Archive for December 2017

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2017)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Compilations & more!

December 28th, 2017 — 11:44pm

Every year at around this time I take a moment to reconsider: both how we do this, and whether to do it at all.

But although the folkgenres are slippery, and the question of what and what is not folk enough for the blog continues to elude clear delineation, there is still this love inside me: for the way a song recreated can tie together the memory, the culture, the heart, and the mind. It’s like a form of meditation, an approach to wholeness. The urge remains.

And so, here we are, at year’s end again, sifting through a year of that aching in the chest, the surge of joy and gladness, the still moment by the hearth or in the sun, that sudden song on the radio that hits you so hard you have to pull over, panting and sobbing, into the nearest grassy patch, and just feel.

Which is to say: it was a wonderful year for coverage, if not always for blogging it. The soundtrack of our struggles and sorrows, our travels and triumphs, was spiked with hope and beauty, empathy and grace. And coming back to it at year’s end again brings closure, of a sorts, even as it reminds us to keep our love near and dear, and cherish that which has made us, and will make us whole once again, lest it fade into the night, and be lost to the world.

And so we embrace the pensive purpose of Winter by sharing with the world our wholly subjective pleasures, once again carefully curated and celebrated, the better to bring the community closer, and the music more sustainable.

From the smooth to the ragged, then. From the delicate to the deep. From the bringers of light to the media of our melancholy; from the hoot and holler to the hushed and harmonic. From all corners of the broad tent that spans the folkways, shading it from the harshest of weather and whim.

Cover Lay Down is proud to present our Best Of The Year, starting with our very favorite folk, roots, bluegrass and Americana tribute albums and covers compilations of 2017 – with thirty five albums and over fifty songs in all, and all beloved. May your winter, too, be filled with the light of a year gone by.

The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist)
+ The Wailin’ Jennys, Fifteen
+ Mark Erelli, MIXTAPE!

+ The Sumner Brothers, To Elliot: In Remembrance of Wolf
+ Misner & Smith, Headwaters
+ Travis Knapp, Wintery Mix 2018
+ Ane Brun, Leave Me Breathless
+ Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet
+ Eric Brace, Cartes Postales

It’s nice to see familiar faces atop this year’s solo artist list. Reassuring, too, to recognize that though their sounds are distinctive in every case, all six of the artists whose covers albums lingered longest and – as a consequence -
were loved most here at Cover Lay Down in 2017 define themselves as folk in one way or another.

But after winnowing down past a strong field of honorable mentions, our final solo-artist Best Covers Albums list for 2017 is also notable in that it is representative, in its way, of the two separate threads which intersect here at Cover Lay Down. For in just four albums, we find both the vast breadth and diversity of contemporary folk – itself a mode or subgenre hard to define – and a pitch-perfect spread of the various approaches to considering source material in choosing coverage for the covers album, most especially as an increasingly de rigueur mid-career movement in the artistic community.

Call it a tie for first, then. On the one hand, The Wailin’ Jennys, still at the very peak of their sound fifteen years after their founding (and five since we featured their coverage in full): a deliberately lush, gentle, sweetly arranged trio of voices in tender treatment of well-beloved sadsongs, celebrations, and ballads from Patty Griffin, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, and other beloved songwriters of the folk-and-beyond community. On the other, local hero and Americana troubadour Mark Erelli, whose Kickstarter we celebrated a few months ago, wringing raw, almost primal soul from Mixtape, his thirteenth outing, an oddly comforting spread of popular songs from Richard Thompson to Phil Collins rebuilt from the inside out – technically not fully released until mid-January, but easy to preorder, and too amazing to hold back on now. Taken as ethnographic mile markers, they offer a field tender and intimate, triumphant and torn: albums to take us anywhere, and back.

A strong second this year goes to another surprisingly representative pairing from a slightly younger generation which also matches slow and broken with upbeat precision. First, Headwaters, the fifth album from California duo Misner & Smith, and their first covers compilation; a homespun collection that finds Sam and Megan, a pair of actors-turned-folk rock/Americana band, yawing wide as they bring diverse songs and influences from The Talking Heads and Dr. Dog to Gram Parsons and The Lovin’ Spoonful into their own sharp and distinctive harmonic register. Alongside it: Vancouver alt-folk band The Sumner Brothers, whose traded vocals drip with Van Zandt heroin and dust as they meander through a host of slower alt-country songs on To Elliot: In Remembrance of Wolf, wringing hoarse depth and angst from Springsteen’s ghosts, Warren Zevon’s western saloon town, Hank Williams’ morose guitar, Jolie Holland’s timeless bluesfolk, and more. Both Headwaters and To Elliot are short – just 8 tracks – but cohesive, easily transcending the brevity of the EP format, providing a full and immersive experience for new listeners and long-time fans the respective duos.

