen counter catalogues. Here's the top tier, some new releases and a handful of exclusive, previously unblogged covers from three well-respected singer-songwriters still on the cusp of full-blown fame: Mark Erelli, Carrie Rodriguez, and Eilen Jewell's new country gospel project The Sacred Shakers. Regular reader of the usual folkblog suspects have already heard about some of these, but good news, like good music, bears repeating.
Mark Erelli is an old favorite of mine, ever since the high-folk production of 2001 sophomore release Compass and Companion started getting radioplay back in the mid nineties; since then, he's gone deeper into honky tonk and bluesfolk, and spent a good deal of time on the road as a guitar man, supporting the fast-rising career of old friend and coffeehouse circuit peer Lori McKenna. But his new disk Delivered, on long-time label Signature Sounds, is a triumphant return to his singer-songwriter roots, with a polished sound made even more mature and powerful by the faint hints of explorative influence from his last few outings, and it's a wonderful place to find him.
Erelli, whose local-boy-made-good backstory and aw-shucks manner only compliment a distinctive raspy tenor with a New England twang and a fine sense of how to write an ageless political folksong, hasn't included any covers on this newest. But like his early albums, Delivered contains a great set of well-crafted tunes with strong vocal arrangements, solid atmosphere and open, confessional lyrics, grounded in common themes of spiritualism, hope, political desire, atonement and authenticity. Alternately hushed and driving, at their best, the collection of first-rate songs that comprise Delivered rival the best and most pensive of Paul Simon's midcareer, the most yearningly hopeful of Springsteen, or the downtrodden post-folk of Dylan's most recent.
I've previously posted a few choice gems from Erelli's vast collection of covers (see below for links). And there's bound to be more to come, as long as Erelli continues to post a new unreleased track on his blog every month; this month's freebie, for example, is a great bedroom cover of Greg Brown's If I Had Known well worth the download. Here's a few more I've been holding back until just the right moment, all of them well worth repeat listening; his slow, sultry campfire versions of Joni Mitchell classic Case of You and Roy Orbison classic Crying are personal favorites, both among my top covers of all time. Enjoy 'em while you wait to buy Delivered, which is available on tour only right now, and hits the streets at Signature Sounds on September 16.
- Mark Erelli: Case of You (orig. Joni Mitchell)
- Mark Erelli: Crying (orig. Roy Orbison)
- Mark Erelli: Fall On Me (orig. REM)
- Mark Erelli: I Feel So Good (orig. Richard Thompson)
- Mark Erelli w/ Jeffrey Foucault: Alright For Now (orig. Tom Petty)
Speaking of the always-excellent Signature Sounds: though Eilen Jewell, whose chipper Texas swingfolk wowed the blogworld last year, still has just the two albums to her name as a solo artist, this month marks the release of a selftitled collection of public domain tunes and a few country classics from new group The Sacred Shakers, which builds a core of male vocals and old-timey alt-country instrumentalists around Jewell's sweet voice and girlish energy.
Though the premise here is old-timey bible-belt country gospel, played out in a surprisingly full spectrum of settings from slow waltz to driving alt-country, the sound is not so far off from Eilen's big splash, last year's Letters from Sinners & Strangers. Not that this is a bad thing: just a peg looser than a classic country gospel album, The Sacred Shakers album has touches of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and even the Stray Cats, but -- as songs:illinois noted while I was away -- has more in common with early Sun Records era Johnny Cash and Elvis than anything.
Which is to say: mostly, The Sacred Shakers is just plumb great swingin' countryfolk with a hint of alt-country, full of fiddle and banjo licks, country rock guitar, thumping stand-up bass and the distinctive clicketyclack of the honkytonk drumkit in its more upbeat moments, and sweet and honest-voiced when Jewell steps forward for the slower sets, like Hank Williams cover Ready to Go Home, or obscure tradtune Twelve Gates to the City (which you can hear over at songs:illinois).
Here's an *exclusive* label-approved pair from the new release, and a fave Eilen Jewell solo cover from last year. Especially startling: Greg Glassman, in duet with Jewell on the slow, ragged waltz that transforms album closer and country gospel classic Green Pastures, sounds eerily like Ryan Adams.
- The Sacred Shakers: Green Pastures (trad.)
- The Sacred Shakers: Are You Walking & A' Talking With The Lord (orig. Hank Williams)
- Eilen Jewell: Thanks A Lot (orig. Charlie Rich)
Finally, for the last few years, Brooklynite fiddle player Carrie Rodriguez has been slowly working her way out from the shadow of Chip Taylor, who first discovered her a few years back. She first appeared as a Tracy Grammer-esque partner, lending her duet voice and fiddle to Taylor's own tunes; more recently, with last year's Seven Angels on a Bicycle, she's come forward as frontwoman and titular performer, albeit with Taylor on board as producer and co-writer. Now, with She Ain't Me, out just last week on EMI imprint Manhattan Records, Rodriguez finally comes into her own, trading the rough-hewn look for a shiny cover art glamour, delivering a solid set of surprisingly poppy, diverse originals that run the range from Carole King to Louisiana Swing to full-blown poprock; Twangville hears Lucinda Williams, too, and I think I agree.
Rag Doll, the album's sole cover and another rep-approved Cover Lay Down web exclusive, is a lovely, atmospheric folkpop piece with sublime vocals, a great showcase for both Rodriguez' increasingly confident voice and mononymic indie-folkster Sandrine's underrated songwriting; but my favorite track on the new album is the driving countryfolk neo-fiddletune Absence, co-written with Mary Gauthier and guest-starring fellow new folk revival vocalist Aoife O'Donovan of Crooked Still (who also lends vocals to Mark Erelli's release, come to think of it). Check out Muruch's review for Absence, and then pick up She Ain't Me for even more gorgeous high-production folk originals.
- Carrie Rodriguez: Rag Doll (orig. Sandrine)
Previously on Cover Lay Down:
- Carrie Rodriguez covers Neil Young
- Mark Erelli covers Hank Williams, Lori McKenna, Bill Morrissey
- Eilen Jewell covers Bob Dylan and Greg Brown
- Covers of Green Pastures from Emmylou Harris w/ Ricky Scaggs, and Cry Cry Cry w/ Buddy and Julie Miller
As always, all new and as-yet-unreleased tracks shared on Cover Lay Down are posted with full permission from labels and artist representatives. For review consideration, please send CDs and sundries to the address listed on the sidebar.