Christmas, (Re)Covered: Covers of and from Anais Mitchell
plus links to over 100 Holiday and Winter Coverfolk delights!

parranda-puertorrique-a-instruments_wide-7c95763fca35d10eac6549456d26f27c671a2518-s800-c85

There’s something very folk about Christmas culture. Just one week into December, and the air is permeated with sounds of peace and love, comfort and joy that everybody knows, and can sing along to: on the radio; by the woodstove when the children are slowly preparing the living room for the tree; even at the mall, where no amount of commercialistic candor can muffle the startling thrill of a decent take on a piped in classic once again.

It’s gladdening to ring out old and new. And sure enough, plow through the archives, and you’ll find we’ve shared hundreds of Holiday coverfolk tracks and albums here at Cover Lay Down since our very first Christmas, ranging wide inside the festive folk tent, with sources from the secular to the scared, and the traditional to the modern. Today, we kick off the 2019 advent calendar with a long list of those previous features for your tree-side playlist pleasure…plus a pair of new Christmas covers of and from folkdarling Anais Mitchell to kick off the 2019 holiday season. Enjoy!


We featured the work of Vermont-bred, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in 2017, on the cusp of acclaim and a Tony award for the Broadway folk opera bombshell Hadestown, and touched on the infrequent but always welcome works of Popcorn Behavior cofounder and Sam Amidon collaborator Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett much earlier, in our old blogspot home; here, in a track nominally released via an amazon.com exclusive years ago but not officially available outside of the commercial behemoth until this year, their collaboration soars, as two darlings of the post-traditional folk world take what well may be my favorite carol and drown it in the deep journey of sorrow and hope it deserves: joyful, joyful, with pulsing, ringing bells and a spectered wall of sound that rises and falls like the heartrushes of the season. It’s a tiny single gem: no small coda to Hadestown, or to Doveman’s 2008 tribute to the Footloose soundtrack, but a reminder that great artists make great art in doses small and grand alike, and celebrate it apace.


The oft-retro but always sweet harmonies of “Juno award winning pop-folk band” Good Lovelies remind my father of The Roches, especially in how they tend to pull in and out of their homophonic alignment; I find their voices more melodic, as my own tastes run, and might more readily compare them to the Haden Triplets or even The Staves. But although the album’s arrangements trend more towards the Andrews Sisters of old, Evergreen, the brand new miostly-covers Christmas collection from the trio – who we’ve also seen at the Holidays here before, thanks to a take on Gordon Lightfoot winter classic On A Winter’s Night which appeared on their 2015 holiday tour EP Winter’s Calling – runs a wide and delightful gamut, from a smooth, softly boogie-woogie Little Saint Nick to a truly swinging girl-group Jingle Bells straight out of a USO tour, alongside plenty of soft-to-upbeat drum-and-brass classics with jazz, rock, and country influence, and a quiet fireside version of several – including a song penned by Anais herself, originally released in 2007 on the very same album that presaged Hadestown with the track Hades and Persephone.

2017

2015

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | Anais Mitchell, Holiday Coverfolk

Drive: Covering the Road and Miles
with Richard Shindell, Passenger, Patty Griffin, Lotte Kestner & more!

0_C-tcS7g6UrXZL96c

Saturdays used to be ours: the one day a week when no one had to work, or get ready for it. And because we live in the woods, that generally meant driving somewhere – breakfast, a museum, a festival, a small town to wander in, a tour of some old estate – anything, really, as long as it afforded us a chance to be together, just the four of us in and out of the minivan, looking out the window and sharing in the joy of adventure and discovery.

Now I get up while they’re sleeping, and start each Saturday with a long trip alone in the car: first the rural roads, then the small towns, with their weekender Farmer’s Markets, now dwindled down to a single canopy with root vegetables and a stalwart local in a parka; from there into Sturbridge and its commercial strip; then onto the Turnpike, then South on 495, and then another half hour North again, along and into the sleepy suburbs. Finally, I arrive at the assisted living complex where I lived this summer, while I moved my father and as much of his photos, books and records as we could carry from his independent living apartment into a 12×20 room, creating in the process a compact yet life-sized diorama of a life once lived large and well. We have lunch, which can take hours: out of the apartment with keys and credit card, in and out of the car, into the restaurant, back home again. I help out for a few hours more, tending to bills and chores, maybe reteaching him how to turn on the CD player, or starting a Netflix video for him to watch later.

And then I say goodbye. And I do the same drive all over again, only backwards, and in darkness.

I could drive it in my sleep, either way.


15489376505_c68717f886_k-700x466-700x466My brothers would come, but they live in other countries; he’s an only child, and his cousins live too far. He tends to avoid the other residents – they are, after all, a decade or more older than him on average, and he doesn’t identify with their needs or outlook, nor with their acceptance of what they can and cannot do for themselves.

And so, mostly, when it comes to Dad, it’s me or nothing.

It’s hard to watch. My father used to be Superman, though the world got more of him than I did: a self-made man in Saville Row suits and a thousand silk ties, a hard-stock business- card-carrying managing partner who pulled himself up into suburban success with nothing more than street smarts, determination, and a blazing intellect. He was one of the most powerful, influential lawyers in Boston; he had a hundred dear, close friends. His marriage worked, or so it looked on the outside; his kids were happy, see above.

Then Dad started falling asleep at his desk at work. Early onset Parkinson’s led to early retirement; his marriage fell apart; his kids moved out, and on. His circle of friends began to shrink; once he moved on to this small, spare assisted living apartment complex 30 minutes away, with a few exceptions, they stopped coming by altogether.

He blames the distance, but I think we both know the truth. And we forgive them, because we know it’s hard to watch those you love lose the things that brought you that love in the first place.

I’m a lot closer to my father than I used to be – even as the list of things my father used to be grows longer every week. But I’m fighting for balance, too. For years, I gave Saturdays to the children; now, just as the specter of college and adulthood begins to blossom in them, I choose to give my father the time I used to save for us. And it matters. To become my father’s lists, his agendas, his shopping cart guide, I have had to take a leave of absence from the adventures we used to take Saturdays, when the kids were small.

I worry, sometimes, on the long miles back and forth to Boston every weekend, that the model I am giving them is one which will ask them to take time from their own kids to give it to me, someday. Parkinson’s is hereditary, after all. My mother’s father had it, too.

But mostly, on those long miles down the turnpike, and in those afternoons in and out of Dad’s tiny room on the assisted living floor, I’m struggling with something bigger than anything I can put into words. I think it’s what my students call “the feels” – a complicated set of sadness and love and powerlessness in the face of loss that calls us to be still, and embrace our affliction, because we can’t do anything else.

It’s disorienting to just drive, and feel. Feeling the feels doesn’t play to my strengths. I’m like Dad, in that way: I’m used to being someone who makes sense of the world by taming it, turning it into something sensible and concrete – through writing, or teaching, and other product-oriented pursuits.

I know Dad is struggling with this, too. I know, because in my wallet, I carry one of his newer business cards – the ones that he made after his retirement, that just say “every step of the journey, is the journey”. For a long time, it sustained me on Saturdays, as I drove in for what I think of, increasingly, as a sort of shared Zen practice: the two of us, in the waning afternoon light, trying to find our balance in the shifting eye of the storm that is our lives, together, now; and in the aftermath, as I drove back home quietly in the darkness.


2018-Honda-Civic-Hatchback-E_oCars generally represent freedom or power, control or escape; the ability to get the hell out, or to come back home again. But just as that one friend with a truck knows you’ll call him up for help on moving day, soft songwriters know that the car can be the chain that pulls you down, too: the enabling tool, the thief of time.

More and more, on those long hours back and forth on what used to be my time with my wife and kids, I’ve come to think of the car as a burden, the road as prison cell, the driving as the penance for too much love, and a life lived fully up until now.

And although this year, for Thanksgiving, I am grateful for so much in my life, I really, really miss the days when we drove together, the four of us, over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house and table.

Because this year, for the first time, they left without me, to have a beachside adventure with their young cousins, my wife’s parents and her sisters, and their respective dogs before moving on to the delightful oceanside inn where we would meet up for the feast.