And those honorable mentions? Almost too many to mention – it was, in the end, a banner year for coverage. Favorites include wonderful albums from Travis Knapp (whose tenth annual Wintery Mix, released just last week, offers a perfectly imperfect collection of bedroom folk covers of Anais Mitchell, Marc Cohn, Amos Lee, Chris Stapleton and more, on piano, banjo, and guitar), Ane Brun (whose Leave Me Breathless does, with a dreamy folkpop vibe that fans will find both comforting and crystal clear), Eric Brace (whose Cartes Postales, released last month on Red Beet Records, is a fun, jazzy, squeezebox-and-clarinet driven croissant of a tribute to the French-language favorites of his father’s generation) and Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne (some of whose slippery country fried rockers, like the hard-edged Nirvana classic Lithium, hardly count as folk, though overall, Not Dark Yet – the first collaboration between these siblings – is a true-blue delight). Ah, such riches.

The Year’s Best Covers EP (single artist)
+ Genevieve Racette, Covers
+ Erin Drews, Caught, Kept
+ Mia Mallet, Chapter One / Chapter Two
+ The Chinworth Brothers, Six Songs
+ RM Hubbert, Recovery (EP1)
+ AJ Lee, Aj Lee

Sometimes, simple is best. Take, for example, Caught, Kept, a precious four-track released way back in February from Minnesotan amateur Erin Drews – a perfect teaser for her full album of originals, released in May – which captured our heart and ears with throaty voice, etherial harmonies, and the gentle strum of the singer-songwriter diamond in the rough. Or Montreal-based Genevieve Racette’s pitch-perfect transformations of Bonnie Raitt and Nirvana, Dylan and The Beatles, hushed and lush, tense and true, with sparse synths over floating indie guitar and sweet, supple voice. Or Parisian songstress Mia Mallet’s two tiny, gorgeous, hollow lo-fi covers EPs, with their ringing piano and airy, layered voices that leave us weak.

If it was, as they say, a very good year for the shortform covers collection, it was thanks primarily to a spate of independent Bandcamp sets like these, from a host of bright rising stars, previously undiscovered. Like The Chinworth Brothers, who turned in a six song powerhouse, split evenly among soaring-yet-earnest traditionals and startlingly non-traditional indiefolk-and-more treatments of Elliott Smith, Phil Ochs, and Sashatchewan singer-songwriter Andy Shauf. Or Glaswegian RM Hubbert’s “sincere and melancholic” EP Recovery, a broken, rusted artifact from the anti-folk junkyard which broods its way into our psyche.

In the end, of all these amateur and truly indie tiny loves, it is Racette’s Covers that edges out ever so slightly over the rest – if only for the diversity of sound it packs in so tight a space, and the poise it manages to maintain between pristine and purposeful as it takes on the small canon. But all of these small albums deserve our respect and celebration, nonetheless.

Still, let us not forget, at least in passing, our one exception to the Bandcamp trend this year: young California bluegrass breakthrough AJ Lee’s self-titled EP, an eagerly awaited delight “paying tribute to…the founding voices of [the] California cosmic country sound” via songs by Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Gillian Welch, and Bob Dylan which arrived in hard copy. Tight and highly produced alongside a four-piece band, the songs evoke the rich summery sound of the originals, with perfect Grateful Dead vibe and harmonies on Herb Pedersen’s Wait A Minute the crowning glory of a still-growing career. A rich field, indeed – like folk, and like the songs it brings together.

The Year’s Best Covers Compilation (multiple artists)
+ Burst And Bloom 50
+ Sad! A Barsuk Records Compilation for the ACLU

As has sometimes been the case – see, for example, last year’s Best Of collections, which featured covers albums from Fast Folk, tribute-house American Laundromat Records, and a third iteration of Locals Covering Locals from production house Red Line Roots – digital-only label-driven navel-gazing held sway in the world of mixed-bag covers compilations again this year, a trend which pushes the boundaries of our focus on folk, and on the very concept of album. We say this not to denigrate the category – there’s much to celebrate here – but mainly to warn those lulled into a sense of delicacy by the previous category winners that folk is a wider tent, and the alternative crowd is where the labels often live and breathe great coverage.

