In February of 2013, Cover Lay Down's host went bankrupt, leaving us to reconstruct the blog from scratch. Happily, features from our first five years remain available thanks to the Wayback Machine Internet Archives, a non-profit working to preserve the web for posterity, and we are eternally grateful for their hard work. Check out the first five years of Cover Lay Down here!
I published the below feature three years ago today, anticipating a triumphant but fleeting return to the stage alongside my wife and daughters in a local production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory after more than a decade away. Since then, however, the theater bug has returned, and the roles are getting juicier as I once again find my footing on the proverbial boards; auditions and musicals have me thumbing through the works of Sondheim, Hammerstein, Hart and Gershwin, and these folk versions have never seemed more alive.
This weekend, we’re all in a production of The Sound Of Music; I’m actually completing this as I sit backstage waiting for my cue. Today’s feature is especially fitting, then, as it acknowledges my distraction while including a beautiful cover of Edelweiss to honor the work. Look for another older post featuring songs based on the works of Shakespeare this summer, when I’ll be one of three actors in a Shakespeare in the Park production of one of my favorite pieces, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged.
I was one of those arty middle-class music-and-theater kids – you know, the ones who spend their free periods in the band room, stay after school to paint sets, seem utterly disconnected from the mass media-driven marks of popular consumer culture, and demonstrate a complete and utter lack of coordinated ability in running shorts.
But it wasn’t just desire or common interest that kept me there. Natural talent, a strong ear, and an ADHD sufferer’s tendency to misplace my instrument had led to formal voice lessons and private choruses as a child (lose your clarinet, and mom gets pissed; lose your voice, and it comes back on its own). From there, I found myself on stage, and until I discovered that teaching could provide the same inner thrill, I fully expected to spend my life at its center, singing under the spotlight.
Thanks to this combination of talent, training, and opportunity, my adolescence was marked by more than just solos in the school chorus and lead roles in the high school play. Sure, I played Pippin in Pippin in my freshman year, losing my virginity to one of the older chorus members a few hours before opening night, but I also missed a lot of school in those years, thanks to active engagement in several major production companies in and around the Boston area before I cleared middle school. I even spent a late eighties summer at the Boston University Theater Institute, dressing like a Chorus Line extra, staying up late with the next generation of aspiring stars, burning through showtunes, improv exercises, Tennessee Williams monologues, and obscure Brecht/Weill operettas while my schoolmates got sunburned on the fields at soccer camp.
If the Internet is to be believed, many students growing up in the arts and theater crowd ultimately hew close to musical theater in their adult lives, finding preference and even pleasure in the songs of the stage. But for me, the theater was merely a means to an end – a love affair with the self, a mechanism for being at the center of attention, and a route to popularity and fame.
Though the stage was a place where I could shine, on my own time, as I’ve noted here before, my tastes ran towards the radio, the rising grunge and alt-rock movements, and the vast LP stacks of an audiophilic father heavy on the blues, jazz, folk and country. My mother’s small collection of original cast recordings of South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, and My Fair Lady may have been an endcap in our record cabinet, but just as my father never turned to those records, so did I eschew them, and groan alongside him when they came out of their sleeves for the occasional holiday.
As a result, though I recognize much of the canon of Broadway musicals – from Gershwin to Porter, Gilbert & Sullivan to Rogers & Hammerstein – unlike, say, the Top 40 of the eighties, or the East Coast alt-grunge movement, the genre does not interest me much as a fan or collector. To me, the Broadway songbook is something to sing, not something to listen to. To each his own, I guess.
In many ways, musical theater is the opposite of folk. The staging is formal; the audience is distant. The performers wear make-up, and are not themselves. And the distinct origin of song, lyric, and performance are clear, though attributed authorship is generally eschewed in favor of the shows from whence such songs came to us.
Where folk connects audience and performer within a complex of cultural feedback and communality – a sharing strategy which prioritizes emotional accessibility over pitch-perfect performance – as an ideal, the nuances of show tune performance are grand and showy, thanks to the trappings of character and grand narrative which underlie the very nature of theatrical production. Hearty where folk is delicate, melodramatic where folk is honest, stylized where folk is organic, show tunes don’t just come from a different part of the culture than folk music – they come from a very different place in the heart and the mind than the music we find and feature here.
Yet as a strand of the popular, the songs of the stage and screen quite often find their way into the folkways – most commonly via that melting pot of the popular, The Great American Songbook. Coverage, as such, is not uncommon, though it is rarer in the world of the solo singer songwriter than, say, the smoky realm of pop, jazz or blues vocalists – more common, even, for folk musicians to “go pop” or “go jazz” with these tunes, than for them to truly lend their folk sensibility to the popular songbook of musical theater.
But when it happens, it’s a beautiful thing. Given the difference in style and function between the two forms, the folk approach to the songs of Broadway and beyond tends towards the transformative, as the songs are localized, closing the vast gulf of spectacle which the stage mandates, replacing scale with intimacy. And so, as in coverage writ large, the song is born anew, with new meaning.
Here’s a broad set of coversongs, timeless and up-close, with a post-millennial focus, to help you see what I mean.
Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features and multisong sets twice a week thanks to the support of readers like you. As always, if you like what you hear, please follow the links above to support the artists we promote. We also accept donations, gratefully.
We interrupt our ongoing series on early 2013 Tribute albums to bring you this specially re-heated feature, originally posted April 1, 2008.