And for me, on my own, it was two hours to pick up Dad, two hours South to meet up with the clan, two hours of helping Dad through the restaurant buffet, and then four hours back again, just me and my faltering, fading father, driving in mostly silence, listening to the relationship between us stutter and fade as he sleeps and struggles to understand.

It was a long way there, and a long way home, to have so little time with the rest of the family I love. And it was hard, really hard, for Dad to ask in the car about the others at the table, and to realize that I had spent all my time and attention attending to him.

But this Saturday I took the day off, and drove downtown with the family for the annual multi-venue town crafts fair. I held hands with the wee one, now tall and slender at 14, as we picked out stocking stuffers, as we have done each year: small earrings and baubles, local honey balms and soaps, fingerless gloves and yarn scarves, handmade journals for secrets and poetry. The elderchild brought her new boyfriend, who was Romeo in the play we just finished; he seemed grateful to be with her, and eager to discover the delights of small community life alongside us. My wife and I kissed in passing, each time we found each other among the hustle and squeeze of stalls – we’re romantics; the seasonal kick-off gets to us, I guess.

It was a good day, for such a short drive. And good, too, to be home with time enough to write, and compile a playlist of driving songs.

May your travels this season be pensive and merry, in equal delight and measure.

And if you need company for the long, lonely miles, try these.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

1 comment » | Mixtapes

New Artists, Old Songs: From Indiefolk to Americana
with covers of Billie Eilish, Green Day, Joe Strummer & more!

It’s been a very long time since we blogged about new discoveries from the mailbag, and longer, still, since we trawled YouTube and Bandcamp for what was once a regular skim of everything new and noteworthy we could find.

Yet the emails we get remain insistent; a futurist’s echo chamber, clamoring to be the source of new release. And after a long absence, the echo matters. Indiefolk bands and singer-songwriters get too easily lost in the shuffle of pop radio that carries us to work and home most days. Months of solo releases from new-to-us experimentalists and neo-traditionalists from litter the inbox; bookmarked pass-alongs from social media flit by like brass rings, ripe for the picking. There’s so much to discover, and so much we’ve yet to hear.

The long-neglected stack of shareables bulges with transformative joy and sorrow. Covers we are bound to love swim just under the surface. So we took a day, and sifted through the inbox archives – April, Summer, September – to see what floated to the top of our pop-saturated ears. Here’s the results.

J Hacha de ZolaA buzzing cacophony of acoustic instruments from many lands (Kaval, Gadulka, Banjo and an upright acoustic bass) drag a dark song three fathoms deeper in this beautiful pseudo-Balkan transformation of 17 year old freakpop sensation Billie Eilish’s Bury A Friend. From NJ-based J Hacha de Zola, whose high-fusion “urban junkyard” style prompted Paste to proclaim him “a wild man in the vein of such fire breathing artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart;” UnPOPular, the 3-track covers EP this cut presages, drops Dec. 6th, with additional covers of Lourde and Halsley.

siywcoverTony Halchak’s take on this old, bouncy Bobby McFerrin hit could have been a one-trick pony – a simple slow-down of an upper, a common mechanism of coverage that by lyrical definition generally turns cheer and release to worry and crease, revealing depth and often irony in the vocals. But there are gems in this approach (Johnny Cash’s Hurt comes to mind, as does Ryan Adams’ Wonderwall) and this cover – which comes off of the Coal Country, PA singer-songwriter’s fourth full-length record, transcends and delivers, forcing us into it its inevitable reversal naked and whole, with whispered vocals and dank, strung-out lullaby arrangement, all slow, haunting keys and steady heartbeat strings. (The accompanying video is a bit heavyhanded, but like the song, it makes its point – there is, in the end, happiness and hope to be found here, in the work of saving the world.)

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 8.23.08 PMSo many covers of Between The Bars have appeared on these pages in the last few years, especially from female artists such as Annie Dressner, Andrea Silva, Jessica Lea Mayfield with Seth Avett, and Emily Mure, whose own amazing 6-song covers EP Sad Songs and Waltzes released this summer. But Boston-based singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, newly solo after several years as guitarist and singer-songwriter for bluegrass string phenom Twisted Pine, delivers a take that is precise and fluid, a well-produced delight, just right with Elliott Smith’s doubled vocals, and crystal clear flourishes in voice and guitar that refine the song into something glossy and tense. Her cover of Kacy and Clayton’s Rocks and Gravel is equally sweet and light, soaring vocals and harmonies grounded in low strings for a perfect balance. Both will appear on EP The Things You Forgot, another December release which will feature new solo studio recordings of five covers that Sumner includes regularly in her live sets.

unnamedYoung Texan duo-plus-collaborators Owen-Glass claim roots revival as their spiritual home; their well-received debut The Rope & The Rabbit attracted some solid attention from the indiefolk and Americana crowds alike, thanks to a stripped-down sound and husky vocals. The band’s take on this political pushback from post-Portland scene activist indierock band Portugal. The Man is washed out and maudlin, a lamentation of loss and love, sorrow drowning in waves where the original screamed cultural disdain into the wind.

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 8.07.52 PMA full-sized debut release with a simple premise – pop punk favorites from The Offspring, Bad Religion, Green Day and more turned down into a wash of layered, lo-fi acoustic takes – the eleven tracks of Somebody Else’s Songs from ex-punk rocker S.T. Manville bear an equally simple tonal range, narrow in scope yet pretty and pensive in performance, mostly featuring a quiet vocal and slow picking drone, with occasional light accents from accordion, banjo, and violin. Check out the whole thing on Soundcloud, from whence so much of today’s delights spring forth, and prepare for a good hour of gentle, dreamy feels.

a1950363258_16Fans of heavy, high-production folk-rock-pop fusion will just love the new turn from polymath Rain Perry, the So Cal director, playwright, actor, author, and songwriter whose fifth album Let’s Be Brave, which dropped in April, featured takes on Springsteen classic Rocky Ground and Joe Strummer along a screaming tribe of hook-laden heavyweights like this. If you like the sound, thank producer Mark Hallman, who played most of the instruments, too, except a couple of guitars; if you’re having trouble justifying this as folk music, consider that the Grammy-winning Hallman has also produced work for Ani DiFranco, Tom Russell, and Eliza Gilkyson…and that the duo also trends softer, as in this gorgeous take on Gillian Welch’s bitter anthem Everything Is Free, about which we’ve been musing for an upcoming feature.

goodwayThere’s more than a hint of freakfolk vibe in Cameron Smith’s creaky, lugubrious update of old Leonard Cohen chestnut The Traitor, as if the eerie sound of a bowed saw was bound to come out of the speakers any moment; the hollow sounds of Dylan and the ages ring in harmonica, organ, and slow strum for the Doom Ghost cover, too. The raw, minimalist tracks come from March release A Good Way To Say Goodbye, where they are nominally a switch-out artifact of a hasty production process, but we’ll beg to differ on their merit: the imperfections are a delight, especially given how much fun but how little folk we find in Smith’s usual haunts, where he sings lead and plays pretty much everything in glitchy, thrashing electronic alter ego Sur Duda.

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 10.33.20 PMFinally, meet aeseaes, aka multi-instrumentalist married couple Travis and Allie, who since getting together in 2016 are making their name as artists on Twitch, livestreaming a home-based career as performers and producers with their cats and love on full display. The beauty of these songs is etherial: I was pulled in by their cello and plucked guitar take on oft-covered Tears for Fears track Mad World, and a solid take on Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game in a similar mode, but thank goodness for following threads: I simply drown in their ringing take on Grimes, a solid lake of eternity frozen in the air. Their take on Little Red Riding Hood, a spooky studio artifact of last year’s Holiday sets, raises hope for more, too, as the years move forward.

Comment » | New Artists Old Songs, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Covered In Folk: Dire Straits
(The Mark Knopfler songbook, transformed)

knopfler

As I noted recently in a pending radio interview for Wisconsin Public Radio program BETA, as a child of the eighties, I take a special joy in coverage of the early MTV canon. For here meets my genesis as a listener: the flashy screen, the radio cut, the pop, rock, and circumstance; the artist as entertainer, and music as a multimedia, all-encompassing agency, more than just something for the eyes and ears, but for the whole body, mind, and soul.