Enter exhibit A: Burst and Bloom, a small, independent record label and book publisher based in the increasingly hip seaside town of Portsmouth, NH, which came out of nowhere this year to blow us away. We’ll see more of their loving curatorial work in our Best Tribute Albums below, too, thanks to a 2 CD tribute to Brown Bird. But here, in our compendium of mixed-artist covers albums, it is Burst & Bloom 50, a loving tribute to the label’s own roster in celebration of their fiftieth release, which nets our highest honors, as a stunning, raw gem, with 25 covers, no more than one per original record, comprising a discomforting set which vibrates on the edge of freakfolk, alternative grunge, and other underground sounds associated with but not always squarely under the folktent.

And who cares if we don’t know the originals or recognize most of the original artists? The Burst & Bloom collection serves its purpose, sending us into the back catalog, starting with 2009 release ‘All My Friends Are Right Here With Me’, a CD compilation of fringefolk artists covering songs by the indie-folk collective Tiger Saw, 2012′s Lucky Numbers, a tribute to indie DIY rock and soul legend Viking Moses, who has toured with Jason Molina, Phosphorescent, and Devendra Banhardt, and of course Through The Static and Distance, their marvelous 2015 posthumous tribute to Jason Molina.

Barsuk’s smaller collection Sad!, a glitchy 7 song indie-slash-alt-folk collection spearheaded by Mates of State, David Bazan, Nada Surf, and Maps & Atlases covering fellow labelmates John Vanderslice, Pedro The Lion, Death Cab For Cutie, Ra Ra Riot, and more, comes up roses, too – both for its strong musicality, and its unabashedly political bent, arriving as it did on the eve of a new presidential ascension, with all work donated by the artists in solidarity, and all proceeds from the dollar-a-track release going to support the ACLU ” in defense of the civil liberties of all Americans”.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)
+ Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Best Troubadour
+ Old Crow Medicine Show, 50 Years of Blonde On Blonde

In a year where long-awaited Dylan tributes from Joan Osborne and Old Crow Medicine Show ran closer to sultry radiopop and R&B and brash twangy roadhouse country rock than folk, respectively, it was hard to figure out whether we should collapse the single artist tribute album category or simply let it go. A sigh of relief and a tip of the hat, then, to indiefolk maverick Bonnie “Prince” Billy, whose usually broken voice is surprisingly melodic and aptly troubled on his category-saving Merle Haggard tribute Best Troubador, a May 2017 release which flew under our radar for months before earworming its way in via an unexpected encounter with radioplay late at night on a fleeting local college station.

It’s a thread we’re glad to have pulled. Regular readers may note that we have long had a love-hate relationship with the artist formerly and sometimes also known as Will Oldham, though we did name his last tribute album, a tribute to the Everly Brothers recorded with Dawn McCarthy, atop this same category in 2013. But this collection is redemptive, with guest vocalist A.J. Roach, fiddler Cheyenne Mize, and singer and flautist Nuala Kennedy, and other underground luminaries lending their talents to a fitting tribute to a lost soul whose earnest honesty and iconoclastic outlook have, clearly, deeply influenced Oldham’s approach to music and the universe. The Bonnie “Prince” gets full marks for an especially intimate tribute to both Haggard himself, and to the ache of the country.

The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)
+ Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story
+ A Light I Can Feel: A Tribute To Brown Bird
+ Treasures of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard

The multi-artist tribute album is so often imperfect. Even our favorite homages generally have a weak spot: a track or two to skip as well-intentioned artists and songbooks find their mismatch. The potential for trouble doubles down when artists have the sheer unadulterated chutzpah to take on recreation of a seminal album, such as Brandi Carlile’s 2007 release The Story; it triples when it is the original songwriter herself who solicits and curates the album. And surely, it’s pushing our luck to name an album featuring both Pearl Jam and Adele as a folk tribute, let alone our favorite multi-artist tribute of the year.