As a culture vulture, I have a particular fondness for the iconography of Hip Hop and Hardcore Rap; as a fan of trope and the body politic, I’ve always admired the complex rhyme and rhythm they bring to the table.
But I never really made a connection with hardcore rap as a cultural form. I’m an outsider on the streets; I can appreciate their gritty reality only as a sociologist can appreciate the poverty dynamic of his cityscape under the microscope. Though a six month stint in Boston’s inner city as a member of Americorps and five years teaching in the most racially mixed inner city district in Massachusetts make me somewhat more than an urban tourist, I make no claim that it gives me credibility to speak to the relative merits of, say, East Coast over West Coast style.
Even when I try to embrace the less hardcore side of the hip hop world, I know I’m just visiting. I’ve seen De La Soul and KRS-ONE in concert, but I felt awkward in the audience. I tried to write a rap lyric, but my friends were right to laugh at me. (Two words: iambic pentameter.)
But where the plastic lip-sync spectacle of Britney Spears is the polar opposite of folk, and where the lighter forms of Hip Hop are probably closer to R&B spoken-word poetry and Funk than anything else, I think Gangsta Rap can make a legitimate claim as street folk.
Sure, musically, anything built predominantly out of beatboxing, drum machines, and an atonal delivery is about as far from the singer-songwriter model as it gets; you’d be hard pressed to find a folk song with no melody to carry it. And the highly stylized, high-adrenalin street pose of the Gangsta lyric is hard to reconcile with the open-hearted communion that most associate with the folksinger in performance.
But the way that Gangsta Rap captures the authentic experience and emotion of an urban generation is most definitely “of the folk”. The collaborative process which typifies Rap and Hip-Hop performance – both onstage and with the audience – is very much in a vein with the traditional relationship between the folk performer and his audience. The use of sampled sound is a kind of cultural recycling which could arguably be compared to the tendency towards community ownership of traditional song in the folkworld. And if we make allowances for the differences in environment, both the storytelling and the narrative structure of hardcore rap forms turn out to be surprisingly consistent with the way folk has always used the natural world to speak for the inner life of the song’s subject.
To note that today’s songs are, one and all, truly beautiful in their own way is not to deny the beauty of the originals. The high tension between Nina Gordon’s sweet voice and gentle acoustic guitar and the obscenity-laden lyric of NWA signature song Straight Out Of Compton merely reframes the deeply personal history and strong, complex emotion of the original, making it newly accessible. The etherial layers Ben Folds brings to Bitches Ain’t Shit only exposes the frustration family man Dr. Dre feels about the unavoidably mysogynistic pose of the streets to which he owes his life and livelihood. Meanwhile, Zach Heckendorf’s take on Dre’s mid-life crisis comeback song Forgot About Dre cuts in and out of the crowd, echoing the narrative sentiment and its ultimately tentative, soul-searching tropes quite powerfully.
Gin and Juice comes off wild and desperate in The Gourds’ juked up bluegrass, but wasn’t it always a song on the edge? Alt-punkers Dynamite Hack join in with a great, mellow acoustic take on NWA’s Boyz in the Hood. Kevin Davis’ singsong Fuck Tha Police underscores the authenticity of the original storylines endemic to the street. The Unholy Trinity go acoustic bass-and-drums (mostly) for a sparse and dirty alt-country take on Public Enemy’s Bring The Noise that exposes the bittersweetness of growing up in the ‘hood.
Grandmaster Flash recorded The Message in 1982, long before urban blight turned to the gangsta life, but the weary note young alt-folkster Willy Mason brings to his recent rendition reminds us how prescient a warning the song really was. And the fact that the highest energies post-dorks Barenaked Ladies can bring to bear on Public Enemy’s political hip hop anthem Fight the Power fall far, far short of anything remotely resembling anger only reinforces just how far most of Canada really is from the streets of the hardcore world.
I seriously considered switching out today’s covers for the originals as an April Fools spoof. But the best hoaxes are subtle, almost beautiful in their believability. And each of these performances is something special, simultaneously a hoax and a masterpiece, teetering on the edge of sincerity like a gangster caught between the rock of urban decay and the social pose that is, in the end, all that is left to matter.
So mind the language, folks. And enjoy a short set of the folk of the street.
Tomorrow is the first day of Spring, and someone forgot to tell the sky.
In the morning, says the weatherman, the world will turn to slush. And if we are truly blessed, all our sins will be washed away.
Outside the snow sulks in great mounds where the plows have pushed it aside. Hard ice falls on three-inch shoots and tufts of new grass. We stay up late, and sit by the window together, and wait for the rains that do not come.
Send rain, O Lord. For it has been a hard Winter, and we are ready for Spring.
It’s International Women’s Day, and International Woman’s Month: important markers of how far we’ve come in our ongoing struggle towards true gender equality, and important reminders that exploring history through the lens of the other is a key component of our ongoing growth as a humanity.
But the very fact of International Women’s Day is also an indicator of just how deeply we still suffer, and how much we still need to pause, thoughtfully, in order to explore the hidden and not-so-silent assumptions which keep us from being who we should be. And so, as a father of daughters, a husband of a wife, there’s a part of me that finds myself more than a bit frustrated that it’s 2013, and here I am raising two girls in a world where people still insist on setting aside a whole and single month to acknowledge 51% of the population.
