New Tributes and Covers Collections, 2015 (Vol. 1)
(Forest Mountain Hymnal, The Lomax Project, and Nettwerk’s 30th!)
Yet another New England snowday grants us the time to sift through a surprisingly rich field of new, pending, and ongoing covers projects recently received by mail from the far reaches of the folkworld. Read on for a set of features and futures that are already setting the house on fire: a pair of ambitious tradfolk projects, and a label-driven covers collection well worth the folkfan’s attention.
It takes dedication and a unique mindset to devote a year to coverage, let alone to a single songbook – and guts, indeed, to commit to such a project in the first decade of performance.
But young husband-and-wife folk duo Jonathan and Rebecca Moody, aka Forest Mountain Hymnal, have proven themselves before, earning our respect and admiration as artists and interpreters. And so we are thrilled to name Dear Balladeer: The Moodys and the Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, a bi-weekly project which will see them taking on 24 previously unrecorded Appalachian folksongs collected by the folk-revival’s own balladeer, a genuine gift, sure to keep giving throughout the year and beyond.
Forest Mountain Hymnal is already a staple at our table and our stereo; any news of novelty from these childhood sweethearts is inherently worthy of our attentive ears. Previous EP-length collections, an exclusive, otherwise-unreleased transformation of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and the self-titled, newly re-collected set that serves as their first official full-length album, explicate our praise: rich, soft, deceptively simple indiefolk in the same haunting-yet-melodic vein as Cover Lay Down favorites Arborea, Sam Amidon, Jose Gonzalez, and Kings of Convenience combine with traditional sensibilities of harmony, melody and instrumentation and a pure, sweet, echoing production dynamic almost ecstatically in the band’s previously recorded versions of well-crafted originals and known songs from Pretty Polly and The Leatherwinged Bat to Burl Ives’ Buckeye Jim and Aussie children’s standard Kookaberra, making Forest Mountain Hymnal as welcome, as essential, and as awesome for year-round fare as their wonderful 2011 Christmas Hymnal EP is for the holiday season.
Meanwhile, Niles, though seminal in his influence on the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties, is a bit of an undersung hero in the modern folkways; his most-covered compositions and reworkings, including I Wonder as I Wander, Black is the Color, and Go ‘Way From My Window, are often cited as traditional, spreading and reinforcing his influence even as the lack of attribution obscures his own contribution to the tradition. Too, as noted in Dear Balladeer’s statement of project intent, the Hollywood machine has co-opted both Niles and the songs he loved and collected, framing them as the product of a denigrated hillbilly culture in ways that deny the true complexity and intelligence of both the songs and their people.
Dear Balladeer’s aim, therefore, is as corrective as it is celebratory, with the Moodys taking on two curated “lost cuts” per month from his published ballad collections, by permission of Niles’ estate – a set which owes enough deliberate debt to the tradition that Niles organized them by Child Ballad equivalence in their original incidence. And, in keeping with the spirit of the project, all recordings for this project are being released free, as “we really feel like this music came from the people and should go back to them.”
The Moodys promise a debt paid in full, and they deliver: after spending a few days steeping in the comfort and craftwork of the first two tracks, it’s easy to crown the project a great success; if the remainder of the songs on Dear Balladeer are even half as good, their efforts should bring Niles’ name – and theirs – back to the forefront of the modern. I certainly expect to see this project again at the end of the year, both on the blogs, and here in our annual Best Of set, ’round the top of the Tradfolk categories. For now, best wishes and kudos to Forest Mountain Hymnal on a kickass start to an ambitious year; may their ways be smooth as they forge ahead, for we are eager, indeed, to hear the rest.
- Forest Mountain Hymnal: The Riddle Song (trad.)
- Forest Mountain Hymnal: The Shirt of Lace (trad.)
(from Dear Balladeer, 2015)
- Forest Mountain Hymnal: Pretty Polly (trad.)
