It’s been months since we found ourselves together here, by this virtual hearth. I have missed you, my friends. And though I cannot promise what the days will bring, let us be present together, in this moment, and rejoice.
For those who ask – and we are grateful for it, when it comes – this week of holiday offers but a respite. In the days of our lives the teen elderchild and her wiry sister continue to be challenged by a life lived with illness, leaving us plagued by surgeries and hospitalizations, homeschooling adjustments, service dog training, and a reluctance to plan too far ahead. I’m a team leader now at the struggling urban school where I ply my vocation, putting in long nights and weekends leading the desperate charge to glory even as the conditions we cannot change – poverty and transience, and their symptomatic malaise – loom large in our daily deliverance. And, as the eldest son, and the only one living locally, I’ve spent every weekend across the state for most of the year, helping my father transition into a graduated living arrangement that better suits his needs.
These pursuits are important, and offered with love to the world. They are good work, and I’d not trade one for the other. But time is precious when you’re the center of the whirlwind. And sometimes, that means letting go.
Which is to say: we have blessings this year, it’s true: a growing house concert series; family and friends, and a strong and beloved community; a roof over our heads, and food on the table. But mostly, I’ve spent the latter part of 2016 in survival mode, putting aside many of the practices that have made me feel most whole, most connected to the universe and to the self, in a desperate attempt to find balance.
More often than not, the heart is heavy in the midst of this wearying, worrying life. And January offers only more uncertainty, here in the real world, where we live and breathe.
But we’re here this week, today, this hour. Because no matter how heavy the load, no matter how loud the natter and buzz of duty and despair in our ears, in the background, the music continues, as it ever does.
And so we’ve kept a list, and checked it twice – not enough by a long shot, in another year of chaos and malcontent, but enough to celebrate the discovery process, and honor those albums, songs, and videos that stuck with us, and shone through the fog and the darkness.
And here at the wire, at the long year’s end, as we have done for the last several Decembers, we curate and collate, ice melting in our hearts by the woodstove fireside as the children nestle snug in this, our humble home.
For music is a home, too. It is our home, and one of yours, too. And as we live in the music, so must we pay homage to the best of it, lest it, too, fade into the night, and be lost to the world.
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 favorite coverfolk tribute albums, covers compilations, projects and soundtracks of 2016, featuring choice cuts from highly recommended folk, roots, bluegrass and Americana LPs and EPs.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist)
+ Moddi, Unsongs
+ Dustin Kensrue, Thoughts That Float on a Different Blood
+ 48 Cameras, Songs Our Mothers Taught Us
+ The Devil Makes Three, Redemption & Ruin
+ Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem, Wintersong
It was a strong year for covers albums, all things considered. As always, we stand by our assessment of those releases that caught our attention early, most especially the home-grown harmonies and chutzpah of Pesky J. Nixon’s second covers album Red Ducks, Volume 2, which brought a broader sound, and a richer one, to their hearty acoustic Americana, thanks to the addition of mandolin into the mix, strong studio dynamics, and new shared lead vocals and piano from founding band member Jake Bush. Recognition remains, too, for the mostly-trad strains of Red Diesel, the newest from award-winning traditional English folk band Pilgrim’s Way, the traditional bluegrass stylings of The High Bar Gang, whose second album Someday The Heart Will Trouble The Mind explores the “cheating and hurting” side of bluegrass, and the drowning tones of the ever-morose Mark Kozelek, which found their way to pianofolk this year on Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites, a “stunning new release featuring guest vocalists galore”.
But other than a nod to Wintersong, a new holiday collection of intimate and introspective folk from local favorites Rano Arbo & Daisy Mayhem that transcends its seasonal premise with simple joy and sweetness, our highest end-of-year praise in the general covers category is reserved for a quartet of otherwise-unblogged releases with strong conceptual grounding, each well deserving of rescue and polish after falling to the bustle and jetsam. And in the end, though three of our top four made it to fellow coverblog Cover Me’s end of year round-up as well, it’s the one we haven’t heard anything about, and got to discover on our own, that edges out the rest.
