Category: Covered In Folk


Covered In Folk: Dire Straits
(The Mark Knopfler songbook, transformed)

October 27th, 2019 — 9:51pm

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As I noted recently in a pending radio interview for Wisconsin Public Radio program BETA, as a child of the eighties, I take a special joy in coverage of the early MTV canon. For here meets my genesis as a listener: the flashy screen, the radio cut, the pop, rock, and circumstance; the artist as entertainer, and music as a multimedia, all-encompassing agency, more than just something for the eyes and ears, but for the whole body, mind, and soul.

And there, in the thick of it, came Brothers In Arms – the first album in history to sell a million copies in CD format, and as such, an eerie fulfillment of the prophetic voice of challenge and change which typifies the work of Dire Straits, and its frontman and songwriter Mark Knopfler’s writing, on and beyond this stellar album. So Far Away and the title track, the album’s bookends, are exquisite songs of the aching worker’s heart; other, deeper cuts move fluidly from wry celebration (Walk of Life) to caustic second-person bitterness (Your Latest Trick). But from a popular perspective, at least, the album’s cornerstone is and always will be the Grammy-winning cut Money For Nothing, whose rough cut cartoon music video and working class barstool lens twinned and reduplicated the message together, offering a form of meta-analysis of the ways in which MTV both magnifies and flattens the work of the musical artist, leaving them ironically spread far and wide to be found and cherished, yet ever-more far removed from the blue-collar listener who is arguably the target audience of folk in its original sense.

Not bad for an eighties rock album. And we shouldn’t neglect the foursome overall, who worked together to create and sustain the bass, drum, and rhythm which sound so seminally like themselves, and sold over 120 million records worldwide together. But there’s something deeply personal about this music, too – and unsurprisingly so. Image search for “Dire Straits”, and you’ll mostly find solo shots of Knopfler, and in many ways, though the world he portrays is imaginative, it is also folk-and-roll literal, with well-deserved comparisons to Dylan’s rasp, his literate use of rhyme and image, diction and persona, and his focus on the stories of the street-bound heart. Though he would later yaw towards a more rootsy sound, with or without the Claptonesque guitars and JJ Cale beat, his straightforward storycraft is often politicized, and eminently blue-collar in its plainspoken approach to the universal themes of modern class-conscious culture.

Dire Strait’s willingness to write and play for the radio can make it harder to see the folkready depths; 1991’s The Bug – lighthearted and shallow, and ultimately covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter and hardly anyone else – came out the year I graduated from college, and though I still have my vinyl copy of Brothers in Arms, I suppose I relegated the band in my mind to Classic Rock afterwards for a while. It wasn’t until the end of the first post-millennial decade, upon release of his duo work with an equally aging Emmylou Harris, that I came to deeper understanding of Knopfler’s work as a producer, creator, and performer of song, started to notice his solo collaborations – with James Taylor, Gillian Welch, Dylan, Chet Atkins, and others – as evidence of a songwriter’s songwriter status well-deserved, began to see his politics, grounded as they are in place and character, as aligned with the folk rock school of fellow countrymen John Wesley Harding and Billy Bragg, and finally, began to seek out, and relish, the ways in which new hands and voices have brought the sentimentality to the forefront.

For as great coverage so often does, reinvented and revived, the Dire Straits songbook reveals the everyman’s complaint, hidden in the proletarian language of the popcharts: the heartache anyone can feel; the language rich in poetic dissonance; the politics of place and people; the celebration of thirst and thunder that represents his best. We’ll start with their Brothers In Arms tracks – five in all, and each one worth covering – and move from there to the wider canon of an artist eminently worthy of our triumphant return.

  • Bhi Bhiman: Walk of Life
  • Diamond Family Archive: Walk Of Life

    Among the most recent of our covers here, and a delightful way to start; stripped of all urgency, Bhi Bhiman‘s version of a song that Rolling Stone once called “a bouncy Fifties rock & roll song about cool Fifties rock & roll songs” starts gently wistful and then holds us there in the garden of memory, a charming celebration of life and its motion. The Diamond Family Archive‘s muddy, muddled lo-fi reconstruction, meanwhile, leaves us riddled with anguish and despair, offering palpable contrast, and showing just how versatile the deep offerings of Knopfler’s deceptive simplicity truly can be.
  • Aeneas Jones: So Far Away
  • Shannon Whitworth: So Far Away

    The original tonality of So Far Away is majestic, in its way. Here, southern Americana singer-songwriter Shannon Whitworth‘s primordial soup of a reversal replaces the tension of that original arrangement with a new one, equally tense and beautiful, that struggles to stay alive in the distance of drowning echoes and sustained note guitars. Preface it with an acoustic bedroom cover from versatile New Zealand artist Aeneas Jones, and again, we see the range of possibility in Knopfler’s universal lyrics and melody.
  • Low Lily: Brothers In Arms

    Vermont-based tradfolk trio Low Lily played a slightly more stripped down version of this song when we hoisted them a few years ago in our own Unity House Concerts series in Springfield, MA; the more highly produced version comes from their album 10,000 Days Like These, which we’ve celebrated here before. Those looking for further evidence of the song’s standing power as an anthem for working class solidarity should also check out last week’s encore performance from Jason Isbell’s set.
  • Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8: Money For Nothing