And yet. Adele performing Brandi Carlile’s Hiding My Heart with nothing but solo acoustic guitar is folk, for sure. The Avett Brothers, the Indigo Girls, Shovels & Rope, Old Crow Medicine Show and Dolly Parton turn in stellar performances. The Secret Sisters are now our new favorite female duo. Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story shouldn’t work, at all, but in the end, the syrup of Kris Kristofferson, the psychedelic jam of Jim James, and the fully typical fuzz of Pearl Jam are anomalies on what is otherwise a strong survey of modern Americana and Roots performance. And Brandi Carlile earns our respect over again, over a decade after we first fell in love with her – and then once again, for using this album to highlight the plight of children in war-torn regions of the world.

A close second, as noted earlier, comes by way of A Light I Can Feel, a tribute from label Burst & Bloom that simply overflows with warm friendship and respect for beloved RI-based folk duo Brown Bird, whose co-founder David Lamb passed from leukemia in 2014. Originally conceived of as a fundraising venue for Lamb’s treatment, the sprawling 32 track tribute was released posthumously in March, with proceeds to benefit others through the Sweet Relief charity organization, and “to continue to share the music of Brown Bird with the world.” Chock full of raw performances, each mesmerizing in its way, the album pulls off what it aims to, and more: a triumph of scale, and a tender homage.

Third place honors go to the predominantly country side of folk represented on Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard – not the first such folk tribute to Mark Heard, but the first in 20 years, which explains just how many newcomers appear on the album. Like previous folk tributes to this undersung, unabashedly Christian singer-songwriter who passed from an on-stage heart attack in 1992 on the cusp of greater glory, this collection offers both Buddy Miller and a mixed bag of good-to-great performances of a songbook cut short, predominantly gathered from Heard’s final three releases, with the worst suffering from a touch of the same overproduction that typified their original contemporary folk radioplay era. Still, with strong coverage by Birds of Chicago, Sean Rowe, Amy Helm, Sierra Hull, Over The Rhine and more, the collection is worth pursuit and ownership.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk Album
+ Max Godfrey, Before The Ice Melts
+ Offa Rex, Queen Of Hearts
+ Nathan Lewis Williams, Across The Water
+ Lindsay Straw, The Fairest Flower of Womankind
+ Jayme Stone, Jayme Stone’s Folklife
+ Alathea, His Eye Is On The Sparrow
+ Ranky Tanky, Ranky Tanky

As both the year’s archives and the huge list above anticipate, it was, in many ways, a gold standard year for traditional folk recordings from across the globe, from the Gullah strains of newly-formed jazz-meets-roots quintet Ranky Tanky (featured back in July, in anticipation of its well-celebrated September release) to The Decemberists and Olivia Chaney, collaborating together as Offa Rex, in a faithful but still sweet retro turn on the UK tradfolk canon, as channeled and strained through both the arrangements and the influence of the “genre heavyweights” of 60′s folk and rock revivalists Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Colin Meloy fave Shirley Collins, and more, with clear echoes of Maddy Prior, June Tabor, and Sandy Denny in the mix thanks to powerful, nuanced vocals from Chaney.

But in the end, if I prefer the polished quietude of the canon, why, here were joys enough for days: delicate, broken balladry selected and arranged to emphasize lyrical gender empowerment by Iguana Fund recipient and local hero Lindsay Straw, whom I very much hope to catch live at this year’s Boston Celtic Music Fest towards the end of January; the soft, almost faerie-found strains of Glastonbury’s Nathan Lewis Williams and Caelia Lunniss; Jayme Stone’s next generation Folklife album, a follow-up to his 2015 Lomax project, which sees the bandleader and archive revivalist taking on a wider swath of cultural catechism alongside Moira Smiley of tune-yArDs, Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops), Felicity Williams of Bahamas, and more luminaries on a musical journey through the Appalachians, the Sea Islands and the Caribbean; Christian folk duo Alathea’s His Eye Is On The Sparrow, a bright, often boisterous crowdsourced collection of hymns noted earlier this month in our first holiday coverfolk feature.

Our surprise frontrunner, though, comes from sifting through precious gems from the amateur set: Max Godfrey’s Before The Ice Melts, which mixes tradsongs (and one Dylan cut, and a 1920s hit later revived by Bessie Smith and others) with new lyrics and a few licks, is truly down to earth, a fine sophomore outing from an artist just now making the traditions his own. Just for fun, and because Godfrey makes them sound so…well, traditional, we’ve shared just the non-trad tracks here; download the rest to see just what that creaky, timeless voice can do with the truly traditional canon.