Runner’s up honors this year go to Dustin Kensrue’s live tour de force Thoughts That Float On A Different Blood, which finds the frontman of California post-hardcore band Thrice stripping down to ragged, soulful solo performance; the result is soul-crushing, and practically perfect, with covers of Patty Griffin, Milk Carton Kids, Lorde and more. From the gospel-and-blues aisle, The Devil Makes Three’s Redemption & Ruin, with its dual, titular thematic sides, mixes blues and bluegrass, transforming dark delights by Townes Van Zandt, Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and other intuitively obvious influences with sidework from Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas and more. Add to this Songs Our Mothers Taught Us, a decidedly fringefolk covers project from long-time “experimental alternative” digital collaborative 48 Cameras, narcotized with spoken word layers like a lost album from Nico and Leonard Cohen, remixed subtly with haunting oboes and drums for the post-millennial indiefolk set, and you’ve got a crowd that, in any other year, could easily take top honors.
But I don’t think we’ve ever had as clear and triumphant a category closer for our bread-and-butter category than Unsongs, a labor of love that came quietly out of nowhere towards the end of the year, and seems to have made nary a splash in the American market – a wonderful concept album, lovingly executed, that comprises 12 songs censored in 12 different countries, collected and reimagined.
Here’s the blog feature I meant to post, when I first discovered it:
Norwegian folkpop singer-songwriter, activist and self-professed storyteller Moddi (aka Pål Moddi Knutsen), who is currently finishing a Masters degree at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and the Environment, is apparently known for his interpretations of others’ songbooks, most notably Togsang, a 2013 Norwegian-language cover of Train Song which Vashti Bunyan calls her favorite cover version of any of her songs. But Unsongs, leaked slowly and then finally released in full just a few weeks ago, represents a perfect twining of the artist’s personal bent towards social and environmental justice and his incredibly delicate indie folkpop sensibilities. The result is an epiphany, hushed, sublime and saturating: a true tour de force of unforced political songcraft, a wide-ranging survey of both western and eastern sources that manages to serve simultaneously as commentary on the counterculture and its struggles and a gorgeous set that aches with melancholy and protest. The songs – most of which will be unknown to western ears, save a pitch-perfect Strange Fruit and Kate Bush’s Army Dreamers – range from shivery and sad to cold fury; tinkly piano and slow nylon guitar, lush, tense string and horn arrangements, and a fragile, nasal voice that aches with loss and longing make for a majestic, intimate album, orchestral and tight, a bit like Colin Meloy performing a full-band acoustic set in a cathedral wearing crowns of thorns; you’ve never heard Pussy Riot so tender, or been so in love with anger.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists)
+ Various Artists, Locals Covering Locals, Vol. 3
Most various artist covers albums this year ran the gamut past the boundaries of folk; as such, this year’s is a short category, to be followed below with a compendium of mixed-genre gems well worth our time. But we cannot help but raise a glass once more for Red Line Roots, whose third volume of Locals Covering Locals, released way back in February, adeptly uncovers the blossoming folkscene in and around the Boston area by once again featuring peer-to-peer coverage that aims to showcase both the finest in local songwriting and the best of local performance – and succeeds in spades.
The Year’s Best Covers EP (single artist)
+ Lotte Kestner, December Covers
+ Caleigh McGilchrist and Maria Crawford, Covers For The Cure 2
+ autumn-autumn, Cherry Patty
The covers EP is too often a throw-away, especially in an age where home recording makes it so easier to run a full-length album in a few living room sessions. Bandcamp, especially, is full of saccharine wannabes, and amateur recordings too twee, and too rough, to truly represent the best of what a year can offer.