    An appropriately frenetic take on the song that slammed MTV way back in its formative years – one of the only co-writes in the Knopfler canon, and the sole non-solo composition on Brothers in Arms (co-written with and originally performed with back-up vocals from Sting, himself an early beneficiary and adopter of the MTV mindset). Money For Nothing is increasingly a jamgrass standard, oddly enough; though it’s tempting to see such genre reinvention as bitter, given how little TV-play jam- and bluegrass get, UK-based low-tech bluegrass hillbillies Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8 give the song a good run for its money.
  • Jennifer Warnes: Why Worry

    Highly contemporary, stylistically-speaking, with the rich, almost too-syrupy production favored by Jennifer Warnes, who made her name covering Leonard Cohen, and last found her way to Cover Lay Down on the recent release of all-covers album Another Time, Another Place, from whence this track comes. But the sense and sensibility match the lyrics well, here – this is, after all, another of Knopfler’s most sentimental songs, and the AAA format fits like a soft, warm kid glove.
  • Passenger: Romeo & Juliet

    An earlier cut from Dire Straits, off 1980 album Making Movies, brought into the folkworld by a strong Indigo Girls cover, and based loosely on both the original Shakespearean text and the reframing of West Side Story. We’ve shared a few strong covers of this in the past here on Cover Lay Down, but Passenger‘s hoarse tenderness channels the longing and loss so exquisitely, we could steep in it forever.
  • Overdriver Duo: Sultans of Swing

    By far the oldest song on our playlist today; Sultans of Swing (and personal favorite Water of Love which is, sadly, more seldom covered) was originally released in 1978, on Dire Straits’ self-titled debut, and appears on the five-track demo they originally sent in to BBC radio dj Charlie Gillett, who played the track on the radio until it brought in the label. Thanks to a self-effacing lyric about the bitter day job struggles of the members of a pub band, this song has been covered aplenty, albeit mostly in bars; here, we get a bopping two-uke version from Brazil’s Overdriver Duo, whose origins are apparent by accent, and whose fine work on the smaller strings belies a penchant towards bombastic pop beats in their original work.
  • DrvoTruo: Calling Elvis

    DrvoTruo is a Serbian gypsy folk band, believe it or not – complete with sawing fiddle and cacophonous jangling guitars, which retread and revive a deeper cut from the same aforementioned last-gasp post-revival 1991 album from whence came The Bug. Still not my favorite era for Knopfler, but you’ve gotta love the sheer, fantastic joy here.
  • BONUS TRACK: Sunjay: Sailing to Philadelphia (orig. Mark Knopfler)
  • BONUS TRACK: Sweet Baby James: Sailing to Philadelphia (orig. Mark Knopfler)

    A title track, originally performed with James Taylor, from Knopfler’s second post-Dire Straits break-up album, which cemented the man’s prowess as a solo artist once again, even as it failed to chart as high as the band in their heyday. Like Romeo & Juliet, the song is based in literature – in this case, in Thomas Pynchon’s retelling of the story of Mason and Dixon. Two versions lay the sentiment bare: a sweet solo track from Sunjay, and a rich wash from James Taylor cover band Sweet Baby James, both out of Knopfler’s own England.

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4 comments » | Covered In Folk, Mark Knopfler

(Re)Covered In Folk: Neil Young
(45 redefining tracks from a decade in tribute)

March 13th, 2018 — 2:45pm

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It’s been ten years exactly since we last drilled down deep into the Neil Young songbook here on Cover Lay Down, in a short feature introducing the transformative all-female American Laundromat double-disc for-charity tribute Cinnamon Girl, accompanied by several exclusive label-approved tracks from that record and a delicious set of similar delights from The Wailin’ Jennys, The Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Rodriguez, Elizabeth Mitchell, and more great folkwomen teetering on the well-traveled intersection of rock, pop, and folk.

A decade later, Cinnamon Girl remains a go-to exemplar in the world of coverage: a powerhouse indie collection, “a great and well-balanced listen from cover to cover”, and “the tribute album Neil Young has deserved for most of his long and prolific career.” Several of its covers, including Lori McKenna’s unadorned twangfolk The Needle And The Damage Done, The Watson Twins’ sweet Powderfinger, and Canadian duo Dala’s beautiful, wistful harmony takes on Ohio and A Man Needs A Maid, continue to stand out as true-blue favorites. And – since it is still available – we would be remiss in taking this opportunity to redirect you to it, that you, too, might revel in its femfolk-to-riot-grrl approach, and support Casting For Recovery, who aim to enhance the quality of life of women with breast cancer through a unique retreat program that combines breast cancer education and peer support with therapeutic fly fishing.

But just as the past must be celebrated, so, too, do our ears and hearts evolve. As listeners, our subjective evolution in that decade has brought us closer towards a subtle appreciation of the deconstructionist approach. As cultural explorers, we respect and recognize Young’s recent move to put his entire archive online for free – a move that will surely spark deep artistic exploration and new coverage going forward. As agents of discovery and spread, we celebrate the ongoing reclamation of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s prolific portfolio, even as we note its turn towards the trends and tropes of its next generation.

