Archive for September 2017


Covered In Folk: Steely Dan
(RIP Walter Becker, 1950-2017)

September 4th, 2017 — 9:44am





I’ve always felt rather connected to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the core and founding membership of long-time classic rock staples and multiple Grammy winners Steely Dan. Like them, I dropped out of Bard College; like them, my tastes run vast, past the boundaries of genre, and through it, to where the intricacies of meaning shrink down to playful, tight nuance, layered complexity, and more than a little dissonant swing.

Too, though their heyday started while we were still too short to care, the band’s influence on my own generation cannot be denied. Theirs is the accidental summer soundtrack of our youth, the pop and crackle of a car radio, the windows rolled down and the sun streaming in. The sharp horns and sharper arrangements from the yard sale records that kept me up at night before I knew what to do with it all, like The Little Prince and the sharp taste of espresso. The thoughtful, innovative playlist for our long miles driving North through unknown country, equal parts soul, rock, jazz, pop, and something new: a music deliberately designed to celebrate and serve the alienated, discomforted soul.

So to honor guitarist, bassist, composer and co-arranger Becker, who passed yesterday at 67 due to an undisclosed illness and was still touring as recently as last Spring, I went looking for coverage. And more than anything, I found it hard to find.

I suppose this should be no surprise: covering Steely Dan offers no small challenge to the folkworld. We’re talking about a collaboration that produces intimidatingly complex landscapes beyond the ken of most cover artists; a name brand whose high-lexile lyrical wordplay, like that of John Ashbury (a mentor of mine at Bard, who also passed yesterday) and the rest of the New York School of poets so en vogue at Bard College during all our shortened tenures, serves as percussive instrument as much as – and sometimes more than – a carrier of sizzling, irony-laden, image-heady narrative; a band aptly described as “the most sonically sophisticated pop act of the 21st Century“, fully in control of its faculties.

Add to this the band’s tendency to name their songs simply, making them hard to search for, and the result is a lean but no less stunning tribute in postmillennial acoustic and roots transformations, ranging from Wilco‘s faithful turn on Any Major Dude to familiar jazzfolk from Rickie Lee Jones and Jemma Mammina to live bluegrass settings from Mountain Heart and The Barefoot Movement, with the ragged, grungy treacle of British throwback folkrock foursome Turin BrakesRikki Don’t Lose That Number, instrumental gypsy Jazz from New York electric violinist Joe Deninzon, deceptively crisp chamberfolk from Heartscore with Jamie Rivera, a truly amateur but no less loving solo acoustic cover from YouTuber Enormously Small, and – just for good measure – Nik Hunt, The National Pool, and Michael Rand‘s decidedly weird and entirely different deconstructions of Do It Again, Home At Last, and Reelin’ In The Years.

Somewhere, Walter Becker is explaining chords to the heavenly choir, their heads nodding in rhythm as they listen. May they sing as precisely for him as they did on his records, and in our dreams.


Any Major Dude: The Songs Of Steely Dan
A Cover Lay Down Tribute Mix
[zip!]



Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down celebrates its tenth year in the ether this month with grateful thanks to our donors, our readers, and the musicians that make it all happen. Stay tuned for mailbag marvels, Kickstarter previews, new covers and tribute albums, and more as September stretches out before us!

Comment » | Covered In Folk, RIP, Steely Dan

Friday, In The Fall: A Triptych Concludes

September 2nd, 2017 — 10:29am


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Cover Lay Down will celebrate its tenth anniversary on the web this month, and behind the scenes, we’re just starting to gather in news, fragments, and new and beloved tracks for a series of September features honoring the folkways that got us here, and keeps us moving ever forward, as culture and community.

But today, as I sit on the porch watching the sun come up through the still-green trees, I find myself not yet ready to dive into the songs and artists that have sustained us, and helped us stay sane and present through the rise and fall of life as it comes.

Instead, I’m still thinking about Aida, after meeting her husband and infant at Thursday’s somber wake. About my own marriage, now the same age as Aida was when she passed on from this world. About all the times I have written here about the stress and triumphs of the students I teach, and our struggle together. About my father, and our Saturdays across the state. About my children, and their ongoing struggle with their imperfect bodies, and the stress that brings them pain.

I’ve been thinking about history, in case you couldn’t tell: mine, and the earth’s, especially the way the nights turn colder this time of year, and it’s Autumn again, kids laughing and learning how to learn. The elderchild and her sister are back in school, a day at a time; my own work is deeply satisfying, though ever imperfect, and always exhausting. My Drama class takes their first tentative steps bravely, stretching and walking into neutral as they prepare for a term exploring body and voice as the tools of the trade; my Advanced Placement students dive in to rigor, testing their capacity, and my own, as we raise the bar for rigorous analysis of speeches and essays.

Somewhere past these trees, our little rural town is holding its annual yard sale. Sidewalks and driveways once covered in the detritus of the tornado that ripped through our homes sport furniture and books, lamps and tools, restored to shabby, weathered glory, ready for use in another home. Life happens, and here we are, sifting through it, thinking ahead about what we might need as we take then next steps in our continued journey.

We’re rising to the challenge of the world that needs it. We’re dancing about architecture, and making it work. We’re navigating the impeded waters, singing. The not-so-wee one went home early from school on her second day, but she made it, and that’s something. The elderchild finds a small group in the lunchroom, determined to stay out of the drama she sees in her adolescent cohort, lest it distract from her academic development. My father hangs his pictures in the dining room, six months after moving in to his new assisted living apartment. The kid who locked the laptop cart lock to his backpack comes respectfully, without headphones, to ask to be released. He still won’t stay the entire block. But he came again today, and he’ll come again tomorrow, too.

Here. We’ve made it to the end of another week, the end of the endless summer once again. Let us dwell not in words, save those which are sung in reverence and glee. Let us speak our piece and move on, in honor of the respite we’ve earned a hundredfold. Let us celebrate the fruits of labor, and the work it takes to get there: the hard work of play, and letting go, to be present in the moment, and the music, and the self.

Happy Labor Day, dear readers. May your work, too, be employed joyfully, when it comes.


2 comments » | Mixtapes

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