But for a few artists, the small coverset is part and parcel of the modern digital world, an uncompromising artifact of the ongoing home recording life. Enter Lotte Kestner, the solo project of Anna-Lynne Williams of Trespassers William, whose shimmery shoegaze coverage, delicate and frigid and perfectly romantic, has emerged throughout the year in small batches as behind the scenes she struggles to finish mixing a long overdue album of original work. Most of these tiny sets have already disappeared into the ether, and her most recent, December Covers, will disappear with the end of the month, along with Best of Requested Cover Songs, the majestic 17-track set winnowed down from the 3-year-long 60 cover kickstarter campaign promise that drives her current album. But if you hurry, you, too, can download and steep in etherial takes on The Cure, The Hollies, and a slow synth-driven version of Nothing Compares To U that ultimately owes as much to the lo-fi sensibility that pulls songs from the air like soap bubbles as it does to either Sinead or Prince.
Runners-up Caleigh McGilchrist and Maria Crawford defy expectations, coming out of Bandcamp nowhere with Covers For The Cure 2, the second of their homespun compilations, recorded in their Nashville hometown in honor of Laurel Stevens McGilchrist and dedicated to all past and present battles of breast cancer. Simple guitar, soaring harmonies in layers straight out of the First Aid Kid indiefolk songbook, and just enough strain at the edges to prove and preserve their delightful inexperience: it’s like being there, and that’s saying a lot, indeed. And a tip o’ the cap to Minsk, Belarus, home of autumn-autumn, aka Tanya Dubinskaya, whose drowned, broken 4-track covers EP Cherry Patty, complete with crackling static and hollow guitars, aptly described as whispercore, still fills our empty days.
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)
+ Reid Jamieson, Dear Leonard: The Cohen Collection
+ Rory Block, Keepin’ Outta Trouble: A Tribute To Bukka White
Two familiar faces and voices provide a veritable sweep of this year’s solo-artist tribute album set, a labor of love project-type generally overwhelmed by tributes to the forgotten, the undersung, and the dearly departed, but this year topped by a loving tribute to a man who was still alive and performing, and well-respected, upon its release.
First, hands down kudos go to perennial Cover Lay Down favorite Reid Jamieson this year for Dear Leonard: The Cohen Collection, a prescient tribute to fellow Canadian countryman released way back in March, months before his passing. Where most choose to channel angst and darkness, Jamieson’s touch is light and lighthearted, with brushes, ukelele, guitar, fiddles, and gentle harmonies bringing a tender, almost Caribbean country lilt to these familiar songs, and the whole thing works beautifully, revealing a brighter, more optimistic soul than even the most die-hard Cohen fanatic could have envisioned.
Second place honors to Rory Block, whose ongoing series of full-album tributes to the pioneers of American acoustic blues continues this year with a tribute to Mississippi bluesman Bukka White. Keepin’ Outta Trouble is typical of Block, and of her ongoing work in paying homage to her progenitors, and that’s no denigration – listen as the sliding, slippery blues finds beauty in the hands of one of the greatest living Delta blues guitarists and voices, and then head back in time to pick up the entire six-album series.
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)
+ Days Full of Rain: A Portland Tribute to Townes Van Zandt
+ Basket Full Of Dragons: A Tribute To Robbie Basho, Vol II
+ Dreamer: A Tribute To Kent Finlay
+ A Fast Folk Tribute To Jack Hardy
Strong contenders this year here, too. But how could we not love Days Full Of Rain, a mostly-folk tribute to Townes Van Zandt from some of our very favorite players from the Portland indiefolk scene. With Blitzen Trapper, Jolie Holland, Jim James, Blind Pilot, Black Prairie, a grungy take on Rake from The Minus 5, and the devastating vocals of Liz Vice in the mix, almost every track’s a gem. From the country rock of Denver’s Junkpiled to the country croon of Barna Howard to…um…the country soul of Portland Country Underground, the whole thing moves like a cowboy through the mist; even the subtle folktronica stutter of Castanets serves the mix. Bonus points: all proceeds go to charity, with half to fund the furtherance of roots music education in public schools, and the other half to support musicians financially in the face of illness.
Back in the world of primitivism, Basket Full of Dragons, the second Robbie Basho tribute in two years spearheaded by guitarist-singer-songwriter Buck Curran (of the duo Arborea), nets praise and proclamation for its authentic approach to the mysticism and mystery of a philosopher who firmly believed the Indian raga and the steel string represented the next iteration of truth, and the furtherance of the guitar as a serious, classical instrument. Like first volume We Are All One In The Sun, Basket Full of Dragons proves Basho right, as washes of sound drown us in eternal moments, leaving us with an unsettled peace.