And so, today, we revisit the Neil Young songbook with a collection of covers recorded in the intervening decade that trend towards the broken and bent, and the mellow and melodic: an omnibus mix, coupling beloved recordings from folk, Americana, indie and roots artists with newfound delights from Bandcamp, YouTube, and other discovery spaces. May it stand as our solution for those who, like us, struggle to reconcile our distaste for the songwriter’s whine with our great respect and admiration for both the grit and elegance of his pen, and his vast catalog of poetic yet straightforward songs which continues to give voice “to the plight of the powerless and the disaffected in modern American culture.”

Neil Young, Covered In Folk (2008-2018)
* listen track-by-track, or download the whole mix here!

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2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Clem Snide, Covered In Folk, J. Tillman, Jeffrey Foucault, Marissa Nadler, Mark Erelli, Molly Tuttle, Neil Young, Reid Jamieson, Rickie Lee Jones, Sam Amidon, Tribute Albums

Covered In Folk: Steely Dan
(RIP Walter Becker, 1950-2017)

September 4th, 2017 — 9:44am



I’ve always felt rather connected to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the core and founding membership of long-time classic rock staples and multiple Grammy winners Steely Dan. Like them, I dropped out of Bard College; like them, my tastes run vast, past the boundaries of genre, and through it, to where the intricacies of meaning shrink down to playful, tight nuance, layered complexity, and more than a little dissonant swing.

Too, though their heyday started while we were still too short to care, the band’s influence on my own generation cannot be denied. Theirs is the accidental summer soundtrack of our youth, the pop and crackle of a car radio, the windows rolled down and the sun streaming in. The sharp horns and sharper arrangements from the yard sale records that kept me up at night before I knew what to do with it all, like The Little Prince and the sharp taste of espresso. The thoughtful, innovative playlist for our long miles driving North through unknown country, equal parts soul, rock, jazz, pop, and something new: a music deliberately designed to celebrate and serve the alienated, discomforted soul.

So to honor guitarist, bassist, composer and co-arranger Becker, who passed yesterday at 67 due to an undisclosed illness and was still touring as recently as last Spring, I went looking for coverage. And more than anything, I found it hard to find.

I suppose this should be no surprise: covering Steely Dan offers no small challenge to the folkworld. We’re talking about a collaboration that produces intimidatingly complex landscapes beyond the ken of most cover artists; a name brand whose high-lexile lyrical wordplay, like that of John Ashbury (a mentor of mine at Bard, who also passed yesterday) and the rest of the New York School of poets so en vogue at Bard College during all our shortened tenures, serves as percussive instrument as much as – and sometimes more than – a carrier of sizzling, irony-laden, image-heady narrative; a band aptly described as “the most sonically sophisticated pop act of the 21st Century“, fully in control of its faculties.

Add to this the band’s tendency to name their songs simply, making them hard to search for, and the result is a lean but no less stunning tribute in postmillennial acoustic and roots transformations, ranging from Wilco‘s faithful turn on Any Major Dude to familiar jazzfolk from Rickie Lee Jones and Jemma Mammina to live bluegrass settings from Mountain Heart and The Barefoot Movement, with the ragged, grungy treacle of British throwback folkrock foursome Turin BrakesRikki Don’t Lose That Number, instrumental gypsy Jazz from New York electric violinist Joe Deninzon, deceptively crisp chamberfolk from Heartscore with Jamie Rivera, a truly amateur but no less loving solo acoustic cover from YouTuber Enormously Small, and – just for good measure – Nik Hunt, The National Pool, and Michael Rand‘s decidedly weird and entirely different deconstructions of Do It Again, Home At Last, and Reelin’ In The Years.

Somewhere, Walter Becker is explaining chords to the heavenly choir, their heads nodding in rhythm as they listen. May they sing as precisely for him as they did on his records, and in our dreams.

Any Major Dude: The Songs Of Steely Dan
A Cover Lay Down Tribute Mix
[zip!]

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Comment » | Covered In Folk, RIP, Steely Dan

Covered In Folk: Aretha Franklin
(Seminal songs from the Queen of Soul)

July 10th, 2017 — 3:36pm

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My father’s record collection is split into two halves, each on its own side of the stereo cabinet: on one side, folk and Americana; on the other, blues and soul. But for most of my life, it’s been Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans which leave the sleeve so often: Ray Charles, The Staples Singers, Marcia Ball…and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.

Legitimately born of a Memphis preacher man and an accomplished piano player and vocalist – all of which would find its way into her powerful gospel style – Aretha was an interpreter, not a songwriter. Listed first on Rolling Stone’s countdown of the greatest singers of all time, she released over 40 albums since her 1961 self-titled debut, and hit number one on the Billboard charts 20 times between 1967 (I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)) and 1985 (Freeway of Love), even though the majority of the songs we most associate with her work were either originally penned for others in the genre, or performed by them first.

But the Queen of Soul earned her name by making these songs her own. Although song co-author Carole King’s Tapestry take on (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman is historical, it follows Franklin’s in both history and the pantheon. Her version of The Weight, released the year after The Band’s original, charted much higher in the US market, and helped sustain the song’s presence as a future soundtrack staple for films set in the sixties. Before it was hers, Until You Come Back To Me was recorded first by songwriter Stevie Wonder, though not released until afterwards. Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves was originally written by The Eurythmics as a duet with Tina Turner, who was unavailable. And perhaps most significantly, Respect – a pleading meditation on aspirational breadwinner masculinity in the hands of Otis Redding – became an anthem of empowerment in Aretha’s throat, thanks to the spelled-out chorus and genderbent lyrical approach; that her flourishes survive in essentially every cover known to humankind says all it needs to about her definitive success.