I cherish and celebrate the women in my life – though like most men, probably not as much as I should. It is a hard-won habit, and one needful of constant reinforcement. But it’s not enough to honor. Lingering inequalities undermine all of us, and to address them, we must start by being honest with ourselves about that which we still carry in ourselves, both collectively and individually. And so I have celebrated the tomboy tendencies of the elderchild, and then later been ashamed, for unconsciously nurturing that within her which would make her able to compete with boys and men on their own turf, for forgetting that becoming the other is never the right path to consensual change. And I have struggled, mightily, with the pink princess preferences of my younger daughter, before ultimately deciding that as long as we are able to help her reach a point where she is able to make a conscious and informed choice to embrace such range of identity, girlishness should be a legitimate point on that spectrum for her or anyone to defend, and proudly.
After a lifetime coming to terms with both my own white male privilege, I consider myself a feminist, of a sort – a term which I use, in part, because it makes everything stop for a while, leaving that breathing room which can become the foundation of self-healing. And this means many things: accepting, for example, that it is not my place to decide what women need or want, but owning the idea that it is my place to both guard the rights of those whose gendered lives I cannot truly know or claim, and to confront and help illuminate the worlds of those men who – through their casual words, or their subtle actions – create discomfort without knowing.
Believing in true equality also means walking the walk in my teaching practice, too. More often than not, this means working hard to seize each teachable moment, all in the name of teaching both boys and girls that it is to their ultimate benefit to claim their role as active collaborators in the process of change, lest they find the world more confusing than it needs to be. The immediacy of my reactions to what my male students often try to defend as mere horseplay (or worse, as culturally-grounded role-play which I, as a white outsider, should respect and allow), confounds many of them, who too often spout (or worse, enact and embody) the misogyny of the naive and brash, and are too often startled by the vehemence with which I call them on their casual objectification of their female peers when I see it in the hallways and classrooms.
Working hard to use non-gendered terms, and to correct my students gently when they use them in daily practice, is an ongoing struggle: too many of the texts we use still automatically assign male pronouns to hypothetical CEOs, Chairs-of-the-Boards, and Doctors, and female terms for office assistants, nurses, and airline hosts. But I am privileged to teach a subject where such discourse can be explicit, too. For the sophomores who take my Introduction to Media Literacy class, our upcoming study of both the strict division of toy and television programming – from the Dora/Bob The Builder dichotomy to the increasingly subtle but no less present gender cues in the Disney Princess canon – will offer a more explicit lesson: that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are still limit us; that the patterns they embed in our developing minds recreate generations of disempowered girls and boys, who are ill-prepared to confront themselves, and less able to open themselves to each other in healthy ways as they find each other and themselves in adulthood.
As it is in my world, so it is in yours: as long as men and women work every moment to see themselves as equal partners and allies in the fight for true equality, and to develop the habits of mind and practice that teach others that such lenses are normative, there is hope, to pair with our frustration.
Until then, I suppose, we must reluctantly accept Women’s Day as the desperately needed touchstone that it is.
Still, it remains my hope that my daughters will one day live in a world where discourse of quotas and glass ceilings is truly moot; where strangers and grandparents do not cite my daughters for their prettiness first and foremost; where the sixteen year old adolescents I cry for in my darkest hours not only cease their grab-ass corridor ways, but accept their role as parents and partners before they impregnate their peers – and where, because we set aside every day to celebrate and reflect upon all the things we are, International Women’s Day can take its place in the cultural pantheon as just one more of those crumbling granite edifices that – like footprints in the fading snow of a warm Spring – mark the path that has taken us to where we want to be.
The last time Cover Lay Down suffered a major technological crisis, we had plenty of warning: Blogger had just started shutting down music blogs for spurious copyright claims, and in response, our mp3 file host had given us a two week window to pack up and move on. And so, after some soul searching and a huge outpouring of support from our small but committed fan base, in November of 2008, we opened the doors to a newly redesigned space here at coverlaydown.com.
For the next four and a half years, the bits and bytes that represent Cover Lay Down lived on a private server in California, funded by generous donations from readers like you. Twice a week, on average, I would log on, let the muse come to me, and send the tiny essays and songsets that emerged into the ether, where they would inevitably take on a life of their own. And my biggest fear about this blog was that one day, I would run out of topics for coverage.
And then, a week ago last Sunday, everything disappeared.
If my absence from these virtual pages has been stressful, it is, in part, because we had no platform to let folks know what the hell was going on. And to be fair, for most of the week, I had no idea what was going on, either. It took a community of others who had been affected by the same shutdown to piece together the sad and gory backstory of a company owner gone both AWOL and bankrupt, his abandoned servers disconnected due to non-payment, with no chance of recovery.
In the end, after a week of dashed hopes and failed attempts to get the servers turned back on long enough to extract a database backup, I took a deep breath, and began to rebuild from scratch. I contacted BigScoots, a well-established host with a strong reputation and excellent customer service, and gave them the last of your donated dollars for them to work their magic; I spent a day and a half relearning several web development code systems, and tweaking the design until it looked like home.
And though I have come to accept that it will take weeks or months to restore 5 years worth of regular blog entries one by one using public archives from the Wayback Machine, recreating the space itself must have worked well enough. Because here we are again.
This blog is a home for me, and that’s more than ample reason to fight to recover it. But the well-wishes and notes of concern that have trickled through over the last seven days remind me that this is your space, too – a vital aspect of what makes this blog work, though one which is easy to lose sight of, here on my living room couch, alone in the night with the kids asleep upstairs. A home with open doors is a better home, indeed. And just like our first loss, way back in November of 2008, I am proud and humbled to play host to such a caring collection of individuals.