Honorable mention this year goes to Dreamer: A Tribute to Kent Finlay, a solid take on the homespun songbook of career-launcher, lyric editor, venue coordinator, mentor and songwriter who shaped the careers of the likes of George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Todd Snider, and James McMurtry through his legendary Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention A Tribute To Jack Hardy, a beloved two-disc tribute chock full of familiar Fast Folk faces and next generation collaborators, from Red Molly and Anthony Da Costa to Richard Shindell, John Gorka, Rod MacDonald, Christine Lavin, Terre Roche, and more, written about and pre-released here at Cover Lay Down several summers ago, but now finally and officially available for purchase as of 2016 thanks to Smithsonian Folkways, who now owns the Fast Folk archives.
The Year’s Best Tribute EPs
+ Tom Moriarty and Katey Brooks, I Shall Be Released
+ Quinell, From The Woods: Inside Llewyn Davis
Sometimes, simple is best. And of the four little duo covers on I Shall Be Released, it’s their take on The Times They Shall Be A Changin’ – unadorned, raw, precious and plain, though Tom Moriarty’s other work is full-bore horn-and-gospel driven bluesy rock and roll, and rising-star singer-songwriter Katey Brooks trends more towards intense folkpop – which truly showcases the genius of pairing the two alongside this year’s Nobel Prize winner’s songbook. Oh sure, the organ and drumbeat layers that underpin I Shall Be Released and The Man In Me are reminiscent of Dylan’s time with The Band, or perhaps the best of Joe Cocker, and wonderfully so…but the songs remain more subtle, somehow, leaving us marveling at the power of their quietude, their presence, their directness. His weary, soulful voice, her hearty one: heaven.
Simple, too, is the soft intimacy of log cabin session From The Woods: Inside Llewyn Davis, recorded for video in the dead of winter by Pasco, Washington singer-songwriter Quinell. Just three songs, and nominally all from the same deep and murky tradition – but influenced by their presence in Inside LLewyn Davis, the folkflick based on the life and times of Dave Van Ronk, and decidedly united, too, by the soft, homespun tones of an artist embracing the weariness of these timeless tunes.
The Year’s Best Tradfolk
+ Lukas Papenfusscline, man&woman;you
+ Rachel Newton, Here’s My Heart Come Take It
+ The Lonesome Ace Stringband, Gone For Evermore
+ Cassie and Maggie MacDonald, The Willow Collection
An unusually strong turn-out in the tradfolk category this year leaves us a bit up in arms about comparison: if anything, if this trend continues, we’d be better served by splitting the category to allow for splinter subtypes, lest we forget some pretty impressive standouts. On the grassy side, split-side albums from both Eli West and Michael Daves, covered together back in a February round-up, kept our summer hot with electrifying performances and special collaborations with Dori Freeman and Bill Frisell (West), bassist Mike Bub, violinist Brittany Haas, mandolinist Sarah Jarosz, and Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny (Daves); more mellow, melodic approaches typify Noah Wall, whose swinging, sultry approach to 15 classic American blues numbers makes us swoon. And if it’s the cowboy life that attracts you, you’d be well served by a buy-and-listen to the Billy Bragg and Joe Henry collaboration Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, a pairing which works even better than it should, thanks to the artists’ shared sense of labor rights and an honest, down-home directness in both performance and sparse arrangement.
But if we have to crown a conqueror this year, it’s a dark horse, indeed: man&woman;you, a late December release from classically trained pan-genre experimentalist Lukas Papenfusscline, is as weird as its name, and as open to possibility; a hallucinogenic field recording from the road, and recorded, duly, in a variety of places, some of them actually outdoors; its traditional Appalachian tunes recast into broken, almost classical compositions, as if Sam Amidon had been trained at Berklee before establishing a hermitage farm by a stream in the deep woods. Creepy, creaky, yet somehow coherent as hell, the record pulls its tradition as much from the recordings of others as it does from the primordial ooze of nature itself, with familiar songs hissed into being slowly and deliberately, faded and torn from the journey, still choked with the reality of the field and forest.