Appropriately, then, today’s set is a mixed bag: some classic, some transformed; some soulful, some stripped and broken. There’s country in here, as might be expected, given how much crossover already exists between the eminently American genres, but there’s also soft piano balladry, chamberfolk, contemporary popfolk and more, sourced from a hodgepodge of YouTube sessions and studio craft, as befits homage to a respected artist whose reach and influence have been so vast. And it’s all wonderful, in tribute to a true-blue queen still performing – and going strong – at 75. Enjoy.

Aretha Franklin, Covered In Folk [zip!]

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Comment » | Aretha Franklin, Covered In Folk

RIP Chuck Berry (1926-2017)
A tribute in folk coverage from Cajun to the country blues

March 25th, 2017 — 7:55am

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When Chuck Berry passed last Saturday at 90, the airwaves swelled with gratitude and stories of the man who brought us the duck walk and My Ding-A Ling, did gigs as a beautician and a stint as a reform school kid on the way up, and built the genre from the freestyle of the blues, the whine of the country guitar, the simple call-and-refrain verse-chorus-verse of the folksong, the beat of a rhythm and blues nation, and the definitive string-led combo.

Finding a plethora of coverage of Berry’s canon seemed inevitable: many of the long-standing artist and performer’s greatest hits were also hits for other seminal rock and rollers, both peers and inheritors, from Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and The Beatles, whose classic versions of Roll Over Beethoven and Memphis helped put them on the map in the first place. Indeed, arguably, Berry’s songs are so well covered, many of them have become truly folk, part and parcel of the vast spectrum that is the modern western songbook; it says what it needs to that Johnny B. Goode is the only rock and roll song on the Voyager spacecraft, where one day, it may well establish the Earth as a cultured rest stop for the alien mind, a truly exciting and excitable space among the heavens.

Anyone truly deserving of the name “architect of rock and roll” has enough influence to cross genre lines, too. And sure enough, Berry’s songs have found their way from punk to country, where their easily translatable lyrics and eminently playable beats bring comfort to new audiences exploring the sounds of the soul. Though many of Chuck Berry’s songs are so seminal, their transformations are hard to search for, our dip into the vast realm of folk and roots coverage here today reveals a broad influence, heavy on the real and rustic but unusually diverse in subgenre, from sultry country swing to fieldhouse rhythm and blues to contemporary fingerpickin’ folk rock, with stops in everyspace from jug band blues to crackling Cajun along the way. Guess it just proves that rock and roll will never die – at least, not so long as it continues to infiltrate the sense and sensibility of the multifaceted folkways.

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3 comments » | Chuck Berry, Covered In Folk, RIP

Covered In Folk: Anais Mitchell
(with Bon Iver, Billy Bragg, Cricket Blue & new voices galore!)

March 14th, 2017 — 2:27pm

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Vermont-slash-Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell was a fast-rising star upon her 2002 arrival to the scene, with out of the gate recognition from Kerrville’s New Folk competition and early adoption onto Ani Difranco’s record label, Righteous Babe, thanks to a strong debut recorded in a single afternoon and a distinctive knack for prescient hooks and heavy subjects couched in sweepingly intimate production and a distinctively, deceptively innocent yet complex and carefully honed voice. These days, her name-recognition runs high inside the broad boundaries of folk, and her talent is in high demand, as demonstrated by tours with Bon Iver, Josh Ritter, Punch Brothers and The Low Anthem, collaborations with Jefferson Harmer and Rachel Ries, and kudos from Pitchfork, NPR, The New York Times, and more.

If fame outside the folkworld or prodigious output were a measure of success, she would remain insulated. But although it has been three years since her last release, and five since her last of all new original work, there is something essential about Anais Mitchell right now. Just a half dozen studio albums into her career, Mitchell has become a true mover and shaker in the folkworld, cited by peers and press as central to the definitive depth and honesty that typifies the nucleus of the current folk generation.

A powerhouse out on the bleeding edge, her collaborative work, including our previously-featured exploration of the Child Ballads with Jefferson Harmer, which won a BBC Radio Two Folk Award for Best Traditional Track, is sharp. Her output – including the epic, introspective 2012 release Young Man In America, and folk opera Hadestown, which brought folk heavyweights Greg Brown, Justin Vernon, The Haden Triplets, and Difranco together to voice the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and has since been both toured with a rotating cast and turned into a New York stageshow due to return for the 2017-2018 season – reveals an artist exploring the potential of folk to speak deeply and cohesively about the world on a scale heretofore unattempted, illuminating the world of the political and the personal into sharp relief.

The proof, of course, is in the coverage, both in its richness and in its very fact. Note notables such as Billy Bragg and Bon Iver in the mix below, taking on the Anais songbook in homage and early tribute to a truly worthy songwriter and craftsperson. Take note, as well, of the flexibility of song here, as the lo-fi acoustic and the rich mix rebuilt, the balladeer and the barroom singer, the mellow and the mean, the jamband and the celtic take their turns on the canon, and come up roses.

