Sunday, October 26, 2008

New Artists, Old Songs Week, Part 1:
Graham Lindsey, Todd Snider, The Peptides

A tidal wave of great new covers from indiefolk to freak to alt-country has slammed through my mailbox in the past week or two, jamming my aural pleasure circuits and tipping over onto the page. Our usual three-artist once-a-month model is so unprepared to handle the onslaught, I thought I'd try something a little different.

So this week, we'll be exclusively featuring brand new coversong from all corners of the folk tent. And here is where I'd usually say "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to our Late Fall/Early Winter New Release Spectacular. Let the wonderment begin."

But not today. Not yet. Because before we get to the music, I have a serious matter of grave importance to discuss.

See, it's easy to put a positive spin on things. But while it's true that there's more than enough great material stacked up for a full week of new and stellar coverfolk, it's also true that -- as I alluded to earlier this week -- music blogging has suddenly become a much less comfortable pursuit for many of us.

The blogs you love are under siege. Threats and legal repercussions fell like bombs last week. The clock is ticking on my current file host, and the blogosphere is overrun with fellow music bloggers who have been hit with take-down notices, and --more significantly -- had file and blog host services pull files and posts with no previous notice.

Many of these notices, like my own recent suffering, are perfectly spurious. In my case, a little digging has turned up the sad and frustrating fact that I lost a post to blogger, and subsequently am losing my file host, for sharing Joe Crookston's live cover of The Logical Song, a file which -- are you ready for this? -- was recorded by yours truly, live in concert, and was posted with written permission from the artist, who in turn has already paid his due to Supertramp's copyright holder for use of that particular song on his recent album.

This is, of course, perfectly legit filesharing, all bases covered, fully legal under current US copyright law. As was Chad's use of a live Elliot Smith song from a public domain source, posted in loving tribute to a great blogger's greatest influence. As was Ed's use of already-posted demo recordings given him by the band, and the early interview which he lost along with it.

But regardless of legality, the result is a heightened atmosphere of concern in the blogosphere. The stress and strain of such struggle with hosts and overzealous industry representatives desperate to reclaim their dominance, not to mention our inability to reinstate those files immediately under the terms of recent US legislation (see previous post), is taking a severe toll. We've been hit where we love, we're pretty small next to the might of a label wielding the dangerously unbalanced weaponry of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, we depend on file hosting from organizations with terms of service contracts that include the phrase "we reserve the right to terminate for any reason, at any time", and we've got families to worry about.

The deck is stacked high against us, and without a union or bottomless pockets, many are seriously considering throwing in the towel. Heck, some bloggers are throwing in the towel already. Me, I've got two weeks to find a new file host, and none of the options out there are looking perfect.

While we decide what all of this this means for us here at Cover Lay Down, we're using the opportunity to clear the decks of any and all label-approved new releases as part of our mid-autumn new artist spectacular. Happily, it's a rich pot: this fall and early winter will see a huge amount of wonderful folk releases from the full range of the genre spectrum, and the covers which are appearing on those albums are startlingly good.

I'm in no position to plan for a long-term future right now, though I'm not yet ready to call it the end. But if we have to go down, this is the way to do it: head held high, music blaring, artists celebrating their influences, the strings delicate and low, fading into nothingness. Enjoy the week, folks. Here's hoping it's not our last.

I've seen a few other blogs get to Graham Lindsey already, but it bears repeating: his newest package of CDs is a stunning set. The album We Are All Alone In This Together and its accompanying EP The Mine are a perfect mix of the rootsy, strained-voiced neo-old timey music recently made popular by such indie phenoma as the Avett Brothers, true string band music of the new resurgence movement, and southern countryfolk singer-songwriter fare a la Slaid Cleaves. Deep, dark, and raw, this is true-blue Americana Primitive music, prototypical and perfect; music which belongs on the shelf next to Gillian Welch, and can hold its own against it, too. It's incredible stuff, and I haven't been able to listen to anything else since I first put it on.

There's only one cover on The Mine, but it's a doozy, a mournful acoustic-primitive take on Hank Williams downer The Angel of Death. The song is a bit slower and sparser than the remainder of the songs in Lindsey's one and a half disk set, but it's a great part of the success of The Mine as a perfect postscript to the larger album. Graham's promoter has given me permission to do "anything I want" with this lovely, powerful Hank Williams cover, and I'm really grateful for the opportunity to share it with you. We Are All Alone and The Mine drop together on November 18; you can get the EP free if you preorder before then via the paypal link on Graham Lindsey's MySpace page, and that's certainly the option we recommend.

Peace Queer, the new work from old anti-establishment rocker Todd Snider, has been making the blog rounds, too; it's not folk, per se, preferring instead to cover a wide range of grungerock and garagepop, but it has some lighter moments, and none so precious to the coverfolk fan as this haunted, whispery acoustic Creedence Clearwater Revival cover. I previously shared this cover over at Star Maker Machine, along with a few other covers of Fortunate Son, but I've been encouraged by readers to drop it here as well, and I'm happy to oblige. The harmonica cry is a basic training train's mournful wail, and Patty Griffin's harmonies are a perfect echoing addition to a sparse setting; the overall effect is a song which turns an angry cry into something plaintive and reflective without sacrificing one whit of its political potency.