The Year’s Best Tradfolk EP
+ Thom Ashworth, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

English folksinger and bassist Thom Ashworth is just starting his career, but two small releases this year promise big enough things to make it worth sustaining a category despite a single entry. If the first, January 2017′s 4-track EP Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, is the feature here, it’s only because November’s second release, Hollow – also a 4-track – is a half-and-half, with two originals and two traditional songs arranged by Ashworth himself. Both are worth pursuit, however, and bookmarking, too, as we watch for Ashworth’s continued output with bated breath.

The Year’s Best Half-Covers Album
+ Laura Baird, I Wish I Were A Sparrow
+ Brock Simpson, The Gardener Child: Scots Songs Both New and Traditional
+ Red Molly, One For All & All For One

The two records which top our final folk category this year are similar in many ways: sparse neo-traditionals, perfectly balanced, with little in the way of flourish and a lot in the way of authenticity. Our by-a-hair favorite is Laura Baird’s simple, unadorned tribute to the fiddle-and-banjo tunes of her own Appalachian youth, her first full-length solo outing after years of performing with her sister Meg, and an even-steven six-and-six split of covers and originals that intermingles her own work with the songs of her Great-Grandfathers’ hills so smoothly and successfully, we had to keep the liner notes handy.

Toronto teacher-musician Brock Simpson’s The Gardener Child is a similar but blurrier halfling: simple and elegant solo stuff, framed with but a winsome, sensitive voice and gentle guitar. Here, too, unlabeled tracks had us scurrying to figure out which was which, until we realized that – as with Baird’s delight – what matters most is the sound, and the consistency of sentiment.

Our third-place finisher in the half-covers category couldn’t be more different in its approach to its respective canon, a four-and-two EP with energetic close harmonies familiar and fine recorded and released as part of Red Molly’s swan song crowdsource project, designed to drive the production of solo albums from all three band members. I’ve heard two of three of these albums so far – and am proud to announce that Laurie MacAllister’s delightful contemporary all-covers album The Lies The Poets Tell will be the first album of 2018 to grace these pages in the new year, and may well be our earliest contender for a following-year Best Of award in the history of our nominal countdown. In the meantime, we’ll include a favorite from what well may be Red Molly’s last record, at least for a while, as we bid our own list adieu.

The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Covers Album
+ Various Artists, Don’t Stop Now: A Collection of Covers
+ Love + War, Nine Lives

+ Various Artists, Cha Cha Cha: The Songs of Shotgun Jimmie
+ Various Artists, Failed Tribute Bands 2

If you come here for the folk and only the folk, now would be a good time to skip to the last few songs below; we’ve winnowed out the best and folkiest of this year’s mixed-genre covers collections, and if they’re all you want, we won’t hold it against you.

But true cover-lovers know that sometimes the very best tracks come from surprising sources. And so we present our annual coda: four albums which are decidedly NOT folk records, but which provide so much more in the way of breadth and beauty, we just had to mention them.

Our utter tie-for-favorite here is sprawling, indeed: a 37-track collection, released on Inauguration Day 2017 just like the aforementioned Barsuk collection, and – like it – a decidedly politicized collection, pre-emptive and angrier in its way, designed to support the ACLU. But where both Burst & Bloom and Barsuk produced covers albums which were at least nominally folk, Don’t Stop Now is unabashedly mixed-genre, with plenty of potent indiefolk tracks plus retro-alternative rock, post-punk, and hopping, hopeful otherstuff taking on songs from Joy Division to Harry Chapin.

Meanwhile in an unusual turn, a solo artist appears atop the category, at least on paper: Nine Lives, a covers collection from Nashville-based writer-producer team Coury Palermo & Ron Robinson, aka love+war. Glitchy electro-soul and grungy folkpop tracks mix oddly well in this covers album, pushing it to the top of the list as a second strange bedfellow. Drowning in tape hiss and lush with click-track reverb, with pitch-perfect guest vocalists like Angel Snow – the very first artist featured here, ten years ago, in our New Artists, Old Songs series – the entire thing, from covers of Prince and Springsteen favorites to hits from Terence Trent D’Arby, Depeche Mode, and The Eurythmics, is a guilty pleasure, with emphasis on pleasure.