And there, in the thick of it, came Brothers In Arms – the first album in history to sell a million copies in CD format, and as such, an eerie fulfillment of the prophetic voice of challenge and change which typifies the work of Dire Straits, and its frontman and songwriter Mark Knopfler’s writing, on and beyond this stellar album. So Far Away and the title track, the album’s bookends, are exquisite songs of the aching worker’s heart; other, deeper cuts move fluidly from wry celebration (Walk of Life) to caustic second-person bitterness (Your Latest Trick). But from a popular perspective, at least, the album’s cornerstone is and always will be the Grammy-winning cut Money For Nothing, whose rough cut cartoon music video and working class barstool lens twinned and reduplicated the message together, offering a form of meta-analysis of the ways in which MTV both magnifies and flattens the work of the musical artist, leaving them ironically spread far and wide to be found and cherished, yet ever-more far removed from the blue-collar listener who is arguably the target audience of folk in its original sense.

Not bad for an eighties rock album. And we shouldn’t neglect the foursome overall, who worked together to create and sustain the bass, drum, and rhythm which sound so seminally like themselves, and sold over 120 million records worldwide together. But there’s something deeply personal about this music, too – and unsurprisingly so. Image search for “Dire Straits”, and you’ll mostly find solo shots of Knopfler, and in many ways, though the world he portrays is imaginative, it is also folk-and-roll literal, with well-deserved comparisons to Dylan’s rasp, his literate use of rhyme and image, diction and persona, and his focus on the stories of the street-bound heart. Though he would later yaw towards a more rootsy sound, with or without the Claptonesque guitars and JJ Cale beat, his straightforward storycraft is often politicized, and eminently blue-collar in its plainspoken approach to the universal themes of modern class-conscious culture.

Dire Strait’s willingness to write and play for the radio can make it harder to see the folkready depths; 1991’s The Bug – lighthearted and shallow, and ultimately covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter and hardly anyone else – came out the year I graduated from college, and though I still have my vinyl copy of Brothers in Arms, I suppose I relegated the band in my mind to Classic Rock afterwards for a while. It wasn’t until the end of the first post-millennial decade, upon release of his duo work with an equally aging Emmylou Harris, that I came to deeper understanding of Knopfler’s work as a producer, creator, and performer of song, started to notice his solo collaborations – with James Taylor, Gillian Welch, Dylan, Chet Atkins, and others – as evidence of a songwriter’s songwriter status well-deserved, began to see his politics, grounded as they are in place and character, as aligned with the folk rock school of fellow countrymen John Wesley Harding and Billy Bragg, and finally, began to seek out, and relish, the ways in which new hands and voices have brought the sentimentality to the forefront.

For as great coverage so often does, reinvented and revived, the Dire Straits songbook reveals the everyman’s complaint, hidden in the proletarian language of the popcharts: the heartache anyone can feel; the language rich in poetic dissonance; the politics of place and people; the celebration of thirst and thunder that represents his best. We’ll start with their Brothers In Arms tracks – five in all, and each one worth covering – and move from there to the wider canon of an artist eminently worthy of our triumphant return.

  • Bhi Bhiman: Walk of Life
  • Diamond Family Archive: Walk Of Life

    Among the most recent of our covers here, and a delightful way to start; stripped of all urgency, Bhi Bhiman‘s version of a song that Rolling Stone once called “a bouncy Fifties rock & roll song about cool Fifties rock & roll songs” starts gently wistful and then holds us there in the garden of memory, a charming celebration of life and its motion. The Diamond Family Archive‘s muddy, muddled lo-fi reconstruction, meanwhile, leaves us riddled with anguish and despair, offering palpable contrast, and showing just how versatile the deep offerings of Knopfler’s deceptive simplicity truly can be.
  • Aeneas Jones: So Far Away
  • Shannon Whitworth: So Far Away

    The original tonality of So Far Away is majestic, in its way. Here, southern Americana singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth‘s primordial soup of a reversal replaces the tension of that original arrangement with a new one, equally tense and beautiful, that struggles to stay alive in the distance of drowning echoes and sustained note guitars. Preface it with an acoustic bedroom cover from versatile New Zealand artist Aeneas Jones, and again, we see the range of possibility in Knopfler’s universal lyrics and melody.
  • Low Lily: Brothers In Arms

    Vermont-based tradfolk trio Low Lily played a slightly more stripped down version of this song when we hoisted them a few years ago in our own Unity House Concerts series in Springfield, MA; the more highly produced version comes from their album 10,000 Days Like These, which we’ve celebrated here before. Those looking for further evidence of the song’s standing power as an anthem for working class solidarity should also check out last week’s encore performance from Jason Isbell’s set.
  • Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8: Money For Nothing

    An appropriately frenetic take on the song that slammed MTV way back in its formative years – one of the only co-writes in the Knopfler canon, and the sole non-solo composition on Brothers in Arms (co-written with and originally performed with back-up vocals from Sting, himself an early beneficiary and adopter of the MTV mindset). Money For Nothing is increasingly a jamgrass standard, oddly enough; though it’s tempting to see such genre reinvention as bitter, given how little TV-play jam- and bluegrass get, UK-based low-tech bluegrass hillbillies Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8 give the song a good run for its money.
  • Jennifer Warnes: Why Worry

    Highly contemporary, stylistically-speaking, with the rich, almost too-syrupy production favored by Jennifer Warnes, who made her name covering Leonard Cohen, and last found her way to Cover Lay Down on the recent release of all-covers album Another Time, Another Place, from whence this track comes. But the sense and sensibility match the lyrics well, here – this is, after all, another of Knopfler’s most sentimental songs, and the AAA format fits like a soft, warm kid glove.
  • Passenger: Romeo & Juliet

    An earlier cut from Dire Straits, off 1980 album Making Movies, brought into the folkworld by a strong Indigo Girls cover, and based loosely on both the original Shakespearean text and the reframing of West Side Story. We’ve shared a few strong covers of this in the past here on Cover Lay Down, but Passenger‘s hoarse tenderness channels the longing and loss so exquisitely, we could steep in it forever.
  • Overdriver Duo: Sultans of Swing

    By far the oldest song on our playlist today; Sultans of Swing (and personal favorite Water of Love which is, sadly, more seldom covered) was originally released in 1978, on Dire Straits’ self-titled debut, and appears on the five-track demo they originally sent in to BBC radio dj Charlie Gillett, who played the track on the radio until it brought in the label. Thanks to a self-effacing lyric about the bitter day job struggles of the members of a pub band, this song has been covered aplenty, albeit mostly in bars; here, we get a bopping two-uke version from Brazil’s Overdriver Duo, whose origins are apparent by accent, and whose fine work on the smaller strings belies a penchant towards bombastic pop beats in their original work.
  • DrvoTruo: Calling Elvis

    DrvoTruo is a Serbian gypsy folk band, believe it or not – complete with sawing fiddle and cacophonous jangling guitars, which retread and revive a deeper cut from the same aforementioned last-gasp post-revival 1991 album from whence came The Bug. Still not my favorite era for Knopfler, but you’ve gotta love the sheer, fantastic joy here.
  • BONUS TRACK: Sunjay: Sailing to Philadelphia (orig. Mark Knopfler)
  • BONUS TRACK: Sweet Baby James: Sailing to Philadelphia (orig. Mark Knopfler)

    A title track, originally performed with James Taylor, from Knopfler’s second post-Dire Straits break-up album, which cemented the man’s prowess as a solo artist once again, even as it failed to chart as high as the band in their heyday. Like Romeo & Juliet, the song is based in literature – in this case, in Thomas Pynchon’s retelling of the story of Mason and Dixon. Two versions lay the sentiment bare: a sweet solo track from Sunjay, and a rich wash from James Taylor cover band Sweet Baby James, both out of Knopfler’s own England.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

4 comments » | Covered In Folk, Mark Knopfler

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2018)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Covers Compilations & more!

man-in-black-jacket-listening-to-music

It’s still just past the turning of the year. And though we have been away a long, long time, our thoughts still turn to the coverage of it: that which has been on heavy rotation, and intrigued us, and wormed its way into our ears and hearts while we were gone; the things we should have said something about, and now can reconcile.