Honors go to Glaswegian Rachel Newton for April release Here’s My Heart Come Take It: purer and more vibrant than the Unthanks, but just as brooding and cavernous in its way, Newton’s harp and voice are bright as glass in the sun, and as mysterious as the dark inner worlds their reflections obscure. More go to The Willow Collection, a titularly thematic set from Nova Scotian sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald, who bring piano, guitar, fiddle, and flying footwork in equal measure to a fine, polished, jaw-droppingly beautiful album, and one of several 2016 projects from prolific new fave Chris Coole, a stalwart of the Toronto bluegrass scene whose hatchet face and banjo wizardry showed up in spades this year: in a potent cover of The Band classic Stage Fright which will appear in our Singles mix, in solo narrative project The Tumbling River and other stories, and in The Lonesome Ace Stringband’s mostly-trad live-to-tape Gone For Evermore, a stunning example of the stringband subset, with masterful-yet-playful bass and fiddle besides, and high harmonies as polished as a back porch. A rich field, indeed.
The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Covers Albums & Tributes
+ Various Artists, Say Yes! A Tribute To Elliott Smith
+ Various Artists, Day of the Dead
+ Various Artists, Desperate Times: Songs of the Old 97′s
+ Various Artists, God Don’t Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson
+ Various Artists, Just Love: A Tribute to Audrey Auld Mereza
Our own minor forays into the musicworld hewed narrower to folk this year, leaving us dependent on other blogs and songsources to uncover the category at year’s end. But a few standouts worth reiteration emerge in this coverall category nonetheless. These include Mojo’s fine bespoke Dylan tribute, which we featured here in our Mojo spectacular a few months ago; Desperate Times: Songs of the Old 97′s, a Pledgemusic-driven tribute curated by the band and their webmaster and featuring, therefore, both faithful renditions and diverse deconstructions of great songs by some of the Old 97′s favorite artists, many of whom share the same Texas scene-ground, and have toured and recorded with the band; The sark brooding blues-on-fire of God Don’t Never Change, an Alligator Records tribute to Blind Willie Johnson with Lucinda Williams, Trucks and Tedeschi, Tom Waits, and the most beautiful coda from Rickie Lee Jones; the lighthearted Let All Children Boogie: A Tribute To David Bowie, which aptly proves that even as the kindie world continues to produce to robust originals of its own, the kidfolk category we once touted here may have faded – but it’s not gone for good.
Day of the Dead, for example, a sprawling. “epic” 5 disc set that represents the Red Hot Organization’s 25th release, sees 59 artists hosted by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National taking on the songs of the Grateful Dead (and the traditionals they made their own) in a broad, meandering path through modern music that befits both the long and storied history of the band and their tendency towards long, extended-play performances and recordings. The album is decidedly imperfect, with a touch too many phoned-in performances, but there’s strong tracks here galore, if you’re willing to sift through. And the record easily contains a full-sized, full-bore folk covers album in the mix, with standout tracks from Sam Amidon, Hiss Golden Messenger, Bela Fleck, Bill Callahan, and others.
Lesser known but no less stellar entries here include Just Love: A Tribute to Audrey Auld Mezera, a darling lo-fi Nashville-by-way-of-Australia 2 disc set that makes for a mostly acoustic, if equally sprawling, nominally country album, though the downunder use of the term is closer to folk than it is here in the States, and our favorite, by a nose: American Laundromat’s tribute to Elliott Smith, Say Yes!, which – like their previous forays into the world of grungy indie coverage – spreads deep across a narrow band that runs from fuzzy electronic to soft acoustic, heavy on the solo singer-songwriter fare, with familiar songs from label frequent-flyers Lou Barlow, Julianna Hatfield, Tanya Donelly, William Fitzsimmons, Amanda Palmer, Sun Kil Moon and more.
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year 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 gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unblogged covers from 2015-2016, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.