Now that we’re back, the temptation to pontificate is strong. There’s lessons lurking in the background, here: about making back-ups, especially, and about having a plan B ready to go in case of emergencies. But after eight days of stress and panic, we’ve come out the other side into acceptance, ready to move on, resolved to remember that this is a place of love, and it’s important to keep it that way.
So here’s an appropriately diverse set to get us back to our core mission: to grow and celebrate together through a shared love of music, and a mutual appreciation for the artists who craft and interpret that music on behalf of the world.
May the music speak to our hearts, and bring us the community we so crave. And may we always rise from the ashes, again and again, to stand together against the hardship and the sorrow.
An afterthought: Several of you have asked how you can help us get back on our feet, and we are grateful, as always, for the offers of assistance, and for the commitment and care such offers represent. We have always depended on support from our community. Here’s how to do your part:
Support the continued creation of music by purchasing artists’ work whenever possible.
Spread the word to friends and family by joining our Facebook page and clicking “like” on a favorite post.
Share the wealth by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings.
A highly anticipated new release from Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer is starting to make the rounds, and though it’s only early February, we’re going to go out on a limb and declare Child Ballads an early contender for best tradfolk album of the year. And we’re not going to be alone, either: with 6 weeks left to its March 19th US release date, the seven track album has already garnered high and well-deserved praise from Pitchfork, and a full-page feature in today’s edition of The Sun seems a harbinger of loud and voluminious praise to come in the major media on the cusp of a February 11th UK release.
Child Ballads being what they are, its tempting to call this one an LP; five of the tracks come in at between five and seven minutes long, and it’s easy to imagine the sequence filling both sides of a vinyl package. But however we categorize its size, for culture vultures of a particularly coverfolk bent, the meeting of these two modern indiefolk sirens and their centuries-old subject comes as especially wonderful news. Indeed, the viability of folk as an eternal and looping thread is proved so well and so warmly here, as much as the album cements the stature of Hamer and Mitchell, it reminds us of the import of the Child Ballads themselves.
A little history, for the uninitiated: as an enthomuscologist and archivist, Francis James Child provides the protogenesis of more recent folk collectors from Seeger to Lomax, collecting and publishing 305 ballads in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898 under the title Popular English and Scottish Ballads, and in the process single-handedly creating the concordance which would serve as guide and touchstone for the folk revolutions that would follow throughout the 20th century. And though it is the comprehensive nature of his collection which is generally cited as so significant, Child’s timing should not be denied: though the ballads were, as their title implies, already at the core of popular English-language folk music, the advent of recording technology would speed and solidify their spread, canonizing their narratives and their collector alike, and fueling further exploration of their potential.
Variants abound, even in Child’s collection: as differentiated from more modern coverage, where lyrics are often treated as sacred text, the treatment of the popular ballad is heavily influenced by regionalism, and Child duly noted significant shifts where he found them. The result is a canon which, while definitive, is one nonetheless accurately dubbed “fluid and almost endlessly mutable” by the Guardian. In our sample set below, for example – neither comprehensive nor cautious, but merely a set of favorites from ballads 1-100 released by relative youngsters in the last decade – Jim Moray’s Lord Douglas bears clear but vastly shifted ground in Child Ballad 7, more typically called Earl Brand; Annalivia’s lively False Sir John counts as a variant of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, also known in some regionalisms as May Colvin, while Shady Grove represents an Americanized take on Matty Groves, in which the violence of the original has been boiled out for the more puritanical audience which typifies much of the Appalachian traditions.
Similar shifts and reformations abound in the American folkways. Leadbelly’s 1939 recording of The Gallis Pole, which would later be picked up by Judy Collins, Dylan, and Led Zeppelin under similar nomenclature, traces its ancestry to Child Ballad 95; here, it finds voice in a brand new version from husband and wife tradfolk duo The Quiet American. Wind & Rain, which Crooken Still revives so achingly, is but one of almost two dozen “standard” variants of a ballad whose recorded nomenclature includes multiple versions called either Two Sisters or Cruel Sister. And Sam Amidon’s How Come That Blood, erroneously attributed to Bessie Smith upon its release, is in fact an Irish variant of Child Ballad 17, which Child simply lists as Edward.
As the above list suggests, though my father’s American generation met most of these songs through the britfolk revival of Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Pentangle, and Fairport Convention (and such later popular folk rock hybridizers as Traffic and Jethro Tull), the ballads which Child collected remain vibrant in the hands of a new generation on both sides of the proverbial pond. As such, today’s mix aims solely to address the first hundred of ballads from the Child collection, with the assumption that other albums yet-to-be will prompt further exploration of House Carpenter, The Golden Vanity, The Raggle Taggle Gypsy, The Great Silkie, Mary Hamilton, and other favorites from the later parts of the multi-volume set.
Though our own collection of post-millennial takers of the tradition trends towards greatness even before now, the addition of Mitchell and Hamer’s Child Ballads to the vast and varied is an apt kick-off to such a survey, and a special delight to boot. Fluid, engaging, clear as the running streams and lakes of its myriad stanzas, and equally adept in mournful darkness and moral tale, in its exquisite treatment of both the easily recognizable (Tam Lin) and several unusually obscure and under-covered selections, this new collection is rightfully on its way to being regarded as masterpiece, a showpiece for how modern solo and duet forms can still find life in the sourcebook.