- Forest Mountain Hymnal: Buckeye Jim (orig. Burl Ives)
(from Forest Mountain Hymnal, 2015)
- Forest Mountain Hymnal: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (orig. Marvin Gaye)
Of similar ethnographic vein is banjoist, composer, and “instigator” Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, which pursues our chosen genre’s prototypical collector and celebrant with a multigenerational cohort of praiseworthy peers – Tom O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, Eli West and more – that serves as high predictor of project success.
Touting the official nineteen-track album, and the deep-delving ethnographer’s dream of a 54 page booklet which accompanies it, is a bit premature, and somewhat of a tease. Though Stone’s Lomax Project has been in place for a while now as a live touring collaborative, playing sets and hosting sessions at all the right festivals and stages, and inviting in the process a continuation of the discovery and sharing process that Alan Lomax himself practically invented, the recorded collection isn’t scheduled to drop until March 3.
But the work of the talented Stone and his crowd of celebrated cronies under this particular umbrella is not unknown to us. Stone’s earlier albums interpreting the canons through originals and airs from Bach to Africa to Appalachia are themselves keystone components of a modern folklorist’s collection; that the names above all signed on to this project alongside Stone’s center shows their mutual respect. The stated goal here is renewal, not preservation, which is always a strong indicator of true craftspersonship. And even as live in-studio and stage takes from the project’s players have already cropped up on YouTube in the last few months, giving us more than a taste of what is to come, we needed little encouragement to share Lazy John, a just-released first listen from the album itself which showed up in our mailbox over the weekend, which simply sings with talent, love, and gleeful energy.
The merits of music, mandate and means make for a powerful trifecta; that the result is nearly perfect is not unexpected, but no less of a delight. The album earns our respect and admiration with hot sets that burn the barn and then some alongside other, more subtle interpretations of the Lomax collection, which themselves range from Appalachian fiddle tunes and Southern work songs to the African-American shanties and chants of the Bahaman and Georgia Sea Island cultures, finding joy and depth in the collections of a driven archivist, interpreter, and, in the case of the first song below, creator in vein, who in his single album in 1963 reworked familiar folk motifs and characters into a series of nominally original works. Listen and fall in love now, so you can say you were one of the first to know.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Lazy John (orig. Alan Lomax)
(from Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, 2015)
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Goodbye Old Paint (trad.)
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Maids When You’re Young (trad.)
Way on the other end of the folkworld, where indie and Americana cuts nestle alongside harder-edged alternatives, lies Nettwerk, a large yet still-independent Vancouver-based label and promotional house founded on electronic music that has, over three decades in the industry, provided a host of services for Canadian acts such as Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, and The Be Good Tanyas, international artists from Dido to Sinead O’Connor to Dispatch to Joshua Tillman, and – more recently – radio-ready bands and singer-songwriters like Passenger, Joshua Hyslop, and fun.
Our focus today is From Cover to Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk, a brand-new anniversary tribute-in-coverage to the label’s own, and it’s a great one, with versions that run the gamut in selective scope and interpretive strategy. Takes on everything from Coldplay to Barenaked Ladies to Ron Sexsmith to The Be Good Tanyas call to the diversity of Nettwerk rosters past and present; the mix is solid and smooth in transition from track to track, and though only half of the album could truly be categorized under folk, the performances are consistently fine, indeed.
Regular readers have already heard from this collection; though we were holding off on celebrating it in full until now, we couldn’t help but sneak label stalwart William Fitzsimmons’ cover of Sarah McLachlan’s Ice Cream into our artist feature a few weeks ago. But we’ve been sitting on other greatness therein, from Great Lake Swimmers to Caroline Pennell, from Lily Kershaw’s strong take on modern standard Wagon Wheel to Joshua Hyslop’s stunning take on Weepies favorite The World Spins Madly On. Now, just a day before it drops officially, here’s the whole shebang. Enjoy.
Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk features and songsets regularly here on the blog, with ongoing bonus tracks and streaming coverage on our Facebook page. And you can help! Donate now to support our continuing mission and receive our grateful praise…plus a select mix of over 30 otherwise-unblogged acoustic, roots, and Americana covers from 2014!