Category: Susan Werner


Double Dippers, Vol. IV: Singer-songwriters visit & revisit
Paul Simon, Modest Mouse, Gram Parsons, The Band and Dougie MacLean!

July 24th, 2016 — 10:58am


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It’s been two years and one huge archive crash since we last revisited our Double Dippers series, in which we focus on artists who pay tribute to a favorite songwriter through coverage in two distinct phases of their careers. Our interest, as always, is in the ethnographic lens on craft and culture: if covers serve as artifacts that reveal the substance of artistic evolution, then an individual artist’s return to a common songbook is especially illuminating – both as an exploration of maturity and experimentation, and in the way it reinforces that artist’s claim to a particular musical lineage or heritage.

Previously, we took the analytical approach to paired homage from Mark Erelli, Richard Shindell, Amos Lee, Lucy Kaplansky, and Old Crow Medicine Show (Vol. 1), Kasey Chambers, Shawn Colvin, Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, and Red Molly (Vol. 2), and Rickie Lee Jones, Billy Bragg, Evan Dando, and Crooked Still alumni Aoife O’Donovan and Tristan Clarridge (Vol. 3) as they explored the works of their peers and progenitors. Today, we continue our dig into how songwriters are shaped by song and soundscapes with double-dip coverage from six distinct artists working in and around the world of folk and roots: Mark Kozelek, Whiskeytown, Susan Werner, Shawn Colvin, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone.

    Recorded in two subsequent incarnations of dreamy indie singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek‘s evolution from bandleader to solo act, more than anything, these two tracks show steadfast commitment to a career built at least partially on transformative coverage – before recording Modest Mouse homage Tiny Cities with Sun Kil Moon, the band released an entire album covering AC/DC; he has also contributed multiple tracks to one of our favorite John Denver tribute albums, and taken on the likes of KISS, Paul Simon, Genesis and The Cars. Eleven years later, Kozelek, now known for his ability to strip a song down to its bare essentials, has lost none of the scarred beauty of his particularly intimate slowcore approach as he matures into himself; the significant difference here is the even more spare arrangement which typifies atypically piano-driven collection Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites, a stunning new release featuring guest vocalists galore, sure to feature in our end-of-year wrap-up of the Best Cover Albums of 2016.


    Shawn Colvin‘s second covers album Uncovered – released 21 years after Cover Girl, her first covers collection, wormed its way into our heart – double-dips twice, returning to the work of both Tom Waits and The Band’s Robbie Robertson. Both cover pairings are good, though Colvin’s turn towards Adult Contemporary between these two poles of her career remains evident; as with her double-take on the Beatles songbook, her return here “bear[s] the scars and strengths of that journey, though…the high production value and carefully nuanced vocals shine almost blindingly bright.” Which is to say: we like Uncovered, which was recorded with less pomp and circumstance than some of her mid-career radio-ready hits, a lot more than we expected to; in its best moments, like her subtle, slow take on Acadian Driftwood, it reminds us of the intimacy and innocence of Colvin’s earliest, rawest work, and as such, merits a second dip into her career.


    Ryan Adams is known in the coverworld for his slow reframing of Wonderwall and his triumphant retake on Taylor Swift album 1989; outside of that world, it’s hard to find a more perfect debut album than Heartbreaker. But before he was a solo artist with a penchant for covering everything from metal to pop, Adams fronted short-lived but highly influential alt-country band Whiskeytown, which covered Gram Parsons several times as they evolved from grungy post-country rockabilly to the more delicate side of the No Depression universe just before Adams and fellow founder Caitlin Cary spun off into the void. Adams has taken on Parsons plenty since – his live covers of Sin City and Streets Of Baltimore are great country ballads; his 1999 in-concert duet with Gillian Welch is legendary – but it’s the distance between these two cuts that best models how he got from here to there.


    The occasional trio of Cindy Kallet, Ellen Epstein and Michael Cicone have released just three albums since first coming together in 1981; we featured the last upon its release in 2008 with a celebration of Cindy Kallet’s overall output, and grew up on the first two, celebrating them in our formative years as a guidepost to a strain of hearty heartstrong vocal-led folksong particular to the New England coast, with echoes of shanties and the shapenote traditions, and the earthy delights of UK folksingers such as the Scottish MacLean. Final album Heartstrings, a return to the fold, is as tender and reminiscent as you might expect, although strong in its own right – but though recorded just five years apart, the subtle rumblings in the folkstream which would send much of the most honest forms of folk underground as folk radio turned towards Adult Contemporary show at the seams in the range between these two earlier songs.


    Her live performances and albums hew closely to the solo singer-songwriter model, with a masterful command of voice and style, and confidence and humor on stage. But Susan Werner – a classically trained composer and vocalist, and a true follower of the “album as album” school of songwriting – has reinvented herself for almost every studio release since establishing herself as a folksinger in the mid eighties. Recent collections include an atheist’s gospel album and a collection of songs exploring the voice of the modern farmer; her next collection will reportedly take on the culture and rhythms of a newly-reopened island nation, and the samples we’re heard live have been amazing. As such, the vast difference between these two Paul Simon songs is easily explicable: the former is a beautiful, maudlin piece typical of her early work in the contemporary vein, the latter, which matches a Simon & Garfunkel song to a Vivaldi-esque string setting, is a live take from the tour following 2009 release Classics, a potent genre-crossing covers collection which set standards of the sixties and seventies against precisely identified classical stylings.


    Finally, a second take on the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, this time from second-generation fringepop folk artist Lucy Wainwright Roche, paired in both cases with mother Suzzy of the Roches. Both covers are amazing, although arguably, it’s the first, a last-track coda on Lucy Wainwright Roche’s 2010 studio debut Lucy, which fills our head for days after we listen, haunting and taunting us with its rich sonic landscape. But what a difference six years makes, as the urgency of the full-length debut fades back into the soaring, delicate harmonies and ringing strings that typified Lucy’s first few tiny EPs, each one as precious as the next. If there was ever any question that Lucy is as potent a force in her own right as brother Rufus or father Loudon, this pairing should settle it.



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