Thanks to its fully social-media-minded artist, Peace Queer remains free for download until October 31, at which time it will presumably turn into a pumpkin, and this track's legitimacy will shift a bit. For now, at least, its give-away status makes it perfectly legal to share here, as well.

The Peptides present as a small-scale Quebecois musical theater troupe with somewhat poppy tendencies, heavy on the vocal harmonies and indie moxie, more earnest than Rufus Wainwright, not so much folk as borderline torchsong experimentalists with a background in a capella music and a few keyboards sitting around the house, just in case. But as the first-person writing on "their" website demonstrates, The Peptides is really a project built around visual artist and singer-songwriter Claude Marquis with the help of his occasional vocal partner Pam. And as the demos and othertunes on their website, including a few choice covers and outtakes from new album Stereo Stereo show, there's more to this band than just a schtick and a lipstick kiss.

With a tendency towards approaching coversong as an opportunity to turn pop hits into melancholic slowtunes, The Peptides can come off tacky in demo form, but I think the tone is deliberate; anyone who covers so many 'Til Tuesday songs, and refers to his own tiny take on David Bowie's Sound and Vision as "beatless and on laxatives" knows exactly what we are hearing in him, and revels in its kitsch. While the former is more novelty than gem, however, their cover of Lennon classic Jealous Guy is a perfect slow winter thaw of a song, while these two takes on 80s radiopop hits offered here are great: a delicately lush retropop plucked-string Mary's Prayer and a wonderful jazzfolk a capella Major Tom, just a hair more polished and thought-through than those Petra Hayden Who covers that were making the rounds last year. Better, they come direct from a band who "would be honored to have our covers that appear on STEREO STEREO posted on your 'Cover Lay Down' blog." I'm honored to share them with you in turn.

Cover Lay Down will return Wednesday with news and label-sanctioned covertune downloads from some great up-and-coming young female singer-songwriters. We are also eagerly awaiting one final covertrack from the Denison Witmer Covers Project. From there, the future remains uncertain.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Falcon Ridge, (Re)Covered:
Joe Crookston, Peter Siegel, Lindsay Mac
(reposted, sans mp3s)

Dear confused readers: yes, this is the second time I've posted this one. Despite what I believe to be full and explicit permission to share the songs referenced below -- permission received directly from each of the artists referenced herein, after in-person discussion over the summer -- sometime today, blogger axed the original version of this post.

Though I'm not happy about it, I can't really blame blogger. However deplorable, the current, horrible, draconian copyright laws in the US are quite clear: under DMCA, any take-down complaint, regardless of legitimacy or origin, must be treated as legitimate, or the person who hears the complaint becomes criminally liable for not acting. You can't do anything about it, really. Current DMCA rules require a two week waiting period before you can file a counterclaim to defend your use. From there, the onus to prove and defend fair use is on the sharer, and unless you are also the content producer, it takes time to amass evidence, even after you finally figure out what the complaint is. And the industry is willing to throw money at you until you've been buried.

To point out that the DMCA's counter-notification process falls short is just the tip of the iceberg here. The impact of this phenomenon on short-term value, market timing, and potentially viral media is so severe, it seems like a death knell for social media itself. Rumor has it, folks have been using this very approach to kill McCain YouTube videos before they get seen, knocking them out for the duration of the election cycle, and the McCain camp is pissed.

I've put the post back, because words are our true trade, and the shows we're promoting here are tomorrow night, and the next. But while we try to figure out what the heck is wrong here, I'm posting the words without the music. My apologies, folks: there's something in the air, I think.

Been thinking about Falcon Ridge Folk Festival this week. Some of this is seasonal -- there's an inevitable longing for summer, now that the world around us has changed from green to gold. But mostly I'm in the mood because this weekend marks the annual Crew Chiefs meeting, and that means 24 hours of househopping with dozens of dear and drunken friends, serious partying across state lines, and a sharing-and-strategy session to recreate the best damn place on earth with some pretty committed volunteers.

It will be my third year, and I wouldn't miss it for the world. But that doesn't mean I have to be happy about the fact that, while I'm gone, a few of my favorite young up-and-comers from Festivals past and present will be swinging through the area. It's a terrible irony -- that the best way to support the musicians is to drive away from then, that next year's festival might continue to provide a forum for them -- and I feel badly about missing them. Today, then, we return to a few of the still-rising stars who have played the festival in the past, and deserve to be remembered in the colder months.

First and foremost, I'm quite disappointed to be missing the Joe Crookston and Peter Siegel co-bill this Friday up at the Pioneer Arts Center in Easthampton, MA. Siegel is a great musician and a good friend who has played Falcon Ridge as a solo performer and as a mandolinist with several string bands and contrabands; Joe was one of my favorite new discoveries at this year's festival, a great guy and a great songwriter with an earnestness that really lights up in performance. Both lean heavily towards social justice songs of the best type: engaging, powerful, emotive, and not at all hokey; it's a great idea for a co-bill, and if it weren't Falcon Ridge, I'd be there in a heartbeat.

I've written about Peter Siegel over at Star Maker Machine; Peter has a new album coming out in a few weeks, and I'm really looking forward to hearing it. And I wrote at length about Joe Crookston's coverage earlier, too. So I won't go on here, except to say: here's a previously-posted Supertramp coverstream from Joe, and a wonderful Phil Ochs cover from Peter; go to the show this Friday, and tell the boys I said I'm sorry I couldn't make it.