As Timber & Steel noted earlier this week, a pair of Mitchell and Hamer’s seven tracks had already hit the web in one form or another; we’ve shared Child 100 below in streaming form to kick off an otherwise-sequential set. But our recent acquisition of the EP in full assures us that the real joy here is in the scope and sequence; this is one for the ages, and we highly recommend pre-order via Mitchell’s website. And we note, too: though the Mitchell’s grand classical folk opus Hadestown made her appropriately name-brand enough to make her the central addressee of most early reviews, and though her voice throughout is achingly sweet and tender, Hamer’s contribution here is equal to hers, and equally essential; for example, though we’ve taken it down at label request, their take on Riddles Wildly Expounded (Child #1), which represents but one of the two tracks on this incredibly perfect EP which feature his voice first, brings his lead vocals into the public mix, lending a new chord of credence to all arguments for why and how this simply produced, stunningly clear duo recording sets the sterling standard for folk music in the modern era.
Child Ballads in the 21st Century, Volume 1 [zip!]
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer: Willie of Winsbury (Child #100)
It starts on a Wednesday, with a faint feeling of not-rightness about the head, as if the senses were secretly, suddenly drunk. And you can’t teach like this, so you check yourself out early from work, a pre-emptive strike that gives false hope Thursday morning but ultimately fails: by Thursday night the throat begins to swell and catch, shrugging itself into place like a cachet of blankets, and the body remembers: this is how it begins, and it’s not going to be fun.
Friday morning marks the first of 5 days of high fever that swells your back until it pulses pain. Freezing in your clothes in front of the pellet stove fire, you give up, and see a nurse in the clinic, who treats you roughly, shoving a stick up your nose to swab for the flu and sending you home with medicines that seem, somehow, wholly inappropriate for your described symptoms.
It’s not better. You move to the couch, because your coughing in the night keeps a household from sleeping. You cough so much it leaves starburst headaches above one eye, and explodes a red vessel all over the white of the other. By Monday last you find yourself in the hospital having chest X-rays. Pneumonia, the doctor says; go home, because it’s going to be a while.
If you’re me – and I suppose we write as everyman so often, it seems odder not to assume so – then the slight hump of guilt and regret which accompany removing oneself from the human race never go away. The pain and woolen-headedness engender not so much laziness as a comprehensive malaise. Once or twice, I must admit, I encountered a coverbloggable something, recognized faintly in my haze as that which generally fits the rubric; each time, I merely put it aside for when the mind was working, and the body clear.
The ears don’t work when the body is so broken: they plug up, and the tinnitus ricochets loud like a shut-in. And illness stifles the linguist in me, too. The fever dreams of a week gone by turn what is ordinarily a rapid-paced flash of clear phrasing into a muddy fishpond, its pearls of bespoke wisdom faintly seen, if at all, and never that clearly. Even if I could hear and listen, I could not properly muse, at least in those regions where objectivity is a necessary companion.
And so, with no voice for a half-score of days, we plant the signpost: yes, we are still here, a mind under reconstruction, exhausted and sore, still planning to go back to work tomorrow despite strong reservations about whether it is even possible to maintain order in the inner city classroom with the flag at half mast. The grim spectre of several days to come loom, but there are a few hours yet to document the damage before we leave behind these hydrocodone dreams. And so we struggle to fix our tenses, and collapse the prismed multiples into the stable self, and rise again like Lazarus; to coalesce and be unbroken once again.
As we noted late last week in The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1: Tribute Albums and Cover Compilations, it’s been a reasonably good year for full-album coverage. But although tracks from tributes continue to overwhelm singletons in my collection, as in previous years, a significant majority of the songs that lingered came from a mixed bag of borderline genre albums and single shot coverfolk releases, via the usual sources: YouTube and Soundcloud, in-studio sessions, website and bandcamp singles, full folk albums, and more.
That we continue to find so much of our favorite coverage of the year outside the album-length covers collection is an ongoing testament to our folk-first, artist-centric approach here at Cover Lay Down. After all, the point of our biweekly forays into the folkworld is to introduce you to the best of the singer-songwriter, roots, americana, bluegrass, and contemporary folk rock and folkpop canon. Our nominal focus on coverage is, in the end, merely a vehicle, to provide an entry into the craft and appreciation of those artists through the comfort zone of familiar song. And that artists, knowing this, remain prone to cover a song or two along the way, granting both a sense of their sound and an exposition of their influence, continues to lend credence to this folk-first mandate.
We eschew ranking for single songs; you’ll not find hierarchies here. But I’m not so humble as to enjoy the challenge of creating the perfect mix of coverfolk, circa 2012. And so, once again, we’re offering a two-part compromise: the short, mostly tongue-in-cheek “Best Of” which appeared on Friday…and here, today, the piece de resistance: a 29-song set of our favorite and most-played tracks from this year’s vast collection of singletons and deep cuts, designed to be downloaded and played in order for maximum emotional impact.
Like so many of the songs we posted in part one of this dual reluctance, every one of them gives me chills. Taken together, subjective though they are, they offer a challenge to 2013 and beyond.
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, 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 will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of alternate favorites and rare 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.
It’s coming on 2013, and for weeks, otherbloggers and tastemakers have been touting their 2012 picks, jostling to be the best and first match for your own preferences, inviting debate over position in the ranks. And once again, here I am, after weeks of archival digging and false starts, late out of the gate and still struggling with the sheer hubris of presenting my own Year In Review.
