Tuesday, September 30, 2008

One Good Year: Sweet Coversongs
Celebrating One Year of Cover Lay Down

I didn't deliberately time the creation of this blog to coincide with the Jewish New Year, a day of celebration and renewal ordinarily commemorated through consumption of apples and honey in hopes of a sweet new year to come. Indeed, given the odd lunar cycle of the Jewish calendar, it is purely coincidental that we find ourselves here today, once again looking back and looking forward, in the midst of a more spiritual mandate to do the same.

Problematically, however, I said it all pretty clearly back at the six-month mark. Saying so here profusely would be redundant. But having spent all day in temple, it's hard to separate the very personal feelings of gratitude and mindfulness I feel at making it to my one year anniversary as a music blogger from the themes of change and community grounding which I have spent the morning pondering.

As such, where I used the half-year anniversary of Cover Lay Down as an opportunity to thank those vast and myriad influences and constituencies who have made me feel so welcome over these many months -- the artists, labels, fellow bloggers, and readers like yourself -- today, instead of merely repeating those same sentiments, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on the blogger himself.

Because blogging has changed me.

My creative writing profs weren't wrong when they said that fundamentally, writers write -- that is, what makes a writer a writer, rather than just the originator of text, is not so much any innate quality but the honed craft that comes from exercise and sweat. I've heard it from songwriters, too, most recently from Kristen Andreassen: write the songs, and the best of them will emerge; write less, and less gems will hide among the lessened chaff. I do not claim to be a perfect writer, but I think I am coming to master my own flaws as an observer and chronicler of music, and how it connects to the world around us. And I am grateful, to all of you, for the continued validation of that writing which mere readership brings, let alone the kind words which artists and commenters have given me in thanks for writing.

Blogging about music, in particular, has also brought about a change in my listening habits. Where once I was content to leave things on shuffle, now I spend at least as much time making connections, searching for common threads, and immersing myself in the deep pools of a single artist's output, that I might be able to truly describe in words what "works" for me about the song.

The immersive approach means less time for novelty -- the trickle of label gems that currently finds its way to my mailbox is small by blogger standards, but more than ample enough for my habit. I've had to really push myself to attend shows and festivals these last few months, that I might discover new artists and songs to pass along to you; if it weren't for a great set of bloggers out there I have learned to trust, I'd worry that I was falling into a rut, musically speaking.

But approaching music this way engenders a kind of listening which is wonderfully deep and immersive, and treating all music as potential blogfodder also means that I live my life as if I was blessed with two choice opportunities for making the perfect themed mixtape every week. And as those who grew up in the mixtape era know, there's nothing more engrossing, no better opportunity for making connections between the soul and the music, than the quest for the perfect set of music, whether the planned motif is a single artist or a single song, a theme or a tribute.

In theory, focusing on what I know and can connect also means accepting the vast breadth of what is out there as both unknown and unknowable -- the more you know, the more you don't. For me, this has made it easier to accept the time and energy it takes to really focus on the moment granted by a single artist, sound, and song as a blessing, and be grateful for it. My recent trip to ICONS was better unplanned; by not worrying about making sure I was seeing the "right" artists, for example, I found myself in a tiny performance space, listening to a few great young artists out of the Boston fiddle-folk scene who will surely come up later here at Cover Lay Down.

If such focus is the goal, then I'll be the first to admit that I've lost a bit of my focus over the past few weeks. It's been a selfish period, I guess, what with my recent grief, and the stress of starting a new job; writing has always been easier than listening for me, and I'm afraid I've let the writing, not the song connections, become the focus a bit too often. Soon, I hope, I'll be able to return to blogging with a primary focus on songwriters and songs, rather than the themed lists which have recently overwhelmed this blog. In the coming weeks, for example, I hope to be able to bring more new artists to the table, and more features on both the songs and the performance of lesser-known folk musicians who deserve the recognition.

But though today is a day of renewal, it is also just the beginning; there's a reason why the liminal doorway opens for the next nine days in Judaism, rather than demanding that we return to our true, best selves all at once. In gratitude, then, for the opportunity, while I rewire the self for a continued focus on folk artists and their coversong, here's one more long-winded post capped by another list of sweet coverfolk songs with a common topic, in hopes and well-wishes for a sweet new year.

Please, as always, treat these songs as but a marvelous taste of the work of some great artists, each of whom deserves your full (and financial) support. Played in order, they transition smoothly from folkpop to indiefolk by way of alt-country, bluesfolk, and a little freak folk; if you like them, just imagine the three dozen songs I rejected on my way towards making this one perfect blogbirthday mixtape.