Listen as others come to echo the echoes – revealing a set rich in Bandcamp discoveries, and diverse in tone and tenor, as befits the deep, versatile songbook that Mitchell offers forth. Pick and choose, or download them as a single set. And then, as always, click through to go back to the source – to celebrate, as it were, the artists who continue to circle around song, and around the whole of us, from Anais Mitchell herself to those who would braid their gifts with hers, to the betterment of us all.

    An apt introduction from folk and social justice icon Billy Bragg, whose respect for Mitchell and for the power of political song frames a transcendent performance of a song originally performed by Greg Brown as the modernized king of the underworld. Put it against the bold potency of Chi-town amateur Carey Farrell, whose slowly deepening production slowly drowns us in despair, for a hell of an opening set.

    Toronto-based filmmaker and soundtrack soundscape creator Nicole Goode records tense, echoey, glitchy cover goodness, nominally with her morning coffee. And it is mesmerizing, rough and raw and bottomless.

    New York-based “folk rock Japanese band” Robin’s Egg Blue‘s sudden turn into newgrass jamband territory turns a transitional Hadestown track into a resting point reminiscent of the psychedelic Steeleye Span era, lingering in the river of madness until it seems like the struggle will never end. Epic, indeed.

    The stand-out track from a late December covers release from Jess & Alek Deva, aka The Night Owls, “a married couple living and working in beautiful White River Junction, VT.”

    Soft tender balladry from “Boston native and New York transplant” Paola Bennet, found on a well-populated Soundcloud page that offers more from the amateur delight.

    A dreamy, echolayered take on Wait For Me, a tiny fragment from the magnum opus that is Hadestown. From Irish amateur Emma Carroll, an enigma otherwise.

    A straightforward plainsong approach to a personal favorite from Soundcloud amateur Justin Paul Ortiz. Don’t underestimate this one: the lack of adornment lays the song bare, revealing strong bones at the core.

    A simple, elegant popfolk setting from prolific Ithaca, NY singer-songwriter, activist, and mindfulness practitioner Travis Knapp‘s 9th annual covers collection evokes grand pianos and candelabras as it pays homage to the tender, confessional side of Mitchell’s early canon.

    Two Anais Mitchell covers from the stark solo Saturday morning cover recordings of Soundcloud amateur Sophia Stewart, a nuanced vocalist and solo stringstrummer well worth visiting for more.

    A slightly countrified, well-produced lullaby version of Mitchell’s transposition of two West Bank refugees: one to be Jesus, the other a forgotten Palestinian. Joyce Andersen‘s hearty, heart-filled voice makes for a perfect pairing alongside Harvey Reid’s subtle pick and slide.

    Cambridge, MA duo Parsley‘s forefront harmonies lend a dustbowl honesty to this wistful, wild cut, originally penned and performed by Rachel Ries and Anais Mitchell on their duo EP Country.

    South Carolina ex-pat Garris, now living in China and preparing for a stint as a yoga teacher in India, partners with friend Kira for a four-track EP featuring a solid Tom Waits cover and this subtle slackstring soft-track, gentle, wistful, and aware of its unrefined honesty.

    If there is such a thing as perfect lo-fi experimental anti-folk in the modern marketplace, it is embedded in The Last Clarissa’s hollow covers and recordings, each one rushed and anxious, resonant as a silo sing, and honest as the night.

    Broken, flickering life from Bryan McFarland, another amateur hard to uncover. No matter: the song speaks for itself, with low recorder and layers of lush guitar pulsing around grungy octave harmonies for a dirge-like dark despair.

    Justin Vernon at his most tender and fragile, with gentle guitar and piano in low, tinkly parallel; Vermont bluegrass duo Cricket Blue at their tightest in sorrow, singing the fear of Icarus towards the sky and sun. And so we end as we began: vulnerable to the world, and the variances and vagrancies of song and lyric in tension: the crash impending, the loss palpable, the hope everlasting.

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Comment » | Anais Mitchell, Artists, Covered In Folk

Covered In Folk: Blaze Foley
(The Avett Brothers, Sharon Van Etten, Timbuk 3, Ben Haggard & more!)

October 10th, 2016 — 7:32pm



As the posthumous subject of songs penned and performed by Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and other luminaries from his own era, it’s not hard to see the influence Blaze Foley had on his scene, especially in the context of Van Zandt, with whom he traveled and performed frequently. But if you only faintly recognize his name, it is because the Texas singer-songwriter was the Daniel Johnston of his time and place: a drifter and drinker, troubled yet iconoclastic, earnest and yet just plumb weird; a difficult and often lost soul who wore duct tape on his cowboy boots and lived in a tree, wrote plain, plaintive songs about big cheeseburgers and high school heroes, got kicked out of the Kerrville Folk Festival, and died at the end of a gun in mysterious circumstances at the age of 39 over 25 years ago.

In no small part because the sandpaper influence of his personality made recording opportunities scant and scattered, if Foley is remembered, it is because of his songcraft, not his recordings. Tracking Foley’s songbook is possible, mostly, thanks to Live at the Austin Outhouse, a 15-track “greatest hits” performance from the month before his death, once out of print but rereleased at the turn of the century to find a new audience looking for the roots and branches of their underground heritage.