  • Joe Crookston: The Logical Song

    (from Able Baker Charlie & Dog)

  • Joe Crookston: The Logical Song (live)
    (live from Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2008)

  • Peter Siegel: Power and Glory
    (from The Show, 2004)

In other Falcon Ridge-comes-to-Massachusetts news: I first mentioned Lindsay Mac here when she was playing at Falcon Ridge; since then, she's finished that new album, and it's a startlingly strong collection of well-crafted urban folk. Lindsay is on a coffeehouse and music hall tour, swinging through New England this weekend via Natick, Marblehead, and Hartford; there's always good energy in the air in the first weeks after the CD release tour begins, so check out the tour schedule if you're in the New England/New York/New Jersey area, because this is the perfect time to see a great musician at the top of her game.

Lindsay is one of a growing number of folk and folkfringe musicians who play the cello, though in her case, she plays it slung and strummed like a mandolin, which results in a unique and quite startling low sound that plays magnificently off her gorgeous, fully controlled voice. But despite her unusual choice of instrument, her body of work is very firmly in the Ani DiFranco urban funkfolk camp; though Lindsay's sound is all her own, there are certainly shades of DiFranco's vocal mannerisms and confessional, song-length metaphoric approach to relationships lost and found in her best work.

Lindsay has some absolutely glorious, stunning tracks from her new album up at MySpace; I'm especially enamored of the etherial, hushed 7 Stones, which I heard live this summer, curled up against the lip of the workshop stage, listening to the rain on the tent's canvas roof. But she's savvy enough to know that the sole cover on her upcoming album, a crisp, spare treatment of Beatles standard Blackbird, is worth withholding. Instead, in discussion with her backstage at Falcon Ridge this year, after hearing that I had posted a YouTube vid of her acoustic version of Bill Withers signature tune Use Me, she was up for letting me share the produced cover of the song, off her previous album Small Revelations -- and let me tell you, it's amazing, a souped up acoustic funk piece worth putting on repeat. In fact, 7 Stones is so amazing, I'm going to break ranks --a privilege previously reserved for only one other artist -- and post that one, too, even though it's not a cover. Listen, and then pick up Stop Thinking.

  • Lindsay Mac: Use Me (orig. Bill Withers)
  • Lindsay Mac: 7 Stones (original)

Oh, and here's a total bonus: while I was looking for Lindsay's cover on YouTube, I found another singer-songwriter cellist covering the same song; the track is a bit fuzzy, and there's some pretty annoying coffehouse spam bracketing the performance, but there's something about this kid Trevor Exter that seems worth pursuing. Nothing to do with Falcon Ridge, but totally worth passing along.

Cover Lay Down posts feature articles every Sunday, Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: The inbox is full of coverfolk awesomeness, and you're going to love it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Metablog, With Music:
On Blogging, Bandwidth, and the Unlimited Archives of the Mind

pic courtesy
I've tried to keep the metablogging to a minimum here at Cover Lay Down. I appreciate that people like to know about the man behind the curtain, but writing about technical difficulties smacks of navel-gazing narcissism: you come here for the writing and the music, not blogging about blogging. So if you're coming here for the music, welcome, and feel free to scroll to the end of the post for a few relevant tracks.

But a few of you have asked. And so, in a nutshell: after an incredible month of growth, my habit of keeping the archives eternally open to all comers, combined with a huge influx of new faces (thanks to Boing Boing, and our work with the Denison Witmer Covers Project), bumped me up against the next tier of file hosting cost just as my provider was about to close for the weekend. I regret this weekend's bandwidth max-out, and feel badly for every curious coverfan and folktracker who found his way here only to go away without the song.

But if this weekend's file outage was frustrating, it was also healthy. Being unable to blog this weekend, watching instead the sitetracker pick up echoes looking for something no longer there, forced me to confront some hard truths about what I do here, and why. It's time to pick our battles, folks. And before I do, I feel like I owe my loyal readers some sort of explanation.

You see, like many bloggers, I've come to think of the blog as part of something bigger, something more community-minded and interactive, than just me sitting down in the kitchen, late at night when the kids are in bed, and trying to make sense of just one thing at a time. This, of course, is pure egoism: as a regular reader of over fifty music blogs myself, I know that while such a tone of collaboration is sometimes welcoming, it is also a collusive fiction, a consensual construct. But it is nonetheless true that, as a blogger, I am no more or less a part of the ongoing conversation as every fan that wears the T-shirt, every artist that is truly excited about their review, every label rep that reaches out with a handwritten note. From those perspectives, I am part of their circle, just as they are part of mine.

Still, clearly, I can't be everything to everyone. Though I wish that every new reader could start her journey, if she so desired, by scouring the collection, catching up on what has become over a hundred posts and almost a thousand coversongs, it's hard to deny the strain this causes on our ability to provide constantly new content.

I could just go the ad route, or have a fund drive for that donate button there on the sidebar. I could dig deep, and upgrade past my current Business-class hosting solution to something called the Enterprise-level account, which sounds just big enough and expensive enough to have its own holodeck. But though I appreciate any and all support for the current cost of file-hosting, I don't really feel like I want to get bigger. I like thinking of myself as small, of being a hobbyist, an amateur in the proudest sense. I like being awed by musicians who know my name; I like being part of the crowd. If I have to choose, I'd rather walk the walk, and stay small, like folk itself.