As always, we aim to celebrate the way artists performing in and around the traditional folk-and-roots categories wring the well-loved and familiar through the transformative urge. And, although this year’s entries blur the boundaries of those categories more than ever, as always, in our dip into the ether of a single sun’s rotation we find delights galore: in tasty and tasteful tributes aplenty, and in the loving call to the forebears and influencers that is the album-length coverset.

But to sift, we have learned, is also to relive the year: every heartache, every triumph, every contemplation. Our foray into the archives of one more suncircle gone by has a predictable effect far beyond that of mere archival rediscovery: the harvest of these seeds and fruit cleanses the landscape; the palate rejoices. And in its own inevitable way, the process is tinged, too, with sadness and loss, as we recall those various moments which were served by song, and say goodbye to them, to move on in the world.

In their way, covers albums are like the winter birds: familiar yet fleeting, hungry and heavy, beautiful and barren, surprising and often rare in the cold. We spend our days all year scouring the skies, and listening through the forest trees, and savoring them one by one as they winnow into our senses. And then, as the year comes to a close, we scatter the seeds, and praise the birds that come, calling each one both harbinger, and a symbol of the year gone by.

For the seventh year in a row, then: Cover Lay Down is proud and humbled to present our Best Of The Year, starting with our very favorite folk, indie, acoustic, roots, bluegrass and Americana tribute albums and covers compilations of 2018, and continuing later this week with a compendium of those single-shot tracks that sung the greatest delight to our deepest selves this year.

May it humble you, too, to remember that the world is ever turning, throwing off the light and heat that sustain and enervate, nurture and hold. And may we live in awe, our soundtrack the flights of a thousand birds we have heard before – though never like this, and never again, in this moment, simply here.


The Year’s Best Covers Album (Single Artist)

+ Laurie MacAllister, The Lies The Poets Tell
+ William Elliott Whitmore, Kilonova
+ Boom Forest, Wisconsin
+ Jack Carty, A Cover and Another
+ Eldin Drljevic, Acoustic Covers
+ John Wesley Harding, Other People’s Greatest Hits
+ Jennifer Warnes, Another Time, Another Place

As we noted way back in January, when folktrio Red Molly went on hiatus last year with the promise of solo product fueled by cohort crowdsourcing, the result was a delight: discs of original songs by Molly Venter duo project Goodnight Moonshine and dobro slinger Abbie Gardner, Laurie MacAllister’s tour de force of a covers album, and the promise of more to come from all incarnations. It’s the covers we’re concerned with here, though, and we’re happy to stand by our original assessment that – although its high production is glossy at times – overall, MacAllister’s The Lies The Poets Tell is a stellar exemplar of contemporary folk, diverse and “sumptuous” in its arrangement and instrumentation, rich with borrowed male-vox duets and stunning in its presentation, a “gorgeous, intensely intimate translation of favorite songs and deep cuts from a veritable who’s who of the songwriter’s songwriter’s scene” well worth its year-end crown.

William Elliott Whitmore‘s Kilonova, which ties for first among several in our (much larger) otherwise-unblogged pile, trends dissimilarly towards the rustic, grungy, alt-country side of folk. Like the deep-voiced Iowa farmer who made it, the album, complete with heavy guitar and a ragged way with voice and melody, aims to pay tribute to a broad collection of songs from a century of influential soundscape, and succeeds in spades; though fans of the mellow may be startled by a few heavier tracks on the covers collection, featuring that full-band country-and-twang Bloodshot Records sound, the majority run towards the sparse and hoarse – and in all cases, there’s something eminently direct, essential, and elegant about these well-rehearsed covers, most of which have featured in Whitmore’s live shows for years. Every cut reveals and revels in the power of coverage and tribute, and – at its best, such as his banjo take on Bad Religion – Whitmore’s adept ability to pull at the roots of punk and country and come up folk makes the record, and his own, shine like the sepia sun.

Other runners up this year trend towards the soft, the private, and the less polished. Wisconsin, a name-your-price session shared on Bandcamp early in the year by 2015 Cover Lay Down Christmas coverage celebrants Boom Forest, represents perhaps the lowest fidelity recording ever in this category, but it’s worth it: a gauzy fever dream recorded straight to hissing old-school cassette in the frozen Wisconsin winter, fragile and flushed with fleeting warmth and intimacy. Similarly, Jack Carty’s A Cover And Another series, released one by one as videographic living room recordings and subsequently streamed as a wholecloth collection, comes out raw but clear, at times unpolished but always clearly beloved, the face to face smallroom social media performance as servant to the folkways bringing forth joyful, honest renditions of both familiar and often overlooked songs from the ether of a mid-generation memory, with Springsteen, Elliott Smith, Joni and Gillian Welch tunes held against The Church, Radiohead, Death Cab For Cutie and more. Eldin Drljevic’s quiet late-night, one-take meditations on songs from Bon Iver to Depeche Mode to The Beatles are beautiful, primordial, and essential in their own way. And although John Wesley Harding‘s aptly-titled Greatest Other People’s Hits is a hybrid, with past recordings curated alongside previously unreleased interpretations of the likes of Lou Reed and George Harrison, the collection stands as a solid set, worth celebrating whole alongside the rest of them.

Those who, like I did, grew up on Jennifer WarnesFamous Blue Raincoat, a gentle, loving interpretation of the Leonard Cohen canon, will also relish the way she tenderly takes on Pearl Jam, Mark Knopfler, Ray Bonneville, and others thirty years later on Another Time, Another Place, filling the room with the soft, full ringing production power of horn-based arrangements, swelling strings, and the precision of a crystal crooner’s voice mellowed and still mostly unmarred by time. It’s not for everyone, especially the indiefolk crowd – but as a coda throwback to the softer side of revival folk, where Linda Rondstadt and Joan Baez hold sway, and Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson still perform, it holds its own.


The Year’s Best Covers EP (Single Artist)

+ Andrew Combs, 5 Covers And A Song
+ Twisted Pine, Dreams
+ Harmless Sparks, Something Borrowed
+ Vanessa Carlton, 6 Covers (singles)
+ Ana Leorne, unreleased songs

Quite a strong showing in this category this year. But you’ll forgive us if we give our strongest kudos to a half-pint collection that admits, right up front, that it’s got an original in the mix.

Stylistically, Nashville singer-songwriter Andrew Combs claims to straddle “classic country and contemporary pop”. But notably, and as acknowledged by baseline tags on Bandcamp and elsewhere, his 2018 release 5 Covers and a Song fits neatly in the americana and folkworlds, where it stands out as a stellar exemplar of the modern relationship between folk song and folk sound. Combs has a fine string-and-horn arranger and producer in Jordan Lehning, and the ensemble he’s assembled here brings a rich sound to a wide diversity of influences and songcraft: The Strokes with a dab of high-fuzz Los Lobos horns and can-bang madness, a wash of pulsing indiefolk in the Blake Mills; the languid Nillsson-esque dreampop of Lucinda Williams ballad I Envy The Wind; above it all, a voice versatile and yearning, and covers worth collecting, and savoring for hours.

Still-rising New Englander band Twisted Pine‘s covers album Dreams, on the other hand, is imperfectly perfect: a robust but fractured approach, highly arranged yet with instrumentation just understated and rough enough, makes each track a light, lighthearted acoustic gem. Wisps of dancehall pop, rock, and disco hits flit like memory in these barebones yet eminently rhythmic bluegrass settings; it’s no secret we have a soft spot for the young, energetic acoustic quartet sound, but it’s been a long, long while since we heard a four piece so joyfully playful with the edges of formality, or enjoyed it half as much.