May the new year bring sweetness, change, and a return to the true self for all of us.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Death, Impending:
Coversongs for an old friend

I was planning to use this weekend's entry to celebrate the impending one year anniversary of Cover Lay Down. But last night the cat turned up yowling pitifully under the shrubbery along the front porch, and he wouldn't come out. We couldn't find a flashlight; in the end, my wife lit a tiny candle in the rain, I heaved aside the overgrowth, and she reached into the darkness to reel him in, his body limp.

That he didn't tear us to shreds as we extricated him from the shrubbery was tellingly out of character. When we finally pulled him into the house, he was too unsteady to walk. When he tried to take a drink, he slumped against the edge of the bowl, tipping it into himself.

We tried to make him comfortable in a crate, and headed upstairs to bed, but at four, my sleepless spouse couldn't take it any more. She bundled him up into the car, and drove almost an hour to the all-night vet clinic, where a battery of tests pointed to congestive heart failure, or worse.

Since then, we've spent an exhaustive day at the vets, a family waiting, gathering hope and losing it again, finally coming to accept the sad truth that after sixteen years of perfect health, Jacob is just too sick to go on for much longer. But I think we knew it in our hearts already, the moment we lost him to his nausea and pain. And though he is still technically with us now, the best we can do is make him comfortable, and hold him into the night.

I'm not a cat person, but Jacob's place in our lives has always been much bigger than furballs on the laundry, the occasional half-eaten mouse at the door. Once, the cat was our only child, adopted off the streets, loved against our better judgement. Back when we were working food service, living in sin out of a series of truly awful apartments, Jacob was the first thing that made us bigger than just ourselves, and we doted on him as he grew, carrying him over our shoulder even as we moved and stretched, until we finally began knocking him down the hierarchy to make room for a dog, and, later, our two beautiful girls.

In the last few years I've taken him for granted, focusing my energies on our own kids. I've pushed him away, claiming allergies and limited attention, even as his origin story became a favorite bedtime story for each of my children in turn. I regret that loss keenly tonight.

Now the kitty sleeps the drugged, logy sleep of the dying, his core temperature dropping, his kidneys burned out beyond repair. He hasn't eaten, and he won't walk. The girls went to bed all cried out, their faces puffy from a long day of disappointment; my wife's heart is broken, and we struggle to put words and brave faces to our grief as we ask the children to understand what it means to plan for painless death as a final gift of love.

But in the meantime, my small independent partner, brave mousehunter and constant companion, the only other man of the house, suffers in his newly-made bed. And since I cannot do anything else for him, I am left to grieve in the only way I know: by writing, and sharing, and praying out loud.

Grant me this forum, folks. It's all I have. We'll celebrate another day. For now, here's a short, slow playlist of loss, for a beloved family member's bedside vigil.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Covered in Folk: Pete Seeger
(On Folk as an Engine of Social Change)

Though I believe that folk, most especially in the way it functions as a channel of engagement and public discourse, is by definition an agency of cultural change, I have been reluctant to use this blog as a forum for advocating explicit change of any one type. Perpetuating the relevance of folk as an agenda in and of itself, it seems to me, precludes taking sides for any particular agenda which might be carried by folk, lest we alienate opposing values, and in doing so, diminish the potential of folk to remain dialogic.

But it's pledge drive time at our local radio station, and the Nobel Prize selection committee does seem to have a set criteria for signatories and public outcry as an establishing principle for prize consideration. And it's hard to imagine anyone genuinely untouched by the compassionate, tireless work in the name of human dignity, empowerment, and awareness which Pete Seeger continues to consider his life's work after over sixty years as a recording artist and activist.

So when my mother, who once used Seeger's songs as a vehicle for planting the seeds of peace and justice in both myself and in the inner city classrooms of New York City, became the most recent in a long series of folks to remind me of the recent petition to recognize Pete's long-standing contribution to social, environmental, and political change, it seemed like the right time to use the soapbox to do some particular good.

Though there are parallels to be made between the community ownership of song upon which this blog is predicated, and the ways in which Pete Seeger's work has bridged time and space to touch and affect the rest of us, one one level, honoring this particular life's work is made more challenging by our focus on coversong. For, though there are certainly tunes that one can point to as written by Seeger during his long career, the question of coverage and song origin is complex and unclear in much of Seeger's catalog.

Which is to say: the son of an ethnomusicologist and a true believer in folk as a mechanism for tying past to future, perhaps more than any artist in history, Seeger has lived folk song as if it truly did belong to the community for which it speaks. As such, Seeger's contribution to folk was one of popularization as much as songcraft; many of the songs he is best known for have their origin in the past, and much of his better-known works, like Turn, Turn, Turn, use older components to create new works. Even Seeger's own greatest hits album combines songs written by Pete Seeger with songs popularized by Seeger. And even the better tribute albums out there mix songs which Seeger actually wrote with songs which he made his own.