So let us let our journey keep its beginning and end, and choose to live more in the present than the past. If we are to truly consider this an ongoing conversation, I think we need to be willing to let some baggage go, so that we can come to each idea fresh. And if that means letting the songs of older posts turn into ghosts, faint memories to accompany long-written text, then perhaps that is only right, given our ghost in the machine existence.

Over the next week or two, then, I'll be deleting older mp3s from the archives. I'm thinking I'll leave some posts up -- anything linked recently, a good set of the holiday music as the weather grows colder. I might even celebrate by featuring a few old favorites on a sidebar spot, right next to the elseblog posts I continue to crank out faithfully at collaborative theme-blog Star Maker Machine, where this week all song titles consist of an adjective and a noun, in that order. If you've got any favorite posts here on Cover Lay Down which you think merit inclusion in a greatest hits collection, to stay live into eternity, let me know.

But the bulk of the files will fade. Because providing two terabytes of bandwidth in one month is not a hobby anymore. It's not even an obsession. It's just not cost-effective. Our souls are more important.

All writing will remain, of course. The conversation grows, ever onward, exploring the mysteries of how people share song, and why, and how it changes the world. Through it, the music lives on, in new covers and in old recordings, in the hands of the people, where the folk belongs. Our ghosts echo in the ever-present hypemachine slipstream.

When I started here, I was thinking of words; I still struggle to listen with my heart. But if I had named this blog after a song, it might have been one of these.

Cover Lay Down will return to our regular schedule later this week. Coming soon: new covers from newcomers, and the year's first Christmas albums begin to hit the market.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

FYI: Archived Files Temporary Down

UPDATE: Monday, October 21, 3:55 pm: Problem solved! See here for newly impending archival policy.

Just a quick note to let readers know that, to my immense regret, confusion over the term "unlimited bandwidth" has led to a temporary hold on all files all songs from archived posts as of early Saturday morning.

Posts from the Denison Witmer Covers Project remain live, as does this week's most recent post on covers of and from Harry Nilsson. New posts, however, will also be "on hold" until we have resolved bandwidth issues.

In the meantime, to listen to all other songs posted here at Cover Lay Down in the past year, please click here.

I apologize for the inconvenience and hope to have the problem resolved by Monday afternoon. Thanks for your patience, and your continued support.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Covered in Folk: Harry Nilsson
(Covers from Marc Cohn, Steve Forbert, Glen Phillips and more!)

My interest in Harry Nilsson came through coversong, most specifically 1995 covers album For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson, which I picked up when it was new in order to gain access to otherwise-unavailable rarities from Marc Cohn, Aimee Mann, and a solid roster of other perfectly tuned oddities (like, say, Fred Schneider of the B-52s doing a pitch-perfect version of Coconut, or the infamous nasal harmonies of The Roches applied to a space-age Spaceman). Purchasing the album was a revelation: here was a set of tunes that were all strangely familiar, yet I had never realized that they were all from the same guy. For the rest of my life, a huge set of the songs in the very air of modern American culture would have new relevance to me -- which is to say, Nilsson's work remained ubiquitous as it had always been, but this time, when I heard his songs, I knew how to connect them.

Nilsson is best known in the world of cover collectors for his incredible cover of Beatles classic You Can't Do That, which combines bits and pieces from 22 other songs from the Beatles catalog, and for his definitive version of Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin', which appeared in the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy, and would later be covered by dozens of others, far too often erroneously attributed to Nilsson himself. His voice is familiar to Western culture due to an almost unprecedented turn as a composer for and song contributor to over fifty film and television soundtracks, from the theme song to The Courtship of Eddie's Father to the entirety of the songs written for the sorely disappointing Robin Williams/Shelley Long vehicle Popeye. You may have also seen his oddly endearing 1971 made-for-TV morality play and kidproject The Point in your own childhood, as I did; Nilsson claims he had the idea for the project while on acid, and it shows.

But Nilsson was more than just a soundtrack and novelty song guy. A highly prolific and versatile artist in the sixties and seventies, Nilsson released twenty albums between 1962 and 1980, when illness and exhaustion, coupled with the death of his friend John Lennon, drove him away from the studio. He was an incredible songsmith, as his high coverage speaks to; he had a way with a tune, and an ability to speak wistfully yet wryly about cultural alienation through finely honed lyrics floated upon a full wash of rich, orchestrated sound. Discovering his work has been a joy. Knowing that I have only hit the tip of the iceberg is even more wonderful.

Despite high pop culture credibility and two Grammy Awards, it is generally believed that Nilsson's tendency towards constant reinvention and vast shifts in musical style throughout his career kept him from the recognition that he truly deserved. But over a decade after his death, a quick peruse of the blogosphere reveals that Nilsson continues to have a huge fan base among audiophiles, many of whom believe that his true genius was criminally underrated throughout a highly productive career pushing the envelope of sound and sarcasm, irreverence and grandiose instrumentation. Tellingly, Lennon, who shared Nilsson's disdain for commercialism, was also a fan; in turn, I've heard bloggers I trust refer to Nilsson's work as "Beatles-esque", and though I'm not the hugest Beatles fan, I can see what they mean. And any musician who had his work included in High Fidelity -- which is, after all, about music with a high credibility factor -- automatically gets counted as one of the best of the underrated bunch.

