New Artists, Old Songs: from indiefolk to bluegrass
with Willie Watson, S. Carey, Cereus Bright, RUNA & more!
Our long hiatus this Spring bred a huge backlog of great music; both desktop and mailbag are stuffed to the limit, and there’s enough open tabs on my browser to support weeks of features. We’ll start digging in to new tribute albums, a huge set of new videos and studio tunes from some of our favorite artists, and more over the next few weeks as we prepare to leave for our annual folk festival tour; today, we skim the cream of the crop to reveal some wonderful new and new-to-us artists covering Amos Lee, The Bee Gees, The Everly Brothers, TLC, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Jefferson Airplane, tradfolk and more!
On their new covers-and-traditionals album Current Affairs, Irish-Americana Roots band RUNA offers a powerful ethnomusical journey through the songs of Kate Rusby, The Child Ballads, the American labor movement, the gospel hymnal, traditional Gaelic reels and lullabies, and other hotspots in the evolution of the contrapuntal UK-American roots tradition.
Two 2013 Irish Music Awards, including one in the traditional category, prove their mettle, I suppose. But theirs is no mere retelling: the album is fresh and vibrant, a perfect-pitch collection that falls smack dab between comfortable folkpop and high-energy Celtic while transcending easy cataloguing – a nod to the diverse heritage of a Philadelphia-based five-piece band that features Dublin-born guitarist/vocalist Fionán de Barra, young Texas-style fiddler Maggie Estes White, Philly bandleader/vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan, and two percussionists (Galway mandolin/banjo and bodhran player Dave Curley and Montreal-based folk percussionist and current Northeast Regional Folk Alliance chair Cheryl Prashker). There’s nary a low point here, but RUNA’s gorgeous cover of Amos Lee’s Black River is the catchiest song I’ve heard in months; stay tuned for an Amos Lee feature in the coming weeks, too.
- RUNA: Black River (orig. Amos Lee)
- RUNA: The False Knight On The Road (trad.)
(from Current Affairs, 2014)
Despite inevitable comparison to Ben Sollee, Christopher Bell isn’t just another cello-playing singer-songwriter: he’s also a multi-instrumentalist and engineer, of his own songs and of others, with a creative process that has, of late, included heavy looping, synthesizers and beats, and a sense of whimsical re- and deconstruction. The result is a “sparse, otherworldly pop” that teeters on the edge of alternative, electrofolk and grunge, mesmerizing and new with elements of many genres even as it supports an entirely consistent and eminently singable songcraft.
His much sparser-sounding 2009 cover-your-friends Cover EP is hard to find, and his Harry Nilsson/Bach mashup, while a potent live performance revelation, dates from last April. But Bell’s recent Paul Simon cover is playful and wry, a great representative sample of his current work; find the latter on his newest album Fire via Bandcamp, and then stick around to peruse the archives.
- Christopher Bell: Pretty Thing (orig. Leah Arnold)
- Christopher Bell: A Letter To Violet Edison (orig. Be Brave Bold Robot)
(from Cover EP, 2009)
- Christopher Bell: One/Cello Suite III (orig. Harry Nilsson/Bach)
If you knew Bon Iver long before we covered his songbook last week, you know S. Carey; he’s the drummer and vocalist who learned Bon Iver’s first album by ear, approached the Wisconsin superstar backstage before a concert, proved his chops, and ended up a staple member of the band that very night.
Though he is relatively nonchalant about process, describing the creation of his first album as an accident of experimentation and single-shot recording, Carey has also emerged as a singer-songwriter in his own right, and although his 2 albums and an EP are clearly in the same tradition, they are decidedly not derivative. This new Pines cover, posted on Soundcloud as a tour kick-off towards the end of June, is tender and delicate, as hushed, haunting and hollow as a Paul Simon tune, and ready for media placement in the next Wes Anderson movie or Zach Braff project. Highly recommended; file under “balls of brass, voice of an indiefolk angel”.
Willie Watson isn’t exactly an unknown, either: as a founder and core member of Old Crow Medicine Show, he’s made a name for his band as one of the premier members of the new old-timey folk revival camp. His solo debut, the aptly-titled Folk Singer, Vol. 1, is a call to even older forms of performance, and a stand-out candidate for Best Traditional Folk album in our end-of-year series: a delicate, spare series of covers and traditional songs, stripped down to the raw and intimate essentials of one man, one instrument, and a voice that evokes a hundred years of source material from the blues and folk canons. Bonus points for Watson’s cover of Everly Brothers classic Take A Message To Mary, a teaser which predated the album by a month or so.
New Knoxville folk band Cereus Bright plays alternative unplugged-style singer-songwriter songbook fodder like they mean it – as in the below, a majestic, dark and stormy string orchestra and mandolin-driven Bee Gees cover released to promote their recent tour that comes off as only slightly tongue-in-cheek. And people seem to like it; though their previous output comprises but a single 2013 EP, with the release of this cover, theirs has become a rapidly-rising star that has taken them to MTV, Paste, Relix, and a grand summer tour. Via email from drummer Luke Bowers, who knows his audience and its taste: new coverblog Cover Me Badly shared this back in May, too.
- Cereus Bright: Stayin’ Alive (orig. Bee Gees)
And speaking of new artists: here’s a Spotify playlist of covers from a few select artists, each of whom is slated to perform two songs each at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Fest as part of the Emerging Artists showcase on Friday afternoon from noon to four. Overall, the showcase features 24 rising stars; selecting every cover on this year’s master list of artist recordings nets us a reasonably representative sample, with Liz Frame and the Kickers’ echoey Americana take on Somebody To Love, the uptempo stringband bluegrass of Tumbling Bones, Zak Smith’s ragged Americana folk rock balladry, a piano lounge singer’s jammin’ jazz take on No Scrubs from Avi Wisnia, and more to love. (PS: For more about the festival, which takes place the first weekend in August, check out our Falcon Ridge Folk Festival preview!)