None of this precludes consideration from the Nobel folks, of course; indeed, it is Seeger's deep sense of the social and folk environment as both purposeful and shared by all of us which is perhaps the most powerful case for his recognition. As such, first and foremost, the aim of today's post is to ask all of you to take a moment and -- in the name of folk itself -- sign your name to the petition asking the Nobel Prize Committee to consider Pete Seeger for this year's Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his tireless work sowing the seeds of peace.

But of course, you also come here for the music. And there are some great tributes out there, most notably the three sets which the activist-founded, socially conscious folklabel Appleseed Recordings has released in a scant decade of existence; I'm especially enamored of double-disk first release Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs Of Pete Seeger, which in addition to the Ani DiFranco and Bruce Cockburn covers below includes a veritable who's who of big-name inheritors of the activist folkmantle, from Richie Havens and Odetta to Springsteen and Billy Bragg.

Someday, I aspire to the time and energy it would take to approach a proper post on the central influence Pete Seeger and his family -- from father Charles (the ethnomusicologist) to half-siblings Peggy and Mike to half-nephew Neill MacColl and grandson Tao Rodriguez of the Mammals -- have had in defining and continuing to define folk music as a social and political engine of change for almost a century. In the meanwhile, here's a set of personal favorites with a much simpler organizing principle: songs which other folk artists of a certain political bent have learned from or associate with Pete Seeger himself, regardless of authorship, and have recorded in deliberate tribute to this long-standing folk icon.

*removed at artist/label request.

Folk and social consciousness go hand in hand; to support one is to support the other. If you have ever been moved by folksong, sign the petition -- technically, a petition "to persuade [the] American Friends Service Committee to enter Pete Seeger as their nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008 " -- and in doing so help make the case for both Seeger and the folk process itself as an agency of peace. Then, head on over to Appleseed Recordings for the opportunity to purchase Seeger's work, the aforementioned cover albums, and a whole host of other folksongs from a growing stable of socially aware artists actively engaged in using folk music to change the world for the better.

Want more? Today's bonus coversongs offer a tiny, tiny taste of Seeger as political song interpreter, just in case you're still young enough to have never really encountered his own continued celebration of his folkpeers and ancestors:

Cover Lay Down publishes new materials Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Join us this weekend as we celebrate one year of coverfolk blogging.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Denison Witmer Covers:
Oasis, Big Star, Nick Drake, The Band, Bonnie Raitt and more!

Over the past few weeks, Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Denison Witmer has released several relatively spare covers to the internet as promotional teasers, part of a mechanism to build buzz in anticipation of Carry The Weight, an upcoming album of original songs. The approach is a familiar one, seen in an increasing number of singer-songwriters and bands teetering on the indie boundaries of folk music -- see, for example, the lo-fi bedroom covers of the Morning Benders, or the recently-featured popfolk take on the Smashing Pumpkins from newcomer Amie Miriello.

Overall, the phenomenon is especially validating, to me, because the use of covers as a familiar entry point to discover new musicians is the primary raison d'etre here at Cover Lay Down; to see artists and labels doing the same is a confirmation that, at least from the artist's and industry's perspective, our work is not wasted. But in this case, I'm also excited because I'm still in the process of discovering Witmer. And the more I hear of his increasingly understated mix of seventies folk sensibility and modern indiefolk production, the more smitten I become.

Denison Witmer has been around for a while: he's released a steady string of albums in a decade or more, and seems to have become a staple of the rich Philadelphia folk scene in that time. But though he's not so far, geographically speaking, from my own rural Massachusetts setting, musically speaking, Dension's more recent sound leans more towards the delicately organic indiefolk approach of Nick Drake, Elliott Smith or Mary Lou Lord, even as it comes across as smoother in performance than any of those musical peers and predecessors. And the Philly folk scene has long been separated from the Boston and New England folk scenes by the vast dividing line that is NYC; it is rare for artists to make it in both scenes without hitting a certain level of fame, if not notoriety, on a national level.

As such, my experience with Denison comes from the very expansion of my own taste and experience in both the folkworld and the covers world which are part and parcel of my commitment to blogging over the last eleven months. On the folkfront, Denison's name came up in my exploration of the work of Rosie Thomas, especially following the release of her blog-favorite album These Friends of Mine, which was heavily influenced by Thomas friends, co-producers and session musicians Sufjan Stevens and Denison Witmer. And, in the covers realm, I've recently discovered, and come to appreciate, Denison's delicate, reverent takes on a well-selected subcatalog of other people's songs.