I didn't grow up with Nilsson in the house; as such, I owe a huge debt to the musicians I love and the blogosphere at large for my increasing fandom of Nilsson, who not only helped me put a name to this culturally ubiquitous voice, but taught me that there was more to this artist than soundtracks, misattribution, and "put the lime in the coconut". As thanks and in tribute to the power of iconoclasts everywhere, here's some of my favorite folk-tinged Harry Nilsson covers, from the great, lazy jazzgrass jams of Glen Phillips and Nickel Creek side project Mutual Admiration Society to Steve Forbert's torn, wistful take on The Moonbeam Song.

Welsh popfolkie and early Apple recording artist Mary Hopkin takes an orchestrated turn on The Puppy Song, while a previously-posted Victoria Williams deconstructs the song into something playfully delicate and warbly; Marc Cohn croons Turn on Your Radio as a slow, inimitable blues with soulful vocals and a Nilsson-esque wash of sound. Canadian folkie Reid Jamieson's lovely, lighthearted solo acoustic take on Nilsson obscurity Nobody Cares About The Railroads Anymore alone is worth the price of admission. The Asylum Street Spankers are their ragged, irreverent selves, bringing an eerie saw and some doo-wop vocals to an acoustic Think About Your Troubles off their children's album Mommy Says No. And who could resist the indie folkrock of The Format to top things off? Enjoy.

As always, our inclusion of links to the above artists' stores and homepages should be taken as a tacit urge to support the continued creation of artistic genius in our culture by buying music, directly from the artist wherever possible. Which is to say: buying this stuff from the musicians justifies our existence, and theirs, so do it.

What, more? I was tempted to drop a long list of covers of Everybody's Talkin' here to serve as today's bonus coversongs, but we'll save that for a future Single Song Sunday. Instead, I'm going to suggest that, as with many prolific artists who treat musical output as an avenue for genre exploration, Harry Nilsson's diverse output includes more than a few tracks which reflect the trope and stripped down sound of modern folk, even if they are ultimately best classified as classic radio poprock in context. Here's a few covers from Nilsson's lighter side.

Cover Lay Down publishes new content Wednesdays, Sundays, and sometimes Fridays.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 6:
Movement Songs for Runners, Dancers, and Wiggleworms

After two years of dance class, my elder daughter decided this year to switch over to Yoga. Meanwhile, her sister is a budding musical theater fan, one who takes to preschool sing-and-dancealongs as easily as she does craft projects. Neither comes from particularly athletic genepools - my wife and I were chorus and theater geeks, not track and field stars -- and given their natural tendencies, they're not about to turn into the kind of kid who rules the schoolyard. But the common thread is clear, I think: both have a strong affinity for being in motion.

The practice of movement is healthy for kids. Studies show that kids who experience rhythm often enough are better able to recognize and work with patterns later in life; there is, it turns out, a direct correlation between Math SAT scores and the study of dance and musicmaking at a young age. I also think that kids who learn to move in time with music learn to know their bodies better, in ways which can make it easier to think of exercise as natural, and to have respect for other connections of mind and body.

I'm proud of my kids for their love of movement, and nurture it as I can. They love bluegrass music, and can be caught kicking up their heels in their carseats when it plays, so I always make sure to keep some ready wherever we go. I chase them, as good Daddies do, and try to teach them to dance as long as I've got the energy to do so. We walk to the dam spillway, and fish; I show them how casting, too, has its body rhythms, and how those rhythms might match the drift of the bobber as the water pulls our hooks downstream, and how the slow jerk and rest of the spinner can make the hook dance under the water.

Mommy's approach to bedtime is to help the kids settle into slow mode, using warm bath and storytime and lullabies as a mechanism for sleepiness, but I'm a big fan of exhaustion: when it's Daddy's turn to put them to bed, we crank up the danceable tunes, and have a good and gleeful bodyrhythm session around and around the coffeetable.

Previously, of course, we've covered both high-octane and sleepytime sorts of music in our Covered in Kidfolk series, but our focus back then was on tempo and emotional tone; since then, my kids have grown just enough to be able to better attend to the explicit messages of lyric and rhythm together. Today, then, a few tunes, the vast majority of them from the public domain, which explicitly encourage movement of various sorts, from running and walking to swinging, riding, and jumping that our kids might better consider moving their bodies as a vital part of their abilities, and know the various ways that such movement can be accomplished.

  • Run Molly Run: Sweet Honey in the Rock (trad.)
    This great a capella gospel folk take on an old folksong comes from Grammy-winning African American female roots cooperative Sweet Honey in the Rock; though it's been on plenty of compilations, the song was first released way back in 1994 on I Got Shoes. A slow start to a set of movement songs, but call it a warm up.

  • Dave Alvin: Walk Right In (orig. Gus Cannon; pop. The Rooftop Singers)
    Not technically a kidsong, but something I learned as a kid, and subsequently one of those movement songs I will forever associate with childhood. This relatively stately cover by Dave Alvin comes from his 2000 Grammy-winning folk recording Public Domain: Songs from the Wild Land.

  • Colin Meloy: Dance to Your Daddy (trad.)
    A dark waltz from Colin Meloy's 2006 tour-only EP of Shirley Collins "covers", most of which were originally traditional britfolk. The tinkly xylophone here seems to encourage slow, stately twirling in my own children, as if they were ballerinas atop a music box.