But this small collection contains the seeds of greatness realized. A true poet, unafraid of both the political and the personal lens, whose simple, direct images spoke loudly to universal themes of love, loneliness, leaving and loss, Foley was in many ways a songwriter’s songwriter, famously covered in his lifetime by the likes of John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, with If I Could Only Fly cited by Haggard upon his first listen as ““the best country song I’ve heard in fifteen years.” And although finding these rare original performances, to seep into them as their fumbling, couch-syrup tones rise and fall, is a visceral experience, well worth pursuit, it is Foley’s songwriting, and its continued influence – both beyond his lifespan, and beyond the world of Texas country – that interests us today.

Unsurprisingly, with a few exceptions, Foley’s songs are difficult to interpret, making coverage rare. But happily, those who have chosen to take on the challenge of reimagining them do so without trivializing, giving the lyrics and chords new voice and clarity through interpretations inevitably crisper, and more deliberately nuanced, then their original raw and dirty forms. Read on for our favorite next-generation coverage, as growled and soft-shoe traditionalists and indiefolk reinventionists alike take on the Blaze Foley songbook in all its weird, wonderful, yet still prescient north-by-northwest madness.

Covered In Folk: Blaze Foley [zip!]

Comment » | Blaze Foley, Covered In Folk

Covered In Folk: Taylor Swift
(15 acoustic covers reveal hidden depths in a pop songbook)

June 22nd, 2016 — 5:39pm

Taylor_Swift

From afar, at 26, Taylor Swift – the youngest woman to make Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list, and well on her way to becoming the best selling artist of all time – seems to have grown into a strong yet sensitive woman who is unafraid to be vulnerable, even sophomoric, as her understanding of the world slowly starts to deepen past the innocence of Love Story, You Belong With Me, and dozens more girl-meets-boy chart-toppers.

But a deeper dig suggests that this maturity is innate, not developed. Swift’s ability to tough it out among the big players as she transitioned from the world of country to the world of true-blue pop reveals the same grit and determination that drove her parents to move to the Nashville area to support her career while she was still in middle school, got her a development deal from RCA at the age of 14 – and led her to walk away from that deal later that same year, concerned that the industry would eat her alive before she had a chance to capture her early years authentically, while they were still fresh in her mind.

As Ryan Adams showed in his recent reinvention homage to Swift’s album 1989, Swift’s lyrics go much, much deeper than their pretty face. And unlike other pop icons who started out in the industry before adulthood, including several we’ve featured here in our Covered In Folk series (see, for example, our recent feature on Justin Bieber), the youngest songwriter ever signed by the Sony/ATV Tree publishing house has always written her own songs, trusting the production process to transform them into the crossover countrypop gems that have dominated the airwaves for the last decade or so.

Though Swift has a healthy understanding of the industry she serves, in other words, she is clearly a songwriter first. But she also knows coverage matters. She has recorded few of her own in the studio – a trend that surely stems from both artistic and professional concerns, and tepid reception to both a 2007 Christmas cover of Last Christmas and a 2009 take on Tom Petty’s American Girl that was, at best, merely a retread – but she does songs from all over the genre map in concert, and has good taste in those of others, too; indeed, one of the choice cuts below was featured on her Twitter feed, a high praise she has reserved for less than a score of other interpretations.

Others in our Taylor Swift mix today come from the usual wide assortment of sources: amateur uploads, tribute sessions and albums, b-side and deep cut delights. As is our wont, they span from delicate to disturbing, from joyous to somber, though they certainly trend towards the slow, the soft, and the stripped down cover; taken as a set, they are, indeed, greater than the sum of their parts. So join us as we celebrate through coverage the well-sung songbook of a woman who at 26 has already won 10 Grammy awards, recognition from the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame, a fierce independence in an industry more prone to destroy young talent, and the hearts of a nation.

COVERED IN FOLK: TAYLOR SWIFT
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  • The Man Who Fell In Buffalo: Blank Space
  • Radiochaser: Blank Space

    Raw and wry like a live Barenaked Ladies-meets-banjo rarity, our first transformative cover comes from Portland, Oregon-based multimedia art, music, and fiction experimentalist The Man Who Fell In Buffalo, who turns upbeat pop into a sinister oldtimey collage, abuzz with fraying edges and the fraying urgency of the stalker’s mind. For contrast, turn to NYC underground artist Radiochaser, first introduced to us via fellow coverblog Cover Me; the layers here are wistful, mooth and airy, with an undercurrent of urgency too deep to touch – apt for an enigmatic Soundcloud cover artist who claims that his work represents an imaginative foray into what the souls of pop songs would sound like if pop songs could die.

  • Lucy & La Mer: Bad Blood

    Slower, quieter, and both more subtle and more haunting than the Tainted Love cover we shared from Lucy & La Mer back in March, this 2015 track only reinforces our appreciation of the LA-based indie/folk/pop goddess’ high, astute sensitivity to songcraft and setting.