As with his previous covers album, 2003 release Recovered, these newest covers are nothing especially transformative, but that's not the point. As we heard in our previous Single Song Sunday feature on Jackson Browne/Nico song These Days, which included Dension's version of the song amidst a huge pile of other covers, Denison's approach to coversong strips songs down to their sonic core, not so much reinterpreting as owning and refocusing the songs in toto -- from arrangement to lyrical structure -- in the particular context of Denison's languid voice, rich string style, and preferences for a slow, songwritery, richly atmospheric, and slightly folkpop production.

In the past, the result turned songs by The Band into highly recognizable versions of songs by The Band done with reverence, one voice, and just a slightly more focused production, songs by Big Star into folkrock songs with Big Star's particular riff style and grunge approach. Here, it means quiet, stunning, reverent-yet-raw bedroom cover versions of Bonnie Raitt's signature tune I Can't Make You Love Me and The Red House Painters' beautiful Have You Forgotten, and -- released just today -- a pensive campfire cover of Oasis hit Champagne Supernova, all of which both reflect and totally re-center familiar songs, allowing them to retain the tone of the original, while creating a pleasant new entry into each through consistently warm, slightly raspy tones. You get the best of both worlds, in other words: covers which show Denison's commitment to songcraft and musicianship; songs which speak clearly as songs, recalled and refreshed with respect.

Thanks to My Old Kentucky Blog for raising the flag on these newest covers; keep an eye on Denison's MySpace over the next few weeks as he releases other well-chosen obscurities and familiarities yet to be named. In the meanwhile, while we wait for the November arrival of what may well be the long-overdue breakthrough release from this underrated thirtysomething composer, session man, and solo artist, here's those abovementioned covers, along with another great cover from Denison's back catalog which honors his debt to protoypical indiefolk icon Nice Drake. As always, stick around afterwards for a few bonus tracks...

Remember, folks: we're here, in part, because the folkprocess survives in the way artists and song each winnow towards and away from each other, giving us entry into the best of what is new and current through the old and familiar. But though Denison released a vast swath of his catalog free for eternal download a few years ago in honor of his thirtieth birthday, you can't eat free. If these covers take you to listen to and subsequently buy the original works of Denison Witmer, and remind you to order Carry The Weight when it comes out in November, then the model works for all of us -- the artists, the labels, the bloggers, the fans. And then, everybody wins.

A few more, perhaps, before you go? Though Denison's influence, voice, and signature sound, like Sufjan's, is all over Rosie Thomas' These Friends, not many people realize that one of the best songs on that album is actually a cover of one of Denison's earlier songs. Here's that cover, plus the incredible original, since it seems to have gone relatively unheard in last year's Rosie Thomas lovefest...plus another paired set from Denison and Thomas, pulled early from an upcoming feature on the songs of Fleetwood Mac.

Cover Lay Down publishes new covercontent Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional Friday or Holiday. Coming soon: new old timey musicians take on timeless songs, sweet songs of apples and honey to celebrate the Jewish New Year, and yet another installment in our popular Covered in Kidfolk series for cool moms and dads.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Covered In Folk: Pink Floyd
R.I.P. keyboardist Richard Wright, 1943-2008

I had a singer-songwriter feature half-written for this evening, but the passage of Pink Floyd cofounder and keyboardist Richard Wright earlier this week reminded me that I've been sitting on a covers playlist for quite some time. Wright spent much of his career as third fiddle to two powerful songwriters (and, previous to that, one additional stellar frontman), but he deserves his due: his work was hardly negligible, and he did his share of songcraft, too, on some of the best known albums from the band.

Presciently, Wright's most famous composition is probably The Great Gig in the Sky, which begins with the line "I am not frightened to die." In his honor, then: the Pink Floyd playbook, fearlessly reset as folksong.

I'm not a serious Floyd fan; like many readers, I suspect, other than the usual radioplay, my primary encounter with the music of Pink Floyd was through collegiate experimentation, plus a shortlived experiment trying to align the whole of Dark Side of the Moon as a surrealist, psychedelic soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz. But there were plenty of hits among the transitional nodes and experimental tracks, songs which stick around on classic rock radio and in the air, and they have long carried the weight of wisdom for those daring crowds of young truthseekers which create folk anew each generation.

Though it is the guitar work and songwriting of Waters and Gilmour which primarily defines Pink Floyd in and of the popular imagination, for me, the subjective success of their particular anthemic prog-rock was always the enveloping sound in toto, of which every element mattered greatly. Artists who play and record on the margins of folk tend to reproduce this progressive instrumentation while veering wildly from the original sound; though many of these performers today are nominally folkpop or electrofolk hybridists, covers such as Sparklehorse's broken Wish You Were Here, Rasputina's chamber pop take on the same, Paloma's discomforting lo-fi indiefolk See Emily Play, and both the Dar Williams and Patricia Maertens versions of Comfortably Numb, represent a relatively full and faithful translation of that rich, all-encompassing sound into a slower, more folk-tinged modality. Meanwhile, Fairport Convention founder Judy Dyble speeds things up to a traditional british post-pop folkrock, while retaining the full anthemic sound of other, more upbeat Floyd favorites.