  • Elizabeth Mitchell: Skip to My Lou (trad.)
  • John McCutcheon: Skip to My Lou (ibid.)
    Two very differently-paced takes on what might just be the most famous skipping song in the kiddie canon. Cover Lay Down favorite Elizabeth Mitchell's typically delicate, lighthearted take comes from her breakthrough kids album You Are My Sunshine. Meanwhile, the John McCutcheon is the version that I used to swing my elderchild around to, back when it was just the two of us. McCutcheon is so old-school, his website address is actually

  • Sonny Terry : Pick a Bale O' Cotton (trad.)
    Folk-style harmonica wizard Sonny Terry gave this old "jump down turn-around" fieldfolk worksong an authentically old-school makeover with jangly guitar, harmonica, a percussive shaker, and a couple of harmony vocalists straight out of the thirties. Found on Music for Little People collection Big Blues: Blues Music For Kids, which runs a great gamut, and is a steal at $7.99.

  • Erin McKeown: Thanks for the Boogie Ride (Buck/Mitchell)
    Given the tight-buttoned era from which retro swingfolk artist Erin McKeown pulled the source material for her pre-1950s covers album Sing You Sinners, there's surely some sort of innuendo buried in this track, if you look deep enough. But on the surface, it's about boogying, and riding, a high-energy celebration of travel and ride-sharing perfect for kids on the go.

  • Michelle Shocked w/ Taj Mahal: Jump Jim Crow (trad.)
    Though it has roots in the early blackface minstrel shows of the early eighteen hundreds, like the other older songs on Michelle Shocked's 1992 release Arkansas Traveler, this jangly song manages to recapture the song as true-blue folk while stripping out much of the racism, and recontextualizing the rest as historically truthful.

  • Plain White T's: When I See An Elephant Fly (orig. Disney)
    Speaking of crows, this song is famous from Dumbo, where it was performed by a set of racist stereotypes that just wouldn't fly in today's world. Disneyfied acoustic popgroup the Plain White T's would be perfectly legitimate folk, if the suits behind them didn't insist on presenting them as a kind of pre-plugged radiopop act.

  • New Lost City Ramblers: Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (trad.)
    Another song about flying, since my kids asked for that form of movement song first and repeatedly when I mentioned I was posting this entry. Old-timey folkband the New Lost City Ramblers creates a great bluegrassy energy here; in our house, this means full-speed sprint-dancing and plenty of glee, so watch out for the furniture.

  • Dan Zanes feat. Loudon Wainwright III: All Around the Kitchen (trad.)
    A movement song that coaxes kids to dance along, first collected by John and Alan Lomax in the thirties, and now one of my favorite tracks on the aptly-titled 2003 release Family Dance from ex-Del Fuegos founder and Covered in Kidfolk series favorite Dan Zanes, who has remade himself as the forefather of cool for kids and families over the last decade.

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

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Denison Witmer Covers Project, Part 5:
Denison covers Band of Horses' Is There A Ghost

Our partnership with Philadelphia singer-songwriter Denison Witmer bears more wonderful fruit today: Denison has sent along a cover of Is There A Ghost, the lead track from Band of Horses release Cease to Begin and, according to Rolling Stone, one of the 100 Best Songs of 2007, and I'm happy to report that this newest coversong is already stuck in my head.

Denison's take on Is There A Ghost is a strong addition to a growing collection of solo acoustic covers, all of which can be heard below. But where the other recordings in Denison's cover series have generally been immersive, establishing a tone and inhabiting it, the highly repetitive lyrics of the song here work against such a singular approach. The language of the original is in its delivery, most especially the chilly echoing shoegaze atmosphere, and the way it downshifts into its long, driving, anthemic peak just before the song's midpoint.

Denison's take on the song is powerfully atmospheric, too. But given his deliberate, stripped-down approach to covers, this is a very different atmosphere. The cover starts ragged, lo-fi and low key, as if just awakened; it is very much of a set with the earlier songs he has recorded for this project, though warmer and lusher in tone from the very first moment. Instead of being split in two, it coalesces slowly over the first verse, the sound becoming first richer, then building energy over the last few measures before fading away.

By taking on a subtle, acoustic reflection of the original's pacing and energy, starting farther back, and working within a much more focused range of emotional build, Denison creates a wonderful warmth without losing the tension which makes this song work in the first place. In the end, we are left with a perfect fragment, a short, almost tender study in exhausted hope and acceptance. If the point here is to get us excited about the impending album, it's working.

Previously on the Denison Witmer Covers Project:

New Denison Witmer album Carry the Weight drops on November 11th; the first single, Beautiful Boys and Girls, is already available in digital form.

Since we're on the subject, how about a few bonus tracks and linkbacks? This Grizzly Bear cover is about as folk as Band of Horses gets, but it's worth the listen. And finding both Denison and new Band of Horses second guitarist Tyler Ramsey covering the same song was too perfect to miss:

  • Band of Horses cover Grizzly Bear's Plans
  • Denison Witmer does a gorgeously ringing, pensive cover of Jackson Browne/Nico hit These Days on his 2003 covers album Recovered...
  • ...and Tyler Ramsey does a languid alt-folk These Days, too.