Meanwhile, though tiny at four total tracks, early EP-of-the-year contender Harmless Sparks, brought to us in February when we were still blogging semi-regularly, remains at the top of the list, thanks in no small part to gorgeous, spare, practically languid electro-dreampop settings of My Favorite Things and more as promised. Ana Leorne’s equally slight collection of unreleased songs, released in March to celebrate and support International Women’s Day, offers a beautiful voice ravaged by time and “electroclash” in previous band The Clits, now encased in a gentle setting that rings of a young Bonnie Raitt’s drunken and revealing Jabberwocky Club bootleg session. And although technically it’s not an album at all, we’d be nowhere without an honest nod to Vanessa Carlton, whose sextet of midyear singles would have been blogged if we were blogging. Spanning Robyn, Karen Dalton, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, and more, as a cobbled-together collection, the set rings true and tried – a shimmery wash and gloss of plugged-in guitar, layered echo-chamber voices and long-held chords laid over tense heartbeats; popfolk, unresolved.


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (Single Artist)

+ Lights, Scorpion B Sides Covers
+ Lindsay Ell, The Continuum Project
+ Jake Armerding, Graceland Live

We’ve yawed wide with our definition of folk in considering this year’s best tribute albums. And we’ve split the category, too, the better to distinguish the single artist homage (which generally springs from a singular place of deep respect and kinship) from the curated tribute (more diverse in source and thus sentiment, with artists each pouring their heart into a song which may or may not have deep personal relevance to them). The result is a one-of-a-kind situation: here, three solo artists paying tribute not just to other artists, but specifically to individual records by those artists, offering deep yet restless intersections, moments in their particular time and space…and in our subsequent category, a wide range of well-curated artist rosters, many self-declared and known centrally in other genres, which blurs the line between mixed-genre collections and more narrow tributes aimed at a particular ear or range on the radio dial.

If there’s more electric echo than acoustic stringwork in our solo set, it’s because the fruit justifies the orchard boundary. Lindsay Ell‘s rework of John Mayer album Continuum serves as case in point: with prominent electric blues and a soulful voice crossing at Beale Street and Nashville, Canadian newcomer Ell won kudos and top end-of-year Billboard honors last year in the Country category for 2017 debut The Project, but the combination here on album number two is a percussive yet minimal delight equally comfortable in my father’s blues collection and on the folkshelves here at home. And although most of Jake Armerding‘s live and predominantly acoustic Graceland set, released as an exclusive bonus for those who donated to his Octave Mandolin album crowdsource campaign, was recorded pre-2018, and its tracks pulled from what seems to be audience recordings and muddy soundboards, as a project, it’s a delight all the same, showing love and chops, and featuring strong back-up work in live sessions from a variety of fellow Boston-and-beyond folkgrass players.

Our top album of the year here, however, is not just a hybrid cross; it’s also forbidden fruit. Canadian popsinger Lights was forced by her label to take down all streaming incidence of her full-album take on Drake’s Scorpion B Sides; you can still some of it via YouTube, but most of it is gone from the ether. And what a loss: Lights’ 2015 live in-studio acoustic Hotline Bling was a mere harbinger of what she can do with Drake in the studio; her covers of Jaded and After Dark here are exquisite, and the rest equally sublime. You can certainly hear the production finesse, but this isn’t pop so much as the lightest touch on the acoustic dream-realm, delicate where the original was plaintive, lending a sheer of abstraction and resignedness to what otherwise would not reach nearly as far, or as well. Find it, with our blessing.


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (Multiple Artists)

+ I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas
+ MOJO Presents Green Leaves: Nick Drake Covered
+ When The Wind Blows: Songs of Townes Van Zandt

We named I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, a tribute to Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas, a strong contender for Year’s Best Tribute Album back in January; though at that time less than half of this glorious collection had been released, it was already clear that a) it would be awesome, and b) not all of it would be folk by most stretches of the imagination. Completed in April after a long track-by-track season, the overall album does what it sets out to do and then some, showing just how versatile and wide-ranging in influence and flexibility John Darnielle’s songwriting can be, with Andrew Bird, Erin McKeown, Amanda Palmer, Craig Finn, and other altfolk faves in the mix. The last two entries in the series prove the rule: though the covers come from opposite ends of the Americana spectrum, the slow build into a Wilco-esque haze of Holy Sons’ Source Decay fades perfectly into the uplifting, masterful fingerpicking and sweet voice of Carrie Elkin at album’s end.

In other label-and-project news, MOJO magazine continued its long tradition of excellent coverage with a tribute to Nick Drake; if it’s second here, it’s only because the lesser tracks are just good. But the best tracks are amazing: beautiful, tender, as fractured and frail in their own way as the originals, with Vashti Bunyan, Judy Dyble, and more from the weird and delicate end of folk taking us through the painful, distant haze that represents the short but potent legacy of Nick Drake.

Finally, though sprawling at 32 tracks and – like so many other massive collections – not without its weak spots, When The Wind Blows, this year’s Townes tribute, is more solid than most, with stellar turns from a predominantly masculine set of red dirt and clay crooners and songwriters. Subgenre stalwarts Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix and Joe Ely bring consistent, respectful performances; newer-comers, from Ben Bedford to Matt Harlan to The Orphan Brigade, are more playful as they pass the torch around.


The Year’s Best Tribute EP

+ Craig Cardiff, Upstream Fishing All The Words, He Is: A Birthday Tribute to Bob Dylan
+ Matt Nathanson, Pyromattia
+ A Fond Farewell: A Tribute to The Music of Elliott Smith

I’ve become a huge Craig Cardiff fan this year, mining his archives for a plethora of covers albums and b-sides, all the while bemoaning the data gap between Canadian and American folk which presumably kept me from discovering this one-time Juno winner (and long-time Rose Cousins collaborator) for so long. The prolific Cardiff produced two coversets in 2018: an excellent Christmas album (cheerily titled Winter! Winter! Winter!), and Upstream Fishing All The Words, He Is, a five-track tribute to Dylan, the reigning king of covered song and a fresh-minted Nobel Laureate, that rings with angst and simple, subtle arrangements rich with strong guitar and soulful voice and the barest of accompanying riffs and ringing loops. Spin back in time, too, for sweet late-2017 half-covers EP release Novemberish (Songs From The Rain), and 2010 all-female-artist tribute Mothers and Daughters.

If Matt Nathanson‘s predominantly unplugged acoustic rock tribute to Def Leppard is a surprising second, it’s because, well, they’re hardly an obvious influence on Nathanson, an artist more known for riding the modern indie-driven popfolk line. But Nathanson gets kudos and credit for Pyromattia, which pulls the bare bones and sinews out of the grunt and grunge with an acoustic unplugged approach that calls back to the alternative pop of Toad The Wet Sprocket, Crowded House, and other balladeers and front porch rockers of the same era.

And if New Jersey tribute A Fond Farewell muddles genre, well, so did its tributary Elliott Smith, whom this short, sometimes-staccato farewell honors effectively. The six-pack runs a surprisingly broad range – from an urgent, ominous take on Between The Bars to the richly orchestrated indie-mystical ambiance of Zach Russack’s Waltz No. 1 to Joe Cirotti’s album-ender, far from perfunctory, in its fine, fragile, and fractured Rambling Jack Elliott-meets-Elliott Smith fingerpicking style.


The Year’s Best Traditional Album

+ mammiferes, Olema
+ Anna & Elizabeth, The Invisible Comes To Us

Those looking for gentle takes on ancient song, go elsewhere: put simply, this year’s best pair of traditional albums raze the boundaries between folk tradition and the environment, remixing culture and community into something visceral, and more than simply music. If they stand alone in their category, it is because theirs is a total reclamation.

Of them, the lesser-known “futurefolk” collective mammifères earns its honors for taking the sonic remix to the next level fully realized, and for the sheer potency of the collection fully de- and reconstructed: a collage of sound with an experimental polish, punctuated by all the blips and wailing electronica that buries and drags these songs into the vastness of the variable world. Aa a full-length debut, Olema claims to channel its tradition through a particular place in California, and apparently, that place is a chaotic, organic stew, a pastiche of sound. We described lead vocalist and bandleader Lukas Papenfusscline’s previous placement in our Year’s Best back in 2016, as a “hallucinogenic field recording from the road”, but Olema is eminently more jarring and realized, with Jazz and jamband elements and a terrifying tone transforming the songs of our centuries into the rantings of madmen. Essential, in all meanings of the word; a divine, disquieting artifact of the folkways. Lomax would be proud.