But note, by contrast, how the absence of synthesized sound and high production in other folkcovers leaves a hole for silence. Trading the immersive effect for something more intimate and raw makes for a different, more delicate product, exposing the songs as songs, asking us to bring our selves into them, rather than reaching out and swallowing us whole. The result is sparse, but slow or fast, it can be equally powerful. In their own unique ways, Mary Lou Lord's grungefolk take on Wright co-composition Fearless, Dean Wareham's wonderful strummed acoustic take on Hey You, Leslie King's previously-posted bass-heavy but still otherwise keyless Money, and unknown singer Kris McKay's delicate yet almost orchestrated version of Wish You Were Here provide ample examples.

There's gems on both ends of the possibility spectrum, of course. And where we might place a given song on that spectrum is more fluid than the above dichotomy might suggest. But here's those, and one or two odd and additional favorites which defy clean categorization (previously posted honkytonkin' favorite Luther Wright, the bluegrass stylings of the Austin Lounge Lizards, the rootsy jamgrass of Frame of Mind), culled from the vast sea of stripped down and folked up Pink Floyd coversong, acoustic and otherwise, found in the wild. We'll let the absent synths stand as a moment of silence in one case, their presence as tribute in the other.

If you like what you hear, consider following artist links above to purchase the work of these fine folk, that musicians might spend their later years solvent and still recording. And, as always, feel free to send in any Floydfolk you think I might have missed for inclusion in an upcoming edition of (Re)Covered.

Cover Lay Down publishes Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: new covers of some very old songs, and a feature on one of my favorite singer-songwriters to ever collaborate with Sufjan Stevens.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Midnight Coverfolk:
Songs for the Middle of the Night

I've always been nocturnal by nature, treating the darkest hours as my own private playspace. It's in the genes: growing up in the summer vacations of my childhood, my siblings, my father and I wandered the house like ghosts until three. Until I joined the public schoolteacher's union, I'd seen the sunrise more times at the tail end of my day than the beginning.

But teaching is an early riser's profession. Fight as I may, after five hours of sleep and a full day in the hallways of urban adolescent chaos, I'm worn by supper, and drained by ten. I stay up as late as I can, winding down, blogging over at the collaborative. But these days, I'm lucky if I see midnight.

Which is to say: please pardon our bedraggled appearance while we remodel our author's sleep patterns, folks. In the meanwhile, here's some quiet songs of the witching hour, written late and tired.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Festival Coverfolk: ICONS Irish Music and Arts
Canton, MA, Sept. 12-14

My memories of an early nineties family outing to the Irish Connections festival is a bit hazed by Harp and hot sun, but a quick check with my mother confirms it: though I do remember a few snatches of some relatively decent irish pub music at a small outdoor stage near the beer garden, it's clear that, back then, the music was clearly not the centerpiece of what was otherwise a decent cultural festival on a small college campus.

But good festivals evolve, and even a cursory glance at their festival lineup and schedule will tell you that the Irish festival now called ICONS Irish Music and Arts Festival, which takes place this weekend at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton, MA, has undergone a true transformation. In the decade since I first attended ICONS, it has found its own site, and grown from a small-scale series of exhibitions and craftsmerchant boothbuildings to a several day undertaking of immense proportions. In the process, what was once a crafts and culture festival with a few casual workshop-scale performances of traditional irish music and dance throughout the day has become a full-bore multi-stage music and arts festival of increasingly impressive scope and scale.

In an era where other folk festivals often seem to be recycling the same cadre of artists year after year, ICONS is a breath of fresh air. The breadth of talent at this year's ICONS fest is impressive, ranging from irish-influenced bluegrass banjoists and solo acoustic singer-songwriters of Irish descent to a seemingly infinite collection of traditional reelplayers, country jigbands, and contemporary Celtic Folk favorites that, like the rest of the arts and cultural activities, "reflect the new cultural directions of Ireland and its Diaspora". And you just gotta love a festival that features an entire stage devoted to harp orchestras, demos, and dance, and names it Harpapalooza.