As I noted last December atop our Best Coverfolk of 2011 feature, my reluctance to pass judgement isn’t a cop-out. I’m a relatively fickle listener, but I’m also the sort of collector who takes more delight in discovery than digs. Our focus on the breadth of music often leans harder towards emergence, promise, and artist evolution than the next big thing because that’s the honest expression of how I think and hear. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes. (And how does one compare the sublime to the sentimental? The transformation to the faithful revisioning? The sparse to the layered? Coverage comes in as many flavors and subtypes, and each one can be done well.)
As a general policy, then, I eschew the critical lens; our mandate, as we see it, is to tout and expose. While others rank and score, we celebrate and share that which we love as we find it, believing that if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. In that sense, the entirety of our year’s blogging is our recommendations list for the year. To winnow it down feels, on the one hand, like a dismissal of that joy we found in any of it when we found it.
And yet there is method in the madness of the recovery of the recent in the name of hierarchical organization. Just considering a Best Of post provides a useful and productive opportunity to revisit the archives. And though this year was perhaps not quite as generous as the last in some categories of coverage, a generous and precious handful of coverfolk EPs and covers albums have emerged this year; to come back to them before they fade from the memory has its uses.
More significantly, while I abhor the very idea of ranking songs, album-length collections seem easier to rate. Hitting the mark singly, in three minutes or so of song, is itself a hard standard; providing a rich, nuanced journey through multiple tracks without stumbling is nigh impossible. Self-selection becomes the primary criteria, then: in those very rare cases where an entire album of covers comes to us as a success, the end result is well worth repeating at year’s end. And here, the successes are so few and far between, we can count on our fingers the albums which deserve not just our respect, but our awe and appreciation, and our last dollars.
And so today, as the last days of the year wane into history, we bring you our wholly subjective picks: the best folk, roots, indie, and Americana coverfolk albums of 2012, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking. Read, download, follow links to purchase, and then stay tuned later this weekend for an unordered mix of our favorite singletons and one-offs of the year.
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists): Leonard Cohen: The Bard of Montreal / MOJO Magazine Presents The Songs of Leonard Cohen Covered(tie)
The year in multi-genre, multi-artist tribute albums started and ended badly, in our wholly subjective estimation: Chimes of Freedom, Amnesty’s gigantic 4-CD Dylan tribute, offered several duds and but a single disc’s worth of favorites; late-year Fleetwood Mac tributes from MOJO magazine and Starbucks in-house label Hear Music leaned heavily indiepop this year, though we’ll surely see a track from one or the other in our impending “best of” single-shot mixtape, and neither made for full-bore success. But a similarly paired set of tributes to Leonard Cohen – a freebie from Canadian folklabel Herohill, and a March release from MOJO now mostly only available to collectors willing to pay for back issues – were either centrally or exclusively indiefolk albums, as befits a new generation of singer-songwriters heavily influenced by the poetry and melodic genius of the inimitable Canadian bard, and both were so strong, we’ve decided to put them up as a twinned set.
Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman, a little-blogged under-the-radar release from Tompkins Square Records which came to my attention via a reader just last month, deserves second-place recognition for a comprehensively strong set of folk-and-more tracks that reveal surprising nuance from the catalog of a sadly undersung jazzfolk hero of the Cornish circuit with over 30 albums to his name; check it out for slow, dreamy interpretations from Meg Baird, Two Wings, Maddy Prior, William Tyler, Hiss Golden Messenger, the ubiquitous Lucinda Williams and others who shared his stage. Strong runners-up included the decidedly twangy Nick Lowe tribute Lowe Country, andLong Distance Salvation, a double-disk tribute to Springsteen’s Nebraska, which contains at least a single album’s worth of excellence, and plenty of good besides.
The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist): Rory Block, I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis
Though last year there was strong competition in this category, the reciprocal single-folk-artist tribute was much rarer this year – indeed, as noted below, since the EP category contains but a single entry, we almost abolished it entirely. In part, this is because many of the best one-artist tribute albums of 2012 lean too far away from folk to count: Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s tribute to the Nina Simone songbook, for example, is quite powerful, but far too R&B for a folkblog; indie rock duo The Rosebuds’ same-name 20-year anniversary tribute to Sade album Love Deluxe, while excellent in its own right, is truly a soul album, though it has enough elements of folk to legitimize an honorable mention. Happily, country blues counts as folk on most radio playlists, and on ours. And so despite its own issues of over-consistency, Rory Block’s otherwise excellent Rev. Gary Davis tribute, with its masterfully authentic guitarwork and more than a hint of gospel harmonies, gets the prize by default.
Also problematic, for technical reasons: David Crossland’s tribute to mentor and Kingston Trio co-founder John Stewart remains on the cusp of release as of presstime and thus will likely count as a 2013 contender. And though Love Canon’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 and Treatment Bound: A Ukulele Tribute To The Replacements got plenty of play in my car and my house this year, both get honorable mention but no awards: the former tribute to the songs of my 80′s childhood is hugely fun and eminently sunny but, despite a strong and perfectly earnest take on Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, ultimately lacks depth (and is probably supposed to, given the tongue-in-cheek band name, Tron-parody album cover, the laughter that ends many tracks, and a playlist that includes slyly gleeful bluegrass versions of both Olivia Newton John hit Physical and Devo’sWhip It); similarly, and much less successfully, though the MTV unplugged consistency of the Replacements tribute is fun for a while, the one-take two-uke retread approach wears thin by album’s end, leaving it with little staying power.
The Year’s Best Tribute EP: Hyacinth House, A Tribute to Bob
As above. This foreign-born folk-slash-indierock throwdown – technically recorded over a sequence of years, possibly not released in 2012 in the first place, and impossible to track or label otherwise with any definitive assurance – was the only EP-length reciprocal single-artist tribute we found this year. Luckily, it’s quite good enough to stand on its own.
Honorable mention goes to the four songs of Jurado Covers, which – quite unusually, for an EP-length format – has four different yet equally strong indie singer-songwriters paying tribute to the same artist, in honor of the release of Damien Jurado’s “zenlike” 2012 release Maraqopa. Download it for free at the link below.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist): Barrett Smith and Shannon Whitworth, Bring It On Home
By contrast, we find a huge and varied set of contenders in this category this year, many of which deserve respect and admiration at year’s end, from Pesky J. Nixon’s alternately intimate and raucous living-room-recorded Red Ducks to The Chieftains’ guest-heavy collaboration Voice Of Ages, which made the rounds of many blogs upon release, thanks to guest spots from Bon Iver, The Low Anthem, et al. But if we’re looking for album-length perfection with staying power, three strong contenders shoot to the top of the list: Peter Mulvey’s ancient, raw, ragged The Good Stuff, Rickie Lee Jones’ stunningly hushed and deconstructedThe Devil You Know, which was produced by Ben Harper and sounds like it, and Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith’s amazingly heartfelt Bring It On Home. Of these, the half-acoustic soul, half-folk Bring It On Home gets the nod for top honors by a razor’s edge, because we’re suckers for both masterfully produced layers of stringwork and sweet harmonies here at Cover Lay Down, and this album has got ‘em in spades.
The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists): Mason Jar Music and Friends, The Storm Is Passing Over
An incredible eleventh hour collection of songs thematically joined by the narratives of flood and storm evoked by Hurricane Sandy, The Storm Is Passing Over easily leapfrogs over all previous contenders in an otherwise lightly-populated category to make its first appearance here on Cover Lay Down atop our year’s end list, leaving us with nary a runner-up in sight. The predominantly sparse songs lean heavily towards the public domain, of both the traditional and the old-school folk, gospel, and blues canons; though Bela Fleck and Roseanne Cash make an appearance, generally speaking, the artists here, most of whom share a connection to the hard-hit borough of Brooklyn and its strong new folk scene, represent a veritable cross-section of the new folk revival, from Emily Elbert, Michael Daves, and Aoife O’Donovan to Dawn Landes, Abigail Washburn, Piers Faccini, The Gundersen Family and Tift Merritt.
A project like this, with all songs recorded in the last few weeks, could have come off as hastily contrived. But the first-rate artists here, many of whom we have been following for years, come together mightily, bringing a smooth collection of songs that range from tender to triumphant, heavy on the solo singer-songwriter and country blues – which is to say the three samples below are a true indictor; it all sounds this good from start to finish. Bonus points: it’s available on the cheap by name-your-own-donation, with all proceeds going to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, so head over to the website to stream and download now and support both scene and sorrow.
The Year’s Best Covers EP: Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Old Gold
The short-set challengers in this category for 2012 run an especially broad gamut – so much so that it was tempting to create a hybrid-genre category just for Leftover Cuties and Lake Street Dive, both of which incorporate acoustic, big band, and indie elements in ways that truly defy genre. Other challenges, different in scope but similar in scale, face us with the Deschutes River Recordings series, which at three tracks, seems too light to compete, though each is a gem on its own, and with Laura Cortese‘s five-track Kickstarter Covers album, which, as we noted upon receipt, is technically not available to any but a handful of us who gave to last year’s Poison Oaks project crowdfunding campaign, though we have assurance from Laura herself that a slow track-by-track release over time is perfectly acceptable, allowing for our inclusion of a second track herein.
But although Ahoy!, the late-year half-pint release from newgrass pioneers the Punch Brothers, is an energetic delight of talent and folk hybridization, and although You Gotta Roll, the 5 song all-covers EP from Woody Pines, has a hopped-up ragtime-stringband-meets-rockabilly energy that evokes an era when blues, folk, jazz, and country were still intermingled on dustbowl radio, it’s the sheer warmth of Seattle countryfolk singer-songwriter Zoe Muth’s Old Gold that stands out among near-equals, with sweet, twangy vocals and a heady set of songs from her influences reimagined with richly-arranged abandon making for a true powerhouse of a coverset. Kudos to Signature Sounds, to producer Rob Mitchell, and to Muth herself, for their collaborative work in getting this tiny, precious Americana gem into the world.
The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album: Renee & Jeremy, A Little Love
This was the year I truly fell in love with California singer-songwriter duo Renee & Jeremy; indeed, I’ve probably blogged about their work more times than anyone this year, and who can blame me? A Little Love is a tidy, gleeful gem of modern kindie music, apt and ample for family fare, chock full of soft-yet-infectiously reimagined songs from R.E.M., Coldplay, Queen, Supertramp, and others that celebrate the gift that is the generous and well-lived life.
Two new albums from perennial kidfolk favorite and Smithsonian songstressElizabeth Mitchell tie for second place: both her Grammy-nominated Woody Guthrie covers album Little Seed and her more recent release Blue Clouds are excellent additions to a growing body of work, further cementing her place at the core of the modern kidfolk canon. Bonus points to Jumpin’ Through Hoops, whose Rockin’ to the Fiddle is a tiny, joyous tradfolk set of fiddle tunes and kidfolk classics from Kristen Andreassen and friends which was released too late in 2011 for consideration in last year’s tongue-in-cheek awards.
The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album: Charlie Parr, Keep Your Hands On The Plow
Last year, this category existed almost exclusively to acknowledge the highly-anticipated duo release from Michael Daves and Chris Thile; this year, we keep it in the mix in order to call back to Charlie Parr’s early 2012 treatment of old gospel blues songs, which has had quite solid staying power in our home and our ears as the year has progressed. As we noted way back in January, Parr’s hoarse voice and honest workmanship make for an especially strong and consistent album, sparse and heartfelt, with the right balance of ragged gospel blues harmonies and well-crafted hill-and-holler fiddle and fingerpicking bound to tempt those who find their heart in the modern neo-trad work of Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Low Anthem while still touching a nerve in lovers of the Louvin Brothers, Dave Van Ronk, Leo Kottke, and more.
A strong second-place showing from Portland’s well-respected, internationally-known Foghorn Stringband, whose 21-track 2012 release Outshine The Sun is a perfect exemplar of a classic old-timey sound, lends credence to our category even as their recent forays into Cajun and other broad roots sounds and sources adeptly widen the lens of the traditional. Though the inclusion of songs from Hazel Dickens, the Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers in the mix of fiddle tunes, pre-WWII country, and early bluegrass technically transcends the limitations of the public domain canon, the unified sound of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, stand-up bass, and vocal harmonies around a single microphone has a warmth and an organic authenticity that is both loving and truly timeless, making the album well worth revisiting here.
The Year’s Best Rereleased Cover or Tribute Album: Lotte Kestner, Extra Covers Collection
We created this category last year as a one-shot in order to feature They Will Have Their Way, a nominally “new” release cobbled from two previous one-shot tribute albums of male and female covers of Neil and Tim Finn songs. But while technically there is some great new coverage in Trespasser’s William co-founder Lotte Kestner’s aptly if unimaginatively titled Extra Covers Collection, the majority of the slowcore collection is forged from the two 2011 EPs we discovered and touted too late to make it into last year’s “best of” feature. Both new and older tracks combine to hold up eminently well as a late night lullaby set, though we continue to wish Kestner, who trends towards covering the obscure, would include more detail in her track listing; the Billy Idol cover below is a retread, while the Gotye cover is, naturally, new, but both remain favorites.
The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album: Rayna Gellert, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds
A kind of catch-all last year, which allowed for a nod to those albums which lean heavily on coverage, but include enough originals in the mix to knock them out of consideration as “true” covers albums. This year, consideration of such cover-heavy releases allows us to celebrate the work of several artists: a new solo outing from Uncle Earl fiddle-player Rayna Gellert, New York tradfolker Jan Bell’s well-balanced thematic soiree Dream of the Miner’s Child, bluegrass banjo wizard Bill Evans’ In Good Company, a guest-heavy album which includes a delightfully fun 4-song sequence of instrumental Beatles tunes plus coverage of John Martyn and Sarah Siskind, and Canadian crooner Reid Jamieson’s tribute to the songs of winter, which, while it garnered treatment as a covers album upon release in November, truly belongs in this category thanks to three solid original tunes.
Of these, Rayna Gellert’s Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds edges out to the top, if only because of how effectively Gellert packages and presents a perfectly-balanced mix of the traditional and the newly-penned in her triple-threat role as arranger, lead performer, and producer – indeed, the album, which finds the artist shifting from old-timey fiddle tunes to vocal-driven singer-songwriter fare, is so unified in its timelessness, it’s often hard to tell which are the old tunes, and which the new. NPR’s Bob Williams called it “an exquisite slice of Americana”, and we’re inclined to agree, recommending it to the No Depression and indiefolk crowds alike for its morphine-drip drones and atmospheres. And with its strong phrasing, Gellert’s deep alto voice, risen to new-found prominence, reminds us of none so much as Cindy Kallett’s, which is high praise indeed from this long-time fan.
The Year’s Best YouTube Covers Series: ortoPilot, 2012 YouTube Advent Calendar
Finally, our sole new category this year, and one long-overdue, as the trend towards YouTube coverage sets and series seems to reached critical mass a while ago. Old Ideas with New Friends, a previously-blogged early 2012 Vimeo project designed to raise awareness of Leonard Cohen’s then-new release Old Ideas, had a diverse set of tracks but several with staying power, while Antje Dukekot’s monthly six-song-so-far Antje Sings Covers! solo set may lack the rich instrumentation and depth of her nuanced studio albums, but her lighthearted overdubbed takes on favorite songs from Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, The Wailin’ Jennys, and others make for a fine if cutesy introduction to her live performance. But in the end, appropriately enough, it’s the native YouTuber who wins out:ortoPilot’s advent calendars are always stellar, but this year’s is nearly perfect, with masterful predominantly solo guitar-and-voice driven takes on a diverse set of modern pop and indie radio tunes from Seahorses, Kings of Convenience and Foster The People to TLC, Green Day, Stevie Wonder and Smashmouth.
ortoPilot: You’ve Got A Friend In Me (orig. Randy Newman)
Antje Duvekot: Ford Econoline (orig. Nanci Griffith)
Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, 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’ end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2012 covers otherwise unblogged.