We'll be back next weekend with another installment of the Denison Witmer Covers Project. Coming up Sunday: our Covered in Kidfolk series triumphantly returns with a set of songs about movement.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

New Artists, Old Songbooks:
Jesse Malin covers Folk, Rock, and Punk; Brett Ratliff covers Appalachia

I've been posting heavily over at Star Maker Machine all week, and expect to continue the trend; coverlovers just joining us should absolutely head over for a growing compendium of Dylan Covers from the powerhouse collaborative. A beneficial side-effect: immersing myself in the Bob Dylan songbook has been a good way to weed out the inbox chaff. It's a high standard, but I figure anything forgotten in the excitement was probably not worth keeping in the first place. Here's news of a pair of wonderful cover-heavy new releases from opposite ends of the folk spectrum which are strong enough to remain earworms even in the midst of Dylan mania.

It's hard to justify puting singer-songwriter Jesse Malin in the folk camp; his tendency towards rock beats and his long association with the hardcore and glampunk worlds kind of precludes it. In his last several years as a solo performer, though, he's increasingly pulling back from the loud stuff, leaning into the realm of such influences as Neil Young and Steve Earle, and it's a good sound for his particular instrument. His distinctively pinched raspy voice, and his tendency towards a particular use of guitar and keys and brushes, makes him more comparable to bands with folk sensibilities but a preference for earnest and sometimes ragged rock and roll instrumentation production, like Springsteen, The Band, or even the Eels.

Malin also has high respect for musicians generally identified as folk rockers, as evidenced by his impending release On Your Sleeve, a covers album which includes Malin's unique takes on Jim Croce, Neil Young, Springsteen, Paul Simon's Me And Julio Down by the Schoolyard, and a building, anthemic version of the Pogues' Fairytale of New York with guest co-vocalist Bree Sharp, in addition to covers of more typically punk fare such as Bad Brains and Lou Reed. And though a few cuts, most notably Lords of the New Church cover Russian Roulette and a synthbeat take on the Rolling Stones' Sway, sound like a perfect tribute to 1980s U2 or The Cure, don't let the hard-edged stuff scare you off. Though the tracks on On Your Sleeve cover a broad spectrum of sound that ranges from true hard rockin' coverage to an almost acoustic grungefolk fare, even the harder edged songs don't go much farther than indiepop and a wonderfully jangly alt-rock. And, after several solo albums, his softer, more acoustic side is starting to rub against the folkline.

Malin released a version of On Your Sleeve a few months ago in the UK, but get past the deja vu: the North American release, which drops this week, switches out the UK album's weaker tracks for almost a half-album of new material, making for a truly different experience -- and, in my opinion, a much stronger album overall -- well worth acquiring when it drops on Oct. 28, though I should also mention that if you preorder now, before the official release, you'll even get a digital bonus track - a cover of Tom Waits ballad I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You. To help you make the call, here's a couple of older, slower covers from Jesse Malin's solo career, preceded by a label-approved web exclusive Tim Hardin cover from On Your Sleeve, one of the folkiest of a great and highly-recommended set.

From way on the other side of the folk spectrum comes the old-timey mountain folk sounds of Kentucky native Brett Ratliff, a coal miner's son who has spent his young adulthood exploring the authentic sounds of the Kentucky ballad and banjo tradition. In July, his journey came to a fruitful peak with the release of Cold Icy Mountain, an album of "cover" songs so old that the vast majority of them are marked by the source from which Brett learned 'em rather than any particular author, its authenticity only reinforced by its release on non-profit label June Appal Recordings, one of several media arms of an Appalachian arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

I've been carting this disk around for a few weeks, and let me tell you, it's truly haunting. Cold Icy Mountain is a comprehensive experience of the region; as an artifact and a songset, the album fits perfectly into the new trad-folk revival movement without sounding in any way artificial or new. Ratcliff's scholarship and his authentic banjocraft create a sound both vibrantly alive and eerily ghostlike, full of frenetic picking and just the right reedy tones of front porch wail; the addition of fiddle, bass, guitar and high-tenor harmonies fleshes the sound out exquisitely.

This is true blue campsite folk, the kind you can hear late at night in the folk festival tent village, clear among the low voices in the darkness around you. Clawed banjo player Ratliff ( who should not be confused with Jets quarterback Brett Ratliff) and his part-time fiddlin' cohorts The Clack Mountain String Band know how to play a tune like it's never going out of style; nothing goes straight to the timeless core of appalachian folk music like this. Beautiful, and beautifully broken.

Check out this wonderful review of Cold Icy Mountain from fellow folkblogger and local Kentuckian Nelson, who offers a wonderful regional perspective I cannot match, and then get Cold Icy Mountain today.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk content Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday; impending posts include a return to our popular Covered in Kidfolk series and yet another newly-released recording from the Denison Witmer Covers Project. I also blog at Star Maker Machine.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Elseblog: Dylan Covers Week at Star Maker Machine
Plus: The Sacred Shakers, Mo Pair cover Blind Willie Johnson

We're going through some exciting times here at Cover Lay Down. Just yesterday we announced a thrilling new partnership with Philly folk artist Denison Witmer; today, I'm helping kick off a week-long exploration of Dylan Covers over at Star Maker Machine, where I am proud to be a regular contributor. So far, covers have included everything from Manfred Mann to U2 to Sonic Youth, not to mention not one but two Jimi Hendrix covers, neither one of which is the one you're thinking of; not a bad early mix for a blog that usually experiences a slow Sunday kick-off before whirling into the workweek with the usual growing set of thematic song.

My own first Dylan Covers post at the collaborative this week is a doozy of an exploration of the traditional song In My Time Of Dying, which was first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in the late 1920s, and made famous when Dylan recorded it for his first album. The post examines Dylan's role in bringing older blues forms into popular music, the long-lasting effects of which continue to reverberate through the folkworld, though surely Dylan's iconographic power in bringing such songs forward was as much a product of cultural timing as it was skill and passion. I'm pretty proud of it, and I think folks who would have liked it here will like it there just as much.

The entry over at Star Maker Machine is written with the depth and cultural grounding I aspire to here at Cover Lay Down, and yesterday's post announcing our new partnership with Denison Witmer was pretty exhaustive, too; given the effort expended, I hope no one minds if I treat this pair of featurettes as sufficient verbiage to stand for our usual weekend feature-as-promised. I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't add some value here, if only to push the usual mp3 aggregators to pick up the post. So here's a paired pair of covers and "first recordings" of other tunes made popular by Blind Willie Johnson, while we're on the subject; if you like 'em, grab the Blind Willie Johnson box set, pick up the self-titled album from new gospel swingfolkers The Sacred Shakers, and get more from Austin bluesfolker Mo Pair.

So keep an eye on Star Maker Machine this week, folks; given the vast breadth of taste represented in our little collaborative, you can expect a busy week of great music and writing, suitable for even the most avid covers collector. If you're eager for even more Dylan covers, feel free to check out the archives here for many, many Bob Dylan covers, most notably nine separate versions of Girl from the North Country. And don't forget to come on back Wednesday for our usual midweek feature, and Friday for our next installment in The Denison Witmer Covers Project.

Speaking of elseblog: For more covertalk and song from the broader bloggiverse, I highly recommend this lovely, highly diverse set of 80s covers over at Fong Songs, whose host has finally returned to the coverfold after several weeks of obsessing about The White Stripes, Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds, and the Large Hadron Collider. Especially noteworthy: a stellar Huey Lewis and the News cover from Cover Lay Down favorite Glen Phillips, and the wry touch radio folkstar Shawn Mullins brings to his acoustic take on Wham classic Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Check it out: seeing Fong at his coverblogging best is a genuine joy.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Denison Witmer Covers Project, Redux:
Denison Witmer covers Van Morrison's Comfort You

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Denison Witmer would be releasing a new homebrewed coversong each Friday leading up to the November 11th release of his impending album Carry The Weight. Sadly, last week's change-over in the way MySpace manages music had some glitches, and Denison had to take a week off. Since then, MySpace seems to have resolved their technical difficulties, but their new system remains a bit unwieldy, especially for those who are not interested in navigating a rigamarole of sign-ups and upgrades in flash-based interfaces merely to download songs that an artist is trying to give away.

Happily, there's a better way. And Cover Lay Down is proud to be a part of it.

See, I'm a cover hound, and a relatively new fan; the idea that Denison's newest cover might be ready to go, but was being withheld for purely technical reasons, was a total tease. So on a whim, I wrote to Denison's management (via MySpace, ironically), and I offered this blog as a project partner. To my surprise, Denison and his manager seemed to like the idea, and they contacted me in advance of this weeks release.

Now, in partnership with Denison Witmer, we are proud to announce that for the remainder of the Denison Witmer Covers Project, Cover Lay Down will be offering Denison's newest cover each week, as it comes out. The songs will go up simultaneously on Denison's MySpace, or at least within the same hour or so; there's other great content there, too, but those who prefer to skip the whole MySpace thing can just head over here to download the songs stress-free. In addition, we will be maintaining the entire list of covers as it grows, so that those just learning about the covers project can catch up on the entire set, which -- if you're just joining us -- already includes beautifully sparse "bedroom covers" of Bonnie Raitt, Red House Painters, and Oasis.

We kick things off with another stellar track. This week's brand new cover is a gorgeously delicate rendition of Van Morrison's Comfort You, originally released on the critically underrated album Veedon Fleece in 1974; Denison says it's been one of his favorite songs since he first heard it nine or ten years ago. Like Denison's other recent covers, this version strips the production away, reimagining what was once a majestic, mildly hypnotic, lightly countrified blues rock ballad as a much more intimate acoustic performance, one that evokes the barebones, smallstage coffehouse sound of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith.

The song is a great choice for the series, with simple, yearning lyrics delivered with a perfectly ragged note of emotional depth; it's fascinating to me how well Denison manages to strip away the production elements yet simultaneously grant the song such a powerful sense of urgency. The recording is lo-fi but rewarding; the vocals are set so far forward from the guitar, it could just as easily come from a lover's bedside.

Take a listen, check out our original Denison Witmer feature for more Denison covers, and then head over to Denison's MySpace to find purchase links, and read more about the backstory behind Denison's relationship with each song and songwriter.

Previously on the Denison Witmer Covers Project:

We'll be back next weekend with another installment of the Denison Witmer Covers Project. In the meantime, the forecast calls for coverfolk.

Cover Lay Down posts new features every Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional otherday. Coming soon: a return to our Single Song Sunday series, tributes to the songs of more great groups and songwriters, and a belated set of brand new coverfolk tracks from some younger faces.