Most of the biggest-name acts this year will play ICONS both Saturday and Sunday, so you shouldn't have to miss a trick, and you'll have plenty of time to roam the grounds, see dance, sports, and other cultural forms in performance, and browse the numerous static exhibitry and merchants. Old timey neograss folkfavorites Crooked Still will be there, and I suspect I won't be able to resist seeing them for a twentieth time. I'm excited for old-school folksman Liam Clancy of The Clancy Brothers, young scenesters Lunasa and Beoga, and Irish siren Cara Dillon, too, though I'm determined to save Dillon's haunted pianofolk cover of The Beatles classic Wait for an upcoming return to the songs of the Beatles here at Cover Lay Down. To tempt you even further, here's a few solid covers from a few more great artists I'm eager to see for the first time this weekend at ICONS.

Early in his career, to distinguish himself from his famous brother Christy Moore, Irish folkie Kevin Moore renamed himself Luka Bloom after a popular Suzanne Vega song and the hero of a James Joyce novel. Twenty years and over fourteen albums later, the name remains an apt reflection of Bloom's signature sound, which combines American-style folk songwriting with an Irish approach to performance. The result is sometimes rocking, sometimes mellow, occasionally ragged, but always effective.

Luka's distinctive, jangly guitarplay and a typically plaintive, leggato approach to lyrics provide a solid platform for some excellent singer-songwriter folk. His originals trend towards reverence and celebration, as befits his style; in cover song, as in his excellent covers album Keeper of the Flame, his approach tends to sweeten the tone of the works of others, providing a surprising depth to such melancholy rarities as Joni Mitchell's Urge for Going, Radiohead's No Surprises, and -- a repost -- Bloom's cover of LL Cool J's I Need Love. Bloom's newest, Eleven Songs, hits stores any minute now, but you can preorder now.

Solas is one of the premiere contemporary celtic folk bands around today, and -- as befits a band whose name translates to "light" in Gaelic -- they've been at the forefront of an American celtic revival since they first burst onto the scene over here just twelve years ago. As Muruch noted in her recent review of For Love and Laughter, their newest album, they've gone through some lead-singer lineup changes over the years, but since the power of Solas as a performing group is predominantly in their arrangements and full celtic sound, as led by award-winning multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, there's more consistency here than change, and that's a wonderful thing.

We've previously featured ex-lead singer Karan Casey here at Cover Lay Down, and I've dropped a few fave Solas covers here and there since we got things started late last year, but good music bears repeating: here's linkbacks to their version of tradsong Rain and Snow and a cover of Sarah McLachlan ballad I Will Remember You; here's a few more of my favorite folksingers' coversongs from Solas. And here's hoping that they'll let their new lead singer Mairead Phelan shine on some new ones at ICONS, too.

The Tannahill Weavers come from the old school of traditional Scottish folk music; they made their name bringing a slightly folkrock sensibility to the traditional celtfolk of their native land, and they've been around longer than most of us. Their natural, heartfelt work on this old Stan Rogers tune may be an anomaly among the ballads, reels and caeli, but it's also a seamless resetting of a timeless tune, one which which shows just how closely related the traditional music of Halifax is to those older, ancestral folkforms from across the great pond. Meanwhile, despite its origins, in the hands of the Weavers, an original reel wrapped around a Gordon Lightfoot tune becomes a driving folk rock event verging on Celtic Punk. Classic stuff, all of it.

Banjo virtuoso and jazzgrass composer Alison Brown may be better known in the industry as the founder of Compass Records, but over the years, she's also released a number of wonderful albums which explore the intersections of bluegrass and jazz and folk music. Each is a clean mix of crisp-yet-flowing banjo-driven ensemble instrumentals not unlike the more acoustic work of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and, with the help of a series of stellar guest vocalists and session players, more typical bluegrass and folk settings of originals and covers both.

We've previously posted Alison's work with the Indigo Girls on Simon & Garfunkel classic Homeward Bound and with Beth Nielsen Chapman on a sweet cover of Hendrix' Angel; here's a few more newgrassy takes on a pair of familiar radio hits with male vocalists you might recognize from the bluegrass world.

Cover Lay Down posts original writing about covered content and folkculture every Sunday and Wednesday.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Single Song Sunday: Wayfaring Stranger
(On White Spirituals and The Religious Origins of Folk)

It is absolutely trivial to note that certain songs crop up over and over again in the folk collector's travels; after all, as our blog subtitle reminds us, when we talk about folk, we're talking about a form that by its very nature treats older songs and tunes as part of the communication which makes us community, available to all who lay claim to culture.

But just as true hitmaking is hardly formulaic, it's not often obvious what keeps a song in the stream. Our Single Song Sunday series explores the various facets of heavy coverage, as a lens into folk music as culture. Today, a short treatment of the oft-covered folk tune Wayfaring Stranger -- a song which the popular groupmind claims is "often classified as a "white spiritual" -- helps us examine the religious origins of folk.

