Category: Billy Bragg


Double Dippers, vol. 3: Singer-songwriters visit & revisit
Donovan, The Beatles, Gram Parsons, Woody Guthrie and Paul Simon!

July 20th, 2014 — 8:39pm


640_vinyl


Born of an exercise in archival data-mining, our Double Dippers feature series finds us focusing on artists who pay tribute to favorite songwriters through coverage twice over, 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 expose the substance of artistic evolution, then the return to a common songbook is especially illuminating, both as an exploration of maturity and experimentation, and in the way it reinforces an individual 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), and an all-female cast of Kasey Chambers, Shawn Colvin, Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, and Red Molly (Vol. 2), as they explored the works of their peers and progenitors. Today, we continue our dig into how songs and songwriters are shaped by song and soundscapes with double-dip coverage from Rickie Lee Jones, Billy Bragg, Evan Dando, and Crooked Still alumni Aoife O’Donovan and Tristan Clarridge.

    Rickie Lee Jones has reinvented herself several times in a long and storied career, with tours through R&B, pop, and jazz standards along the way. But the difference has never been so vast, nor so starkly presented as it is when comparing her covers of sixties folk icon Donovan. Jones’ chipper retro-coustic folkpop take on Sunshine Superman, recorded for the hip mid-nineties television show Party Of Five, bounces with the sheer joy of its reconsidered era; her more recent effort, from the Ben Harper-produced triumph The Devil You Know, a hushed, stripped and solo album we celebrated in our 2012 year’s end review, is haunted, raw, ragged and slow, a broken whisper with timeless fragility.


    Long before Woody Guthrie’s sister and executor tapped him to join up with Wilco for the Grammy-winning Mermaid Avenue project, Billy Bragg was already a workingman’s folksinger, with a canon and craft that owe as much to the pre-revival labor movement folkbranches as they do to the post-punk political songbooks of The Clash and The Smiths (both of whom he’s also covered on studio releases). Though his work with the Guthrie notebooks on the Mermaid Avenue sessions is more posthumous collaboration than an incidence of coverage, Bragg has covered his anti-establishment tribal progenitor several times in the studio. These two tracks, recorded a quarter century apart, are quite representative: almost three decades of production dynamics distinguish the pair, and Bragg’s weariness seems to have become a driver of rhythm in the intervening years, but the bare-bones approach common to both songs, and the political nature of each, reveal nothing so much as how true Bragg’s colors really run.


    We made a case for the folkier side of Evan Dando way back in 2008; Dando’s path from Boston grunge to stripped down singer-songwriter perfectly parallels my own shift in sensibility as I approached middle age, so we’re especially fond of his work in any form. Rather than representing the artist at his heroin-folk best, or, contrariwise, with the fuzzy electrified underground tones of his beloved Lemonheads, these two Gram Parsons covers show a versatile middle ground, with gritty overtones of Americana and California Country Rock that befit the songs’ genre origins. (As a bonus triple-dip, Dando’s 1998 bootleg recording of Parsons’ Streets of Baltimore is quite good, too, if more raw and tender than the two presented here.)


    I’ve got Aoife O’Donovan on the brain this week, thanks to an upcoming set on Friday, August 1st at the best little folk festival in the American Northeast; I’ve never seen her live in solo mode, but like so many others, I’ve been in love with that gorgeous voice for years. Aoife O’Donovan’s cover of Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones is a sweet bootleg piano ballad from her school days, originally released on MySpace, but it’s a great early showpiece for her particular talent, with hints of all the power that she would refine and reveal in her decade with Crooked Still; American Tune, from Crooked Still’s 2011 swansong EP Friends of Fall, shows the rich fruits of her journey: nuanced, etherial, and free, with mastery in spades.


    As a bonus, since technically, it’s not his own voice, but the instrument that most closely approximates the male voice, which he brings to the table: Though founders and frontpersons Aoife O’Donovan and Greg Liszt generally get the lion’s share of recognition for their seminal work with Crooked Still, cellist Tristan Clarridge, who was with the band for several years before they declared an official hiatus in 2011, has arranged and covered The Beatles songbook twice over, too: on that same Friends of Fall album, and with his neo-traditional string-and-dulcimer trio The Bee Eaters, who recorded this slow-burning gem on their 2009 self-titled album.



Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down shares new songsets and ethnographic musings throughout the year thanks to the kind support of readers like you. Want to help?


Comment » | Allison Krauss, Aoife O'Donovan, Billy Bragg, Crooked Still, Double Dippers, Evan Dando, Rickie Lee Jones

Back to top