Honorable mention? Easily Comin’ Around Records’ lovely lo-fi tribute to the songs of Polaris Prize nominee and art school student Shotgun Jimmie – a mixed bag, but with some solid tracks from familiar North-of-the-border fringefolk standbys like Old Man Luedecke and Woodpigeon, all to raise money for the Dawson City Music Festivals’ Songwriter in Residence Program.
And Failed Tribute Bands Two!, which earns its emphatic punctuation easily: by the time you get to the fifth track, it’s hard to figure that there’s going to be anything approaching folk here…and then, suddenly, Allysen Callery, whose recently completed 12 Days of Covers Soundcloud series is a bonus trove of DIY ghost folk treasures.

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, 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 2016-2017, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

1 comment » | Allysen Callery, Angel Snow, Best of 2017, Infamous Stringdusters, Mark Erelli, New Artists Old Songs, Old Crow Medicine Show, Red Molly, Shovels & Rope, Sierra Hull, The Wailin' Jennys, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Covered In Christmasfolk, 2017 (Vol. 2):
Contemporary Carols, Holiday Compilations, and More!

December 22nd, 2017 — 10:40pm


It’s coming on, indeed: presents under the tree, Christmas Eve choir services all day Sunday, and a weather advisory for ice and snow tonight through the day itself across most of New England which keep us home tonight, watching the skies. School and work fritter down to the final hours, accompanied by a holiday soundtrack rich and festive with trumpets, bells, and the crooning, yearning voices of the canon on shuffleplay above the fire.

Our second and surely final installment of new and newly-found Christmas recordings is sourced almost entirely via independent digital releases, and filtered through the new season. Ribbons and bows, the lot of them – perhaps the best crop in years, and one of the biggest, too. May your stocking be as full, and your hearts as light.

From the quiet, almost tantalizingly still kick-off track O Little Town Of Bethlehem to the subtlest Joy To The World the world has seen, James Hoffman’s Advent is a gem: a coherent collection of fragile, hushed holiday hymnal reinventions, ancient and gentle, sublime, sensual, and spare, wrung forth in darkness with little more than tinkly piano, slow guitar, and intimate voice. Yeah, you could try a few sample tracks for download, but for full effect, don’t pick a favorite, just snag the whole thing.

Two perfect indiefolk tracks – a gorgeous popfolk piano arrangement of O Come O Come Emmanuel and the ringing guitar-and-shaker urgency of Blake Flattley’s Silent Night – plus a delight from last year’s archive typify the best and lightest of what is now a beautiful multi-genre regional compilation series 9 years in the running from Winter Is On My Head, an annual holiday music compilation that donates all proceeds from online sales to ABAN ( a non-profit dedicated to empowering young mothers in Ghana by selling unique, handmade products from recycled materials, and it’s worth the cost, chock full of glorious coverage and originals from power punk to electronic garage rock.

Sometimes, simple is best. Originally broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, this fine, sparse Celtic carol – transformed from front stoop to divine intimacy – came out just after our final installment of our annual holidayfolk series, but we’re glad we found it again, to let the lilt of Ben Savage‘s classical guitar and bluegrass slide pull us into co-arranger and vocalist Hannah Sanders‘ clear-as-water delivery once more at Christmas. (PS: If you like this teaser, check out their 2016 full album Before The Sun, too – it’s exquisite.)

A family affair, we assume, given the two last names among four artists listed, Rich Mountain Revival‘s beautiful minimalist gospelfolk collection With True Love & Brotherhood is another set worth pulling from the archives after missing it in 2016: wonderfully whispered, with banjo and backporch harmonies joyful and triumphant in their ragged neo-appalachian settings.

Like your holiday tunes a little more twee? Look no further than Miki Fiki and Friends’ 2017 Charity Compilation, recorded to support the Southern Poverty Law Center. The hiss, hum, harmonies and strum of Katy Kirby’s O Holy Night may be the closest to folk the album comes, but its Roches-meet-Sufjan vibe is a tug down the rabbit hole, where some quite stellar and solid originals, plus a soulful rhythm & blues version of Last Christmas, a grungy alternative countrypunk take of Pretty Paper, and more gifts galore, lurk under the hipster’s tree.

Let This Be Christmas, another wonderfully amateur Christmas benefit album – this one to provide micro-enterprise grants for families with bleeding disorders in developing countries – comes from the Utah-based LDS duo of Emma Huntington and Hunter Montgomery, about whom I can find little in the way of press or promo. Happily, as the artists note on Bandcamp, the music speaks for itself: Montgomery’s soaring viola and Huntington’s additive, distinctive voice feature highly on a surprisingly diverse arrangement of classic carols that comes off as beautifully simple, and simply beautiful.

Sometimes a band describes themselves so perfectly, it’s hard to add value when touting their sound. Forest Creatures is “an eclectic trio of siblings and friends making lo-fi folksy music with their friends”, and their full-length collection Was That Christmas? sounds like it: warm, wistful, eclectic, and languidly percussive, but overall kind of like the lo-fi alternative version of Kate Rusby, which is a good thing, indeed.

Guitar, horn, and voice combine exquisitely as they swing among Herb Alpert jazz, neo-classical pop, and soft triofolk on A Little Christmas Nog, a project spearheaded by Bach trumpet artist John Dover of Portland, Oregon. Played soft and low with close friends and family, Still Still Still is a sweet lullaby; What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve hops along lightly, a ballad for the ages.

File under hard to categorize: French and American duo Freedom Fry plays an amalgam of beat-heavy folkrock, indie and twee, with echoes of the British psychfolk revival, French folkpop, the California sixties scene, and more. Their Holiday Soundtrack EP offers four songs more for the hip set, including the oddly satisfying “la la la” lyrics and muddled spoken word of their Silent Night dreamscape.

Brooklyn’s Hoover Dam Collective offers a mixed-bag of bedroom folk on this year’s A Blue State Of Christmas – covers of popular holiday songs and settings from John Prine to The Handsome Family. But again, simple is best; in these almost entirely unadorned performances, voices imperfect and tempos impure make for a tense holiday grounded in history and uncertainty.

We close our set today with another multi-genre album, this one from Irish monthly radio programme The Co-Present, whose host Dwayne Woods has assembled a fine collection of odd and mostly acousto-and-synth alternative DIY music performances for our holiday. If this is what radio alternative truly sounds like, we’re in for the new year.

Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep into the folkways at the intersection of coverage and performance since 2007 thanks to the kind support of donors like you. Stay tuned this week ahead as we present our Year’s Best Covers Albums and Tributes, Singles, and Videos – over 100 songs in all!

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Hearth and Candle, Snow and Star
(Wintersongs of Darkness, Loneliness, Warmth, and Light)

December 17th, 2017 — 9:31pm


There are moments now when Christmas is everywhere, flowing forth from the hidden speakers of the culture, lurking behind shrubbery gaily festooned with plastic holly berries and angels, stockings and Santas, and lights, lights, ever more lights to ward off the dark.

But there are moments, too, when it is just winter. When the lasting snow covers the earth and swallows all but the airiest of sounds: cars crunching over salt-strewn country roads; the bark of the dog and the low cry of the cow at the base of the hill, just through these bare trunks and evergreens. When the house gets smaller, and we retreat to the snug isolation of the living room, where the pellet stove beckons bright with flame, its intimacy a bulwark against the cold.

Which is all to say this: baby, it’s cold outside. And sometimes, like now, the snow falls out the window, closing us in.

The metaphor of in and out runs hot in our seasonal soundtrack, of course – as if fire was warmth, and warmth the heat of humanity. Safety and comfort and the eternal hope of the season’s end hold sway as the shortest day draws near, projected into a night illuminated by candle flame and woodstove smoke, the chill held at bay through thin layers of window glass and scarves.

Christmas honors this dichotomy, in its way – and so does much of the Christmas canon, from Silent Night to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. We do, too: today after dark, for example, we will drive to the local tree farm, and choose a tree in the dim and temporary glow of the same make-shift outdoor lighting, and bring it home, and take it inside, and make it festive, as if to manifest in our very living rooms the possibility of life in the holiday rituals of old.

But here, away from Christmas and the giving spirit of the season, is a quieter, more contemplative space. And there is music, here, too, if you can hear it: fragile, languid, lo-fi songs of longing and of letting go, of waiting and hope, of memory and time, which help us meditate on that which transcends the red and green poinsettia, the white of the angel choir, the silver bells.

Let ours be a humanist’s playlist for the season, then: not antidote or anti-Christian, but acknowledgement and celebration of the human spirit that calls to us beyond the religious and cultural trappings of holidays and hymn. After all, the world reminds us of what it needs of us, in the end. It is stillness and loss, death and despair, which call us so meaningfully to life and longing.

Hearth and Candle, Snow and Star
A Cover Lay Down Winter Mix

[download here!]

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

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Covered In Christmasfolk, 2017 (Vol. 1)
New Releases from Radiofolk to The Hymnal

December 9th, 2017 — 1:10pm

If it’s going to be Christmas this early, then the music better be pretty damn good. Happily, there’s some solid festive folk in the air, from Kate Rusby’s newest carols-and-more release to archived live performances from Aoife O’Donovan, Ruth Moody, and Dougie MacLean to a perfect roster of modern, traditional, and holiday ballads and barnburners. Today, we dig into the early holiday mailbag, coming clean with the first major snowfall of the season and a moody, marvelous set to ring in the crispness of Christmas.

Richard Thompson’s robust New Year’s anthem We Sing Hallelujah was a frequent earworm this year, thanks to a delightful live performance of the song by Low Lily at our own Unity House Concerts on the cusp of the season last December. And it seems I’m not the only one stuck on the song: new covers of the song appear on Kate Rusby’s newest carols-and-more release Angels & Men – her fourth Christmas album – in typically sweet and celebratory fashion, with rich and swelling horn-and-string instrumentation evoking a frozen landscape, and as a chanty, chains and all, to ground O’Hooley & Tidow’s earnest, majestic holiday album Winterfolk Vol. 1.

Ryanhood‘s new holiday affair On Christmas hit Bandcamp just days before the high-energy Tucson, AZ folkpop duo was announced as Falcon Ridge Folk Festival 2018 Most Wanted Returning Artists, news as bright and warm and bubbly as their live shows, not to mention their new versions of Sleigh Ride and Charlie Brown classic Skating. Chock full of joy, this adept collection of classic two-string instrumentals, original holiday songs that sound like instant classics, and a pair of unusual choice covers – Leigh Nash’s Christmas Falling and Audrey Assad’s Even The Winter – is a seasonal delight well worth deeper exploration.

His Eye Is on the Sparrow: A Collection of Hymns, the new release from Tennessee harmony-driven Christian female mountainfolk duo Alathea, funded through crowdsourcing and a partnership with the Appalachia Service Project, isn’t specifically for the holidays. But the hymnal swings inevitably towards the story of the birth regardless, and so among such ringing gems as His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Amazing Grace, Wayfaring Stranger, and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, this adopted Christmas anthem serves as a perfect complement to the duo’s two previous Christmas releases.

At worst, the threshold banter of Frank Loesser’s Baby, It’s Cold Out Side takes on a patina of shame in 2017. But this just-released countrified version of the song – a pond-crosser from Houstonite band Jess & the Bandits featuring special guests from the UK Country scene – is a fire under the boots, a honkytonk romp through a familiar song of the season that revives the playful innocence of the age, when demure was the name of the game, and a little protest was a true-blue mating ritual.

Tense and luscious, slippery and hopeful, Swedish neofolk singer-songwriter Sofia Talvik’s sweet take on one of our very favorite simple carols is culled from When Winter Comes, a gorgeous 2017 collection of remastered and reimagined cuts from a decade-long practice writing and releasing a free Christmas single every year. Like the song, the album is a true gift, pensive and dark yet full of inspiration and heartache, a highly recommended centerpiece for hearth and table.

Spare, masterful arrangement and angelic vocals from Berklee singer-songwriter, vocalist, musical theater producer and all-around popfolk prodigy Emma Charleston make for a pitch-perfect O Holy Night on a single released via YouTube and recently premiered on The Huffington Post. Add in her summer performance of Joni Mitchell’s holiday classic River, and you’ve got a pair that proves Charleston’s holiday spirit and performance prowess all at once.

Finally, if there was ever any doubt about the influence of long-time New England folk DJ Brian O’Donovan, this year’s archive release from 15 years of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, an annual Boston-area WGBH production which draws on Celtic, Pagan, and Christian traditions to celebrate the music of the season, proves it enow. Daughter Aoife – yes, that Aoife O’Donovan – kicks off the stellar collection with a sweet, soulful ballad from Lorenna McKennitt, followed by standout performances from Ruth Moody, Dougie MacLean, Solas, and more, that pay apt tribute to the legendary folk archivist, curator, and host, and offer the next best thing to being there this year with Jenna Moynihan, Liz Knowles, Haley Richardson and an all-star cast.

Always artist-friendly and ad-free, Cover Lay Down has been serving the folk community for a decade thanks to the generous support of readers like you. Follow us on Facebook, and stay tuned for more great coverfolk, including at least one more celebration of the songs of the season, and our annual celebration of the year’s best cover and tribute albums, singles, and coverfolk videos, as December continues!

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