Throughout much of recorded history, religion has served communities as both as a community locus and as a carrier of song; as such, it is perhaps unsurprising to find a relationship of sorts between folk music and the church itself. As with any folk form, of course, context matters; to note that several songs commonly associated with Cat Stevens can be found in the Universalist Unitarian hymnal says something very different about both artist and religious community than pointing out that a move to the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of New York's Coney Island in the 1940s led to the recent release of a wonderful album of Woody Guthrie-penned Klezmer music.

To note that the folk song Wayfaring Stranger (or sometimes Poor Wayfaring Stranger) was first published in 1816 in the shape note tunebook Kentucky Harmony, which in turn was primarily an expansion of the work of John Wyeth and his two Repositories of Sacred Music, then, is to locate that song in the white spiritual canon -- which, in turn, calls us to the American white revivalist movements of the last few centuries, to consider the common threads of a form of folk product which includes The Sacred Shakers, the work of Doc Watson, and many other works and performers with roots in New England, Appalachia, and other American church-based communities.

Though it echoes similar terminology -- bluegrass gospel, most obviously -- the term white spiritual is striking and vivid; to be honest, I'm surprised to find that Google lists only a few uses of the term, most of which seem to be part of classical choral scholarship. The conceit that white audiences had their own spriritual song, which derived its rhythm and subject from their European ancestry, illuminates folk's origins in a way that is both new and suddenly fitting, creating a parallel path to modernity in stark contrast to the gospel folk which comes to us through african american blues music. Further, such a conceit says much about the context in which music evolved, and traveled, and spoke to and for the "folk"; exploring the term is a fine way to help reshuffle and rethink the origin of many songs which remain at the core of folk music today.

The semiotic implications of the term "white spiritual" do seem apt, when you think about it; so much of the folk which has its roots in the appalachian mountains and stark New England Shakers, after all, is about redemption, framing man's connection to man in the context of God. And Wayfaring Stranger is an especially interesting example of the white spiritual. Though other white spirituals may be more central to the form -- for example, our first Single Song Sunday subject, Amazing Grace -- Wayfaring Stranger is notable for being a song which does not as obviously call to its spiritual nature. Which is to say: though both songs ultimately play out the relationship between the internal sinner-self and the spiritual Father, the former is a hymn of the post-redemptive self, less about the more modern folk-as-call-to-complexity and more about morality-play.

But the humble determination of the pre-redemptive self which characterizes the narrative voice of Wayfaring Stranger is not uncommon to the narrative stance of many an old British folk ballad, from the pining lass of Fair William to the besworn folkmaiden and lusty, easily swayed folklad who so often stray, only to regret it, and come back to their God. Meanwhile, the plight of the poor wayfarer remains open and non-specific, an everyman's resolve pulling us in to folk communion. No wonder the song remains enticing; no wonder we find so many versions to pluck our fruit from.

In practice, whether or not you accept the label of "white spiritual" as applied to a song whose most famous version is in the voice of as haunted and searching a man as Johnny Cash, it is true that there is a certain emotional reverence common to all versions of the song. In fact, circularly, though there are as many ways to worship as there are men, and thus high diversity in the way different folk musicians choose to make Wayfaring Stranger their own, the question of what makes this particular song a white spiritual may be best answered by the consistent care with which all comers take on the song. To explore that commonality, and the variance in sound and tone and tempo that it nonetheless allows, here's some interesting takes on the song, a vast array of approaches to traditional material from the very big tent that is modern folk.

Cover Lay Down will return Wednesday for a preview of this year's Irish Connections festival, featuring Alison Brown, Luka Bloom, Crooked Still, Solas, and more!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New Artists, Old(ish) Songs:
Amie Miriello covers Smashing Pumpkins, Melissa Ferrick covers Bush, The Kooks cover MGMT

I'm thick in the midst of an overwhelming first week at my new teaching gig -- nothing terrible, just an awful lot of newness coupled with the usual hectic pace of any new school year. Happily, coming home in a state of exhaustion has been made much easier by the serendipitous arrival of a few great folkrock and folkpop covertunes in my mailbox. Not much writing left in me today before I drop, so this will be a pretty short treatment all around, but here's three new high-cred, high gloss covers that are keeping me going long enough to make it home to the couch each evening.

Amie Miriello is the newest of today's artists, and a true shot in the dark from the inbox; I usually don't even listen to unsolicited music that comes via email, especially not artists who come tagged with "folk rock" as a third choice MySpace afterthought. But though it speaks volumes about mass media usurpation of "folk" as a term of legitimacy, it also says surprisingly good things about the industry writ large that the same A&R exec who found Destiny's Child, Beyonce, and Jessica Simpson has chosen Miriello's wonderful debut album I Came Around, a set of songs which range from powerful radiopop to more understated high-production folk rockers, as a platform to launch her newest label BellaSonic.