  • Savannah Outen: I Knew You Were Trouble

    The streaming services are stuffed full with wannabes who use coverage of Taylor’s radiopop hits to leverage a career. But Savannah Outen‘s cover stands out for vocal purity, a restrained, polished sense of tonal consistency and control, and a masterful, slippery, articulate way with lyrical articulation that makes every word meaningful. Similar prowess, if a little more percussive pop flourish, typifies covers of Everything Has Changed and Out Of The Woods recorded alongside YouTube boypop sensation Jake Coco.

  • Julia Sheer and Tyler Ward: Sparks Fly
  • Strawburry17: Sparks Fly

    A country duo lullaby with light twang, lighter guitars, and a echoing reverb that lingers, or a solo indiepop turn with innocent voice and rich synth overlays slowly drowned in that same echo? We couldn’t decide, so you get both, from ubiquitous YouTube success stories Julia Sheer and Tyler Ward (like Outen, she also does a decent cover of Ed Sheeran/Taylor Swift duet Everything Has Changed) and prolific self-professed nerd and culture vulture Strawburry17, who generally shares themed vlogs, not music, on her YouTube channel. Not bad for a song originally recorded by Swift as a bootkicking rocker.

  • Radiant Life Perspective: Love Story

    No set of Taylor Swift songs would be complete without Love Story, a reframing of the Romeo and Juliet story which I have been know to utilize in the classroom when discussing the text. Here, Trenton, NJ indie rock duo Radiant Life Perspective – a pair whose covers are twee and grungy and delightful, as heard on Gray’s Anatomy and elsewhere – pull back to a hipster acoustic urgency, complete with hollow percussion and dreamy, layered vocals, that reveals a hazy sheen of wistful uncertainty on horizons back and forward.

  • Laura Zocca: Begin Again
  • Laura Zocca: Safe and Sound (orig. Taylor Swift ft. The Civil Wars)

    First shared here last year in our come-back feature after a few months off the blog, prolific YouTube cover artist and rising star singer-songwriter Laura Zocca‘s stunning turn on Begin Again is the perfect way to feature both song and singer, a lovely turn on a wistful piece. Add her equally sweet-and-potent version of Safe and Sound, which Swift originally recorded with now-defunct duo The Civil Wars, to the mix – and note that it was recorded just 24 hours after the original release of the song.

  • Sumeau: Fearless

    Hollywood’s boy/girl duo Sumeau creates slowcore psychpop like you’ve never heard it before – in this case, a lazy, hazy heroin dream in which Bert Bacharach meets the summer of love. Framed around Fearless, the title track from Swift’s country-to-pop crossover sophomore album, it lends an unreal aura of mist and memory to the first date it depicts, trading innocence and hope for something deeper and more mystical.

  • James Bartholomew: Everything Has Changed (orig. Taylor Swift ft. Ed Sheeran)

    We don’t usually post covers without lyrics here at Cover Lay Down – and by definition, a cowritten duet is an unusual choice for the voiceless version. But we already shared our favorite acoustic pop take on this track way back in 2013. And this delicate delight from fingerstylist James Bartholomew fits in perfectly in the folkstream, reminding us that if John Renbourne’s masterful acoustic instrumentals count as folk, then so do covers that echo them so exquisitely.

  • Nick Mulvey: Never Getting Back Together

    A tense acoustic take from a BBC Radio Lounge session with London-based world-beat-jazzman-turned-singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey, set only with harp-strung latin guitar and longing vocals. Unsettling and unsettled, in Mulvey’s hands a song once overripe with determination and teen angst becomes tiny and dear, a baby bird struggling against the hand that holds.

  • Ryan Adams: How You Get The Girl

    Though we’ve hewed pretty closely to the amateur and underground in today’s set, we’d be remiss if we didn’t close today with something from Ryan Adams’ 1989, which garnered top honors in our Best of 2015 series. Since we shared Blank Space then, we’ll go for his cover of album deep cut How You Get The Girl now – a bit grandiose for folk, with a Springsteen-esque vibe and no small call to Adams’ early work with alt-country band Whiskeytown, but as anthemic chamberpop goes, a true tour de force, mostly overlooked by press and promotion alongside his covers of the more popular tracks from the album.

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RIP: Prince
(June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

April 21st, 2016 — 7:45pm


Prince-Nice1


As a long-time coverblogger, it’s not hard to have mixed feelings about the death of rockstar Prince today at the age of 57. The eminently egotistical Artist Formerly Known As An Unpronounceable Symbol was notoriously negative about “industry” coverage, expressing frustration that the law makes it perfectly legal to cover other people’s songs as long as the piper has been paid, and raising concern time and time again in interviews that “covering the music means your version doesn’t exist anymore”. Prince’s legal team was infamous for issuing YouTube take-down notices, and tight-fisted about permissions, too. And there we were, pretty gun-shy after being booted off Blogger for a string of false take-down notices in our early days.

And so, with a very few notable exceptions, for 9 long years online, we’ve pretty much avoided even talking about the man, let alone sharing our favorite covers.

Until now. Because Prince Rogers Nelson’s sexy pop anthems populate our world like nobody’s business, and praise the lord. Glitchy and over-the-top anthemic as it may be, I actually prefer his version of Nothing Compares To U to Sinead O’Connor’s. And I can’t think of any version of Kiss that I like better than the original, though Richard Thompson’s tongue-in-cheek take has its own rough-hewn joy, too.

And maybe, just maybe, that – plus the sheer volume of tributes that will surely join this one in the ether in the hours and days to come – offers sufficient protection from the wrath that is Prince’s estate today, as we celebrate a man whose purply influence will surely shine on the world of music for decades to come.

To suggest that Prince’s position on coverage was extreme is not to suggest that it had some merit, of course; as someone who recently listed Tainted Love as a Soft Cell original, I’m in a particularly poor position to suggest that great covers cannot and do not sometimes obscure original recordings. We’ve touched on the definitive, transformative cover here before, too, most notably in our 2008 deep dive into the shift in sound and sensibility Jeff Buckley brought to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which proved to influence pretty much all subsequent coverage of the song.

But to prefer the Ryan Adams version of Wonderwall is one thing; to say that it somehow eradicated the original is quite another. When Noel Gallagher says in his 2008 Spin interview that he and brother Liam hate singing Wonderwall, and that he thinks Ryan Adams is the only person who ever got it right, it says more about the potential of the cover to save the song than it does about its potential to erase it. Liam may no longer want to sing Wonderwall the way it was written, but the record lives on – and as Gallagher notes in the same interview, fans still clamor for the original, too.

And so, today, in honor of Prince’s passing, we break our vow of silence on the subject to present our very favorite covers from the folkworld. It’s good crop, too, with The Blue Rubies mid-eighties cover of Prince’s When U Were Mine, which was one of my very first folk covers – a moment of early clarity in a world cluttered with postpunk, synthpop, and early grunge – The Be Good Tanyas take on When Doves Cry, which I featured in my very first music post, before Cover Lay Down was even born, and last year’s remake of Prince’s playful oddity Starfish and Coffee from kidfolk fave Renee and SNL alum Maya Rudolph.

Add in a bluesy take from an underground Norwegian tribute now otherwise lost to the great archive in the sky, James Taylor’s son on a pristine backporch kick, a soaring high-production take on a track originally posted online as Violet Rain to confound the legal team, the ragged, live and in-studio vocals of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Richard Thompson, and Martin Sexton, and a few more joys from around the block, and you’ve got a tribute set worth waiting for.

May the covers ever live on alongside, not instead of, the originals which Prince himself brought to our ears. And may we never forget to gather together, dearly beloved, to get through this thing called life.

Covered In Folk: Prince


Ad-free and artist-friendly since 2007, Cover Lay Down explores the modern folkways through the performance of popular song year-round thanks to the kindness of patrons like you. Give now to support our continuing mission, and receive an exclusive mix of unblogged coverfolk from 2014-2015.

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Covered In Folk: Justin Bieber
(13 takes on a pop icon’s cowritten canon)

April 15th, 2016 — 10:31pm

bieber

To be fair, the only thing I really knew about Justin Bieber until yesterday was that he was famous, and mostly still a kid. I could probably pick him out of a lineup, but I wasn’t really keyed in to the music. To be perfectly honest, I had to ask my students which songs of his were famous in order to complete today’s cover mix.

And yet. There’s a simple joy in the well crafted pop song, and a guilty pleasure in the adolescent bubblegum lens of confusion and longing hopped up on hormones that typifies the boy band and pop princess subgenre. And so we turn to the tabloids, and find, if not greatness, then certainly good.

Beiber’s work is carefully constructed, as befits a songbook written by committee and aimed carefully at the top of the preteen charts; sunny and light, it doesn’t go deep. But every genre has its high notes. Pulled from the popshelf, and translated into softer acoustic tones, the Canadian star’s songbook has an honesty of its own, grounded in zen metaphysics and a sensitivity to the concrete image as metaphor, that comes forward in coverage. And those hooks…well, it’s no wonder so many YouTube stars have taken on the north-of-the-border heartthrob with just a handful of albums under his belt.

Today’s selections are almost all amateur sourced. But their range is startling. Three takes on Love Yourself alone run the gamut, from Nataly Dawn‘s hollow, gritty bluesfolk to Dodie and Andie’s tender acoustic bedroom swing to rising star Jamie Oshima‘s newly-released mando-and-guitar cover, which switches in The Wedding Reel as a perfect instrumental break.

Peter Katz gives us a gentle electronica-tinged dreamfolk take on Sorry, while twee Parisian indiefolk foursome OAK offer sly harmonies over guitar, banjolin and bass; Amanda Law‘s What Do You Mean and Kina GrannisBaby are joyful, sweet, and pure; for a bonus treat, head over to the latter’s own percussive pop take on the former, and her collaborative version of Where Are U Now. Add in ringing acoustic dreampop from Fort Wayne artist Jonah Baker and SoCal native Rachael Cantu, soft, slippery smokehouse jazz on a dance track originally by Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo, a punk folk seasonal, and two very different approaches to Boyfriend – acoustic alterna-pop from YouTube standby Madilyn Bailey; driving pop rock from Welsh singer-songwriter Marina and the Diamonds – and you’ll believe even pop can be redeemed.

Covered In Folk: Justin Bieber

Ad-free and artist-friendly since 2007, Cover Lay Down explores the modern folkways through the performance of popular song year-round thanks to the kindness of patrons like you. Give now to support our continuing mission, and receive an exclusive mix of unblogged coverfolk from 2014-2015.

1 comment » | Covered In Folk, Justin Bieber

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