It’s equally hard to know how to categorize The Invisible Comes To Us, both musically and in terms of compositional framework. Built around the Middlebury College archives of song collector Helen Hartness Flanders, the album – the third from celebrated newtrad players Anna & Elizabeth, and as such frequently recognized in other year’s end folk and coverage blogs – features broken, battered folk songs heavy with the rich sounds of electronica and field recordings, yawing wide among dreampop, altfolk, and more offshoots of the traditions, yet rooted firmly in the raw acoustic ambiance of its forerunners. In its best moments, it’s like listening to the US version of the British psychedelic folkscene emerge in whole-cloth. A little less raw, a little more sweet, putting The Invisible Comes To Us back up against mammiferes’ Olena nets a twinned pair: this one, more gently undone, which spins sound from the ether, and the other, which dissolves songs into it; one which sees the world as encroaching, the other as integrative and organic as static on the radio. Not a bad year for the tradition, indeed.


Best Coverfolk Video Series

+ Imaginary Future

In some previous years, we’ve found enough great YouTubed coverfolk delights out there to justify a separate video feature; in others, in the interest of time and sanity, we’ve merely included a handful of favorites here, at the end of our album feature. This year, only one artist’s series stood out, but it’s a perfect, quiet coda to our celebration of 2018: a whole wonderful year of coverage from Imaginary Future, aka singer-songwriter Jesse Epstein, whose marriage to YouTube star Kina Grannis is notable in part because her voice can be heard in harmony with his own occasionally here, and the duo sounds great.

Epstein invites comparison with Grannis, who appeared on Cover Lay Down as recently as our end-of-year 2017 video feature; his nom de plume is taken from a lyric in one of his wife’s songs. But Imaginary Future is also very much a sincere solo act, with a quietfolk approach all his own. Arrangements are sparse, with a second harmony line dubbed in for most choruses, and set in similar tempos (slow) and tone (wispy). Song selections go broadly into various popular genres, but trend consistently towards simple love-and-hope songs done simply, too: Let It Be, Lean On Me, The Cranberries’ Dreams, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. There’s even a sameness about these video settings, too, each one close in and intimate, that helps hold the constant output together as a series.

Where other folk cover series at least attempt some diversity, in other words, Imaginary Future sticks to what he does best: delicate performance, tender tribute, and settings that serve the songs. It works, and – like every other song that came through our ears and hearts this year, and lingered long enough to be found worthy of this year’s list – we’re glad to have found him.

Imaginary Future: Let’s Stay Together (orig. Al Green)



Imaginary Future: Let It Be (orig. The Beatles)



Imaginary Future: Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (orig. Tame Impala)



Imaginary Future: Wild World (orig. Cat Stevens)

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down enters our second decade digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU.

So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive. And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing, please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2017-2018, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

4 comments » | Best of 2018, Tribute Albums, Tributes and Cover Compilations

In Praise of Summer, As It Goes
(A Cover Lay Down mix)

31419879-looking-up-at-plain-trees-background-with-a-diminishing-perspective

This week was a slammer: first week of school for both myself and the kids, late-night rehearsals for the play I am directing, which opens next weekend; the wife away for days, on retreat as she works towards certification in her late-in-life spiritual calling as a religious educator. With a heat wave in the middle of it, the air cavernous and close. And both children sick, in a house where hurt will always be.

But my classroom is outfitted in new white boards and stocked with a year’s worth of supplies, thanks to the world’s shortest crowdsource campaign at Donors Choose. This morning I came in late after a shorter-than-expected meeting with the smallerchild’s new teachers, and my intervention students were writing, quietly, building confidence as they grappled with their haphazard prompt without me. My AP class is eager and bright, engaged and having fun; the seniors, who I cared for over two years and then thought I had abandoned last Spring, come to visit with respectful grins, seeking their oracle as they look towards college. Last block, the girl who couldn’t stop chattering Monday asked if she could read her work to the class, and the kids settled in, respectful and sure, to see what they could praise, and found more than enough to satisfy us all.

The play is a stunner. My wife is home, and beautiful, and still smarter than me – tonight’s date at the new restaurant in town felt like renewal. The wee one – at thirteen a willowy, slim pale creature – pushes through her hours and days, and comes home babbling joyfully of friends and teachers she loves for the first time in years. The elderchild pushes, too – through a short dose of steroids that took her to the children’s hospital for the first time in almost two months; through the newest and deepest-so-far of loves, a quiet boy who holds our fancy, too, and stayed with us last weekend in Vermont, at summer’s last summerhome, where every year might be our last.

There is pain in our lives: in my student’s struggle to catch up and transcend the urban blight; in the workload and the weariness; in how little we see our spouses and parents, and the distances that yaw between us; in the prone existence my children live in the darkness as each day wanes, curled around their chronic aches. I come home with a voice hoarse and torn, too tired to care for the rest. Eventually, I think, something else, like this space, too, may have to give.

But there are blessings here, too, and pride – and not just for now: these, and a thousand other pieces of this imperfect world, its challenges met, its promises real.

Each night, as the sun sets behind the trees of a still-summer yard, something I cannot see or hear suddenly startles the turkeys and their babies, almost grown and only slightly smaller, that cross our driveway. And they fly into the low trees like my heart: heavy, in its way, yet weightless in another; winged and free, able to lift still from the earth.

And there is music there, of an origin deep in me and all of us: rustling and beautiful; rejuvenating; reassuring; real.

I am not often here, it’s true. But I love you as I love the world. Let us be here together, as the September world starts to spin again.

3 comments » | Metablog, Mixtapes, Teaching

Disciples Of The Journey: A Coverfolk Passover
(On freeing ourselves of the things that hold us back)

photo-1479513058660-ce9dbb6ba679

Back in 2007, when Cover Lay Down started up, I still identified as a Jewnitarian. We still took the kids to a nearby stream to wash away their sins in breadcrumbs in the Fall; some Fridays, we even remembered to light the candles and break bread together. And twice – in 2010, and again in 2012 – I penned Passover sets for this blog, which played off of the literal story of the Haggadah, and its commandments.

But as my family and I have come to embrace the community at our nearby UU congregation, things have changed. These days, our rituals are discursive, creative, driven by the pace and partition of the year from school year to summer: the opening night and the closing show; the planned observation; choir Sundays; the folk festival where we live in our hearts all year, and return to recreate once more each August.

Color me converted, I guess: this, too, is religion if the God you serve is the just community. Unitarian Universalism has brought an embrace of the concept of mindfulness, if not always its realization. I know what I yearn for, now. And in my best moments, when vision and faith serve love and right relationship, I suppose what I experience is holy, in its way.

These moments where I can realize that Jerusalem are fleeting, sometimes. In a world of practicality and entropic drift, we are our own enemies, arguing to win. Our screens exacerbate the inevitable distance between minds. The kids are sick again; my father ages; the world intrudes, ever challenging the sacred self.

But a friend reminds me that Passover isn’t really about the Hebrew Exodus. It is, she says, “about freeing ourselves from the things in life that are holding us back”. And I think about the elderchild, and how hard is was to drive away from the hospital again without her. I think about the wee one, on the cusp of thirteen, coming home in pain every day. I think about driving across the state every weekend to sit with my father, and how much I missed it when my weekends were too full. I think about how tired I am, sometimes, at the end of the day, after rehearsals and school committee meetings and a classroom of chaos, stuffed to stifling with a hundred kids struggling to survive.

And so we return to the figurative table, dipping bitterness into tears and wine. We tell the story of when we were slaves in Egypt, and escaped. The roadmap is retold, in song. And we become disciples of the journey, not the destination, our leavetaking plotted in the stars.

We need only take that first step. To embrace the loved things, and push away those that enslave us. The fear. The nervousness. The intimidating distance. The preferences for things-as-they-are. The entangled, leavened things we define as ourselves, and us as them.

Melancholy, maybe. But empowering too, to name it all, and still know the promised land.

Always ad-free and artist centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of culture, community, and shared song since 2007.

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

(Re)Covered In Folk: Neil Young
(45 redefining tracks from a decade in tribute)

rs-13498-111813-neil-young-1800-1384800642

It’s been ten years exactly since we last drilled down deep into the Neil Young songbook here on Cover Lay Down, in a short feature introducing the transformative all-female American Laundromat double-disc for-charity tribute Cinnamon Girl, accompanied by several exclusive label-approved tracks from that record and a delicious set of similar delights from The Wailin’ Jennys, The Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Rodriguez, Elizabeth Mitchell, and more great folkwomen teetering on the well-traveled intersection of rock, pop, and folk.

A decade later, Cinnamon Girl remains a go-to exemplar in the world of coverage: a powerhouse indie collection, “a great and well-balanced listen from cover to cover”, and “the tribute album Neil Young has deserved for most of his long and prolific career.” Several of its covers, including Lori McKenna’s unadorned twangfolk The Needle And The Damage Done, The Watson Twins’ sweet Powderfinger, and Canadian duo Dala’s beautiful, wistful harmony takes on Ohio and A Man Needs A Maid, continue to stand out as true-blue favorites. And – since it is still available – we would be remiss in taking this opportunity to redirect you to it, that you, too, might revel in its femfolk-to-riot-grrl approach, and support Casting For Recovery, who aim to enhance the quality of life of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with therapeutic fly fishing.

But just as the past must be celebrated, so, too, do our ears and hearts evolve. As listeners, our subjective evolution in that decade has brought us closer towards a subtle appreciation of the deconstructionist approach. As cultural explorers, we respect and recognize Young’s recent move to put his entire archive online for free – a move that will surely spark deep artistic exploration and new coverage going forward. As agents of discovery and spread, we celebrate the ongoing reclamation of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s prolific portfolio, even as we note its turn towards the trends and tropes of its next generation.

And so, today, we revisit the Neil Young songbook with a collection of covers recorded in the intervening decade that trend towards the broken and bent, and the mellow and melodic: an omnibus mix, coupling beloved recordings from folk, Americana, indie and roots artists with newfound delights from Bandcamp, YouTube, and other discovery spaces. May it stand as our solution for those who, like us, struggle to reconcile our distaste for the songwriter’s whine with our great respect and admiration for both the grit and elegance of his pen, and his vast catalog of poetic yet straightforward songs which continues to give voice “to the plight of the powerless and the disaffected in modern American culture.”

Neil Young, Covered In Folk (2008-2018)
* listen track-by-track, or download the whole mix here!

Always ad-free and artist-centered, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of coverage and folk roots on the web since 2007 thanks to the kind support of readers like you. If you like what you hear, click through to purchase albums and support the artists we love, the better to keep the music going in an age of micro-transactions. And, as always, if you wish to help us in our ongoing mission, we hope you’ll consider a donation to Cover Lay Down.

2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Clem Snide, Covered In Folk, J. Tillman, Jeffrey Foucault, Marissa Nadler, Mark Erelli, Molly Tuttle, Neil Young, Reid Jamieson, Rickie Lee Jones, Sam Amidon, Tribute Albums

Single Song Sunday: John Henry
(16 takes on an American myth from bluesfolk to gospelgrass)

johnhenry

We’re generally cautious about celebrating Black History Month here at Cover Lay Down. Though the earliest roots of modern folk recording and song surely include both the African-American experience and, more murkily, the origin stories of several of the instruments (including the dulcimer and banjo) which form the core of its acoustic array, the world of folk performance itself skews heavily towards caucasian artists, making any address of these roots unfinished without exhaustive exploration of the ways in which these roots have been claimed and shaped by white folks – from Lomax and Seeger to Paul Simon’s infamous Graceland controversy, Jayme Stone’s recent exploration of Gullah and other Caribbean sounds, and beyond.

But there are other ways, too, to celebrate the influence of Black America in the folkways. Today, in our first Single Song Sunday since our 2015 deconstruction of popular live performance encore The Weight, we tug at the roots of a particular story found in a broad panoply of songs: that of John Henry, a larger-than-life African American whose pride and persistence in the face of power and progress have come to represent the American spirit both within and beyond our shores.

john-henry-stampEthnographic evidence compiled by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappel through interviews in the 1920s trace the particulars of well-known folksong hero John Henry to the 1870s, where workers in the West Virginia Mountains dug the biggest tunnel job attempted by man up to that date. And although more recent historians have proposed other digs as more plausible, all share a basic narrative: a single man, the best of many African-American convict laborers in a world still healing after the end of the Civil War, pits himself against the newly-introduced steam drill in a contest of strength and willpower…and wins in the end, though it takes his last breath.

But the story above is no more or less true when Lomax places the the Old John trickster slave narrative at the heart of the song’s perpetual motion, nor when he notes, correctly, the melodic and lyrical similarities to tradtune The Lass Of Roch Royal in many versions of the song performed during his time. And it is certainly no more true than the abstract purpose of the song: to show the triumph of the underdog, of body and spirit through perseverance, and in doing so, iterate and reclaim those values which stir at the core of our identity as Americans.

Our myth comes to us wrapped around truth, in other words. And in the end, what matters isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s true. Like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, the legend of John Henry lives in our hearts and bones: grounded in the real history of real human beings just a hair larger in life than their peers, conflated to serve the cultural need for heroes symbolic of the particular sort of stubborn pride and determination that moves mountains in the rich panoply of American mythology. Man vs. nature, man vs. technology, man vs. self, and man vs. society collapse into a single story. An American myth, if ever there was one.

And this is how, today, the song serves: as cultural approbation and fatalist’s morality tale, in which we may lose to our machines both political and real, but the indomitable human spirit prevails.

And as long as we are still in struggle, so must the song be sung.

john-henry-51A plethora of songs recast the myth of John Henry. The Ballad of John Henry, for example – a standard in its own right – turns the morality of Henry’s death into a cautionary tale, pushing listeners to guard their life against the urge to spend it for foreman and fate; a “hammer song”, it is generally slow, but not always.

Not all recastings are covers, either. Modern troubadours from Songs:Ohia and Cuff The Duke to Drive-By Truckers and Driftwood Soldier have built from the ground up, applying the storyline to new tunes and lyrics, moving history into their own more immediate surroundings.

But do a simple search online of “John Henry”, and it’s clear that despite the mutability of over a dozen verses and perhaps ten times as many lyrical variants, one tune – paced and performed rhythmically, heavy on bravado and dialogue, that celebrates the man as myth for his determination even in death – remains dominant, even flush in the various byways of the folkworld. It drifts up to us from the earliest folk recordings, where it stands as a fieldhand blues number howled out in slackstring scratchy voices, filtered and reformed in a myriad of subgenres, from Leadbelly to Bill Monroe, through Doc Watson and The Stanley Brothers, John Renbourne and John Fahey, via John Jackson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Van Ronk and Guthrie and back again. (It is even familiar as an instrumental, especially with banjo and fiddle a la John Hartford or dulcimer a la Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, though we’ll stick to the lyrical conceit today.)

Some favorites versions, then, of an old song, easy to play and sing, its renewed relevance ever on our tongues as we continue our fight against the machine. Join us as we flesh out a vast and varied set of and beyond the American range, from the high-intensity Appalachian bounce of The Mammals to The Downtown Shimmy’s harmonica-driven blues, from Snakefarm’s psychedelic funk to the frenetic energy of Del McCoury’s high tenor wail, from Chris Jones’ gospelgrass to French duo Lonesome Day’s slow walking blues, from Thomas Hellman’s chug-along Quebecois trainsong to the hoot and holler of new primitive Appalachian interpreter Lebo Jenkins, plus the neo-traditional feminist turn of Elizabeth LaPrelle, a deconstructed atmosphere from Daniel Dutton, and the regionally diverse and differentiated grit of American-and-beyond singer-songwriters and cultural ambassadors Eric Bibb, Willie Watson, Andrew Calhoun, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Tim O’Brien, and David Broad.

John Henry, Covered In Folk
A Single Song Sunday Mix
[zip!]

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of over 50 well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

2 comments » | Billy Bragg, Single Song Sunday, Tradfolk, Willie Watson

New Artists, Old Songs: from Indiefolk to Americana
with The Ahern Brothers, Gina Clowes, Kyle Carey & more!

So much wonderful new music has hit the radar screen since the turning of the year, it’s hard to know just where to begin. But another snow day here in New England offers a great opportunity to pass along the good stuff ringing in our ears, making for a lovely mix to accompany the soft quiet of falling flakes.

So join us by the fire as we run down some of our favorite new covertracks and their rising star sources – a global smorgasbord of tasty treats and treatments from the wide, wide spectrum of modern folk and acoustic music. Life has never sounded as good as it does here, now, today.

aherns2Thanks to Aussie folkblog Timber & Steel for celebrating fellow down-under harmony singing folk duo The Ahern Brothers and their smashing self-titled 2017 debut in their end-of-year wrap-up – and apologies for taking so long to get to their delightful cover of Ryan Adams’ Prisoner, a video-sourced ballad that simply soars with pure, atmospheric harmonies a la The Milk Carton Kids and The Everly Brothers. It’s hard to decide which we like best: the sparse sound of this and other acoustic duo performances typical of an album that Rolling Stone called “A mesmerising contemporary folk recording: restrained, pithy, and pure”, or the crisp, lighthearted Simon-and-Garfunkel-esque studio production that typifies catchy new singles “There’s A Light” and “Passing Through”. Lucky for us, we get both.

ginaFrequent forays into the world of musical theater have me running hot for any version of a song originally written for the stage – as long as it isn’t dripping with schmaltz, that is. But where many of the folk covers we featured in our 2013 feature on showtune covers stick to the ballad-or-bombast model which so typifies the average musical theater performance, bluegrass rising star Gina Clowes’ album-closing take on Beautiful Land, a curtain-opener from mid-sixties class-consciousness musical The Roar of the Greasepaint…The Smell of the Crowd made mildly popular by Nina Simone, is a true transformation, turning what had been a b-side into a complex yet truly American neo-traditional delight that fits perfectly among the originals on September 2017 debut album True Colors, a solid survey of what’s new at the progressive crossroads of acoustic swing, gypsy jazz, and bluegrass, featuring performances from fellow members of the “absurdly talented” Furtado family and more.

kylecCeltic crossroads artist Kyle Carey‘s brand new recording is no debut – the honor belongs to 2011 release Monongah, recorded in western Ireland and produced by Donogh Hennesy of the acoustic super-group Lùnasa. But The Art of Forgetting, her third outing and her first recorded on American soil, nonetheless represents something new: a fully realized work that combines her deep reclamation of her Gaelic roots with the rich panoply of sound that typifies the contemporary integration of pan-regional folkways, supported by Dirk Powell’s stunning production and cajun-flavored studio work, Louisiana’s Sam Broussard on guitar, Scotland’s John McCusker on fiddle, Nashville’s Kai Welch on trumpet, and the warm harmonies of crossover superstar Rhiannon Giddens on a reinvented Irish tradtune. Heavenly, and highly recommended.

polhuellouIn his introductory email, Breton-based “Japanese music specialist” Pol Huellou calls his new album The Lost Agenda “kind of a musical UFO”, and that’s not so far off: his French acoustic boogie-woogie big band take on Just A Gigolo, to take just one example, is unexpected every time it comes around, as is the gentle instrumental harp-and-flute traditional that follows it; though the latter is a closer exemplar of what happens when you mix the genre-straddling Celtic, Breton, and Asian influences that typify Huellou’s panoptic ouvre, there’s little here that could truly be called typical of anything, really.

It’s complex, and often challenging, but the mix works, thanks to a dazzling and diverse set of songs, sources, and artists featuring everything from oud, sanza, and banjo on instrumental Irish tradtune-turned-arabic-melody The Star of Co. Down to his jazz-fueled chanson-style rendition of a Marlene Dietrich standard to the funky world-beat of album-closing Armenian traditional song Let’s Blues It. We actually included Huellou’s mostly-Celtic Serge Gainsboro cover on our 56-track end-of-year bonus mix, an exclusive for donors who give to support the continued existence of Cover Lay Down, but everyone should hear it; here’s a pair of the aforementioned, more Bela Fleck meets Morocco than anything, for those who, like us, just can’t get enough.

casstIf we’ve got a lot less to say about Harmless Sparks – a Tel Aviv amateur side project presumably named after the David Bazan song – it’s because all we’ve got so far is one admittedly stunning cover. But according to Israeli musician Omri Levy, whose previous covers and originals date back over a decade, and who sent it to us exclusively “since I really love your blog”, their dreamy take on Alphaville’s Big In Japan, a mournful, electro-atmospheric lullaby that leaves us breathless and wanting for more, will join three others on a soon-to-be-released EP; watch their Bandcamp page for upcoming covers of The Cure, Cyndi Lauper, and My Favorite Things.

vlcoverWe’re not above touting music before official release here at Cover Lay Down, especially when it comes from Hearth Music, one of our very favorite sources for authentic Americana, Cajun, old-timey, countryfolk, and other decidedly regional subgenres. This month’s case in point: Time Is Everything, a Pledgemusic-driven debut from surprisingly young Lexington, VA roots artist Vivian Leva, won’t drop until early March, but we’ve spent the last several weeks reveling in the deeply masterful set it presents, and now we just can’t help but pass it along, with kudos for its maturity, the rich-and-tender countryfolk-to-contemporary production that forces Leva’s heady voice and potent songwriting forward, and a sweet way with a vocal that wrings hope and heartache from a stunning survey of sentiment deeply rooted in land, loneliness, and languid country life.

2017_Sarah_McQuaid_1_LRUK-based singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid‘s fifth outing If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, its title sparked by a warning uttered to her son as he excavated an enormous hole in their backyard, offers an appropriate whirlwind of languid musings on mortality and hubris, with a thick and well-trained alto reminiscent of Annie Lennox astride ringing electric guitar and piano from McQuaid and legendary musician Michael Chapman, who lends both studio flourishes and producing credits to the effort. In the end, it’s a powerful album that simply shimmers with nuance, observational depth, and despair, just out and already named one of the top ten of the week by The Alternate Root magazine, and sure to please fans of The Unthanks, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits equally.


foxgloves-1LA-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumental vocalist Kristen Lynn is joined by The Foxgloves, a full fourpiece gypsy-jazz folk Americana band, on her second foray into the world of Kickstarter-funded projects, making Lonely Girl an easy fit for our diverse set today, with a haunting, sparse arrangement of Wild Mountain Thyme and a number of solid originals that romp and stomp. But it’s our very favorite cut so far that demands sharing today, an interesting experiment that really works: listen as You Are My Sunshine moves from the sweet and gentle to the dark and heady hullabaloo of a high-octane drumkick funeral rag, neatly nestling the true sentiment of the song in the shift from major to minor…and then head back in time to her 2012 debut LALA to hear it again, all sweetness and light.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 2.21.58 PMLast but not at all least: we’re hereby declaring Old Freight, a fine debut from flatpicking singer-songwriter Alan Barnosky released last November, nothing less than a new folk essential – one that doesn’t so much gather in the various influences which make modern singer-songwriter folk work as it reduces and transcends them, laying claim to the one-man, one-song center of the tent with little more than six sharp strings and warm, twangy voice, offering fair comparison to both Norman Blake and Townes Van Zandt. Barnosky also plays in a bluegrass five piece and an acoustic trio in and around his native Durham, North Carolina, and he’s played stages at Merlefest, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and the IBMA’s Bluegrass Ramble. But as the timeless originals and sole traditional cover on this record amply demonstrate, sometimes, simple IS best.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, like, donate, and follow us on Facebook for bonus tracks – including our Jan. 31 track-by-track covered-in-folk mix of Paul Simon’s Graceland album – and instant notice of new features, like a brand new Single Song Sunday feature due to drop this weekend. And above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | New Artists Old Songs

Back to top