Okay, let's be honest -- if you're a regular visitor here, such name dropping is more likely to be a turn-off. I was wary myself, when her rep sent along a press release that described Amie's style as "defined in the genres of folk, rock, pop, and alt-country"; as the best bloggers have learned, tagging your darling with too many broad genre designations is hardly ever a good sign. But since the email, I've had a chance to listen to the album all the way through, and from the sweet title cut to the end of the line, it's got earworm written all over it. Miriello's voice is authentic and controlled, and her songs confessional and real, in ways that transcend the high-gloss pop of those who preceded her.

This Smashing Pumpkins cover -- recorded live, and released as a web-only download to promote I Came Around -- is a perfect showcase for this versatile new talent. The song manages to retain the tempo of the original, but replaces the strained tension of the original with a much more restrained folk-pop, couched in sweet-voiced vibrato and doubled harmonies, reminiscent of a certain mostly-acoustic Stevie Nicks ballad. The total package manages to keep the energy high throughout while allowing for both a more subtle approach and a much larger build when the song really lets loose in the last 40 seconds or so.

Folk or not, with that powerful voice and a wonderful production team behind her, I expect Amie Miriello to go far. The album is much more produced than the live cover, but instead of Beyonce, you'll hear shades of Brandi Carlile and Regina Spektor and Tori Amos; good stuff, all around, and not a Britney in sight. I Came Around hit stores only yesterday; head to Amie's website for catchy streams, and then snag the album here (or download here), so you can say you were in it from the beginning.

Long time folk rocker Melissa Ferrick isn't always to my taste -- the older Patty Griffin cover I've included below is a bit too punk, and a bit too off-key, to keep on the playlist for long, though it makes for a good curiosity. But Ferrick has a solid reputation on the line where rock and folk meet, especially among those who collect LGBT folk music, and especially of the slightly angry type. And when Ferrick tones things down, I find she brings a wonderful held-back tension to her work which combines the vocal rasp of the Indigo Girls or Melissa Etheridge with the guitar tone and songwriter's sensibility of Ani Difranco, Bruce Springsteen, and others on the new urban folk tourbus.

Like so many other artists, Ferrick joins the digital age this month with the release of Goodbye Youth; the album will only be available in one of two ways: as a download, and as an on-tour only CD release -- a nifty way to explore the new post-millenial model for performers, in which touring and downloading provide the bulk of an artists' bread and butter. "Touring is my livelihood, and indie retail is dead" is a pretty bold and revealing statement from an artist who's been around for decades, but adapting to new models shows that music remains vibrant; the two approaches to participatory music ownership that the album release encourages -- intimacy and full-bore stage show -- represent a pretty broad spectrum after all.

This bare-bones streetcorner cover of Bush's Glycerine promises that this newest album from Ferrick will lean in my favored direction, and it offers a great taste of Ferrick's restrained style, sure to please the uninitiated and the long-time fan alike. It's also rawer than the original, believe it or not -- no small feat when the original we're dealing with is a recognizable radio anthem from the thick of the grunge era. Here's hoping Ferrick's new work, both on the stage and in the ether, is the one that finally breaks the mass recognition barrier.

Finally, indie blog darlings and magnificent coverhounds The Kooks aren't folk: Wikipedia lists them as indie rock and indie pop, and though their MySpace page is closed for repair, leaving us bereft of the usual three-genre designation, it seems safe to say that their usual album output is on a par with the shimmery, pulsing radio-ready britpop that manages to combine the throwback sound of the british invasion with a heavy dose of neo-indie rock and roll. Neither are The Kooks as unknown as our usual featured artists here on Cover Lay Down, though many folkfans may have missed their rise to fame over the last few years of blogpress and top charting radio play; these guys are millionaires by now, thanks to a triple platinum debut and a second album released just this year which has already soared to the top of the charts.

But there's something about this brand new cover of Kids, performed just recently on Australia's Triple J by Kooks guitarists Luke and Hugh, which just screams out for a sunny afternoon folk rock set in between singer-songwriters at some summer folkfest. Maybe it's the energy, maybe it's those folkharmonies and that short, simple acoustic guitar solo, and maybe it's just the lightheartedness that the new fab four bring to all their work coupled with the duo-only, stripped down acoustic in-studio experience. Whatever it is, the tune is a perfect upbeat addition to any good indiefolk mixtape, and I'm proud to pass it along here, along with a bonus, for all the cool kids.

Cover Lay Down publishes Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday.