The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1:
Tribute Albums and Covers Collections (2013)





It’s been an unusually sparse year here at Cover Lay Down, with several personal issues cutting into our awareness of the folkworld at large, and keeping us from blogging regularly. Of these, sadly, most have been ongoing: the elderchild still struggles to adapt to a life of pain and medicine; my students still struggle to take ownership of their education; my ability to remain whole as I try to balance family, work, volunteerism, and blogging remains shaky at best.

Add this to February’s unexpected server shut-down, which cost us a month of stress and five years of archives, and account for Kottke’s recent suggestion that blogs are dying, or at least, have taken a “diminished place in our informational diet,” and damn, it’s amazing that we’re still here at all, let alone ready to share our year’s best.

That we come to you at all for this annual ritual is startling enough to begin with; naming the “best” of anything is a dubious pursuit. As noted last year, we have a strong resistance to the hierarchical urge to rank and file. Though our lens may sometimes seem narrow from the outside, both coverage and folk come in many flavors and subtypes, and each can be done well; our focus on the breadth of musical expression 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. We find comfort and joy in so broad a mandate, and ultimately, take more delight in discovery than digs. There’s no true hierarchy of artistic output in my disheveled aural infrastructure, just a spectrum of successes and partial successes.

In that sense, we generally encourage others to accept the entirety of our year’s blogging as our recommendations list for the year: if it weren’t among the best things you’d hear all year, it wasn’t worth posting in the first place. If you’re not a regular reader, and you’ve been directed here by recommendation or accident, we highly recommend taking the time for your own skim of the archives sometime, the better to experience the miracle of craft and interpretation that is the modern folkways in all its glory.


To go through the motions of capturing, compiling and celebrating our favorite albums of the year after such a fragmented, disruptive pattern of listening seems like an exercise in hubris. To do so when we have always eschewed both the critical lens and the hierarchical trend seems doubly so.

But Cover Lay Down will not go gently into that goodnight – and in many ways, the larger context makes this year’s Best Of 2013 sets more needful than ever. For as long as music serves as salve and salvation, then we must also accept that the ongoing search for new artists, new collections, and new transformations is part of the human pilgrimage – and that each new discovery serves the soul both spiritually and medicinally.

In this sense, the annual archival sift that prepares us for our end-of-year pursuit is an inherent part of the journey – a recentering, that helps us revisit and recover tribute albums and cover compilations otherwise too easily lost among the detritus of a life lived in chaos. The mere act of listening closely again, and struggling to identify that which transforms the various parameters each song, album, and collection sets for itself to become something new, and wonderful, is worthy, indeed.

As a bonus, stepping back to view the year all-at-once reveals new trends, new patterns, and new paths which we may not have seen from week to week, as we steep in the new, and descend into the focused themes upon which we have set our store. In this case, such a process is especially beneficial, as it helps us reconstitute the unusually scattered plot that has resulted from an exceptionally scattershot year. And, as always, this affects the categories we use to frame and represent our favorites: this year, for example, we have decided to distinguish between multi-artist mass market tribute albums and blog-curated tributes, the better to feature larger, less polished collections which focus on lesser-known artists and decidedly lo-fi production values.

And so, though the process is corrupted, and though we still find our conflicted or even confused by the tendency of other blogs to criticize as well as celebrate, this week, we present our annual two-volume year’s end review of the best folk, roots, indie, and Americana coverfolk of 2013 – starting, today, with a comprehensive categorization of those albums, EPs, and collections which rose to the top of our playlists and hearts.


A final note, before we delve into delight: because it is borne of personal stress and sorrow, the collection that follows comprises not so much of the albums that stuck through us with the year, but a strange combination of the ones we wish we had time to listen to more often, and the ones which we played incessantly, for weeks upon end, when we most needed comfort in the midst of chaos. More than ever, it is incomplete, subjective, and in some ways, accidental; indeed, for the first time, a significant portion of the albums mentioned below went unblogged in the first place – a testament to our corrupted ability to track the release calendars, and attend to the constant mailbag stream. But the final product stands as another testament, nonetheless: to the albums and EPs which stayed with us through thick and thin, made all the more glorious for the rocky path we took to get here.

Today, then, we are proud to present Cover Lay Down’s annual compilation of the Year’s Best Coverfolk Collections, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking, to be followed closely, as always, by a mixtape of the best coverfolk singles of the year. Both we offer with undying thanks to the labels, the artists, the fans, and you, for holding us up, and in, and close, when the world keeps spinning right round, like a record.



COVER LAY DOWN PRESENTS:
THE YEAR’S BEST TRIBUTE ALBUMS AND COVER COLLECTIONS

[DOWNLOAD HERE]


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists, CD release):
Reason To Believe: The Songs of Tim Hardin

Though other categories blossomed this year, it was a relatively sparse twelvemonth for mass market multi-artist tribute albums, with several solid collections emerging as early contenders in the first few months only to remain on top of the heap as the year trickled onwards. As is often the case for tributes, anniversaries, illnesses, and death dates were the primary drivers of artist homage, but it was also the year that Peter Gabriel reciprocal covers project I’ll Scratch Yours finally came together as a cohesive collection, legitimizing Bon Iver’s dreamy, layered take on Come Talk To Me two years after it hit the blogs…and reminding us that when it takes three years to release an album, there is often a good reason.

Live albums in this category were also less successful, though certainly just as well-intentioned; Nick Drake tribute Way To Blue and Sing Me The Songs, which records a concert celebrating the works of Kate McGarrigle, each contain a couple of tracks worth mentioning, but overall, the heavy stamp of consistent performers and the usual challenges of live soundboard mixing make for too little diversity, and too much sameness. Pity, that – though there are plenty of Drake tributes to pick from in the wider world, we’ll hold out hope that time and temper will lay a better foundation for a proper McGarrigle tribute.

But of the studio collections, two stand out for their breadth and beauty, proving the test of time after jumping early out of the proverbial gate. The first, The Music Is You: A Tribute To John Denver, is “a powerful addition to the canon of coverage,” with more than a few tracks standing out as achingly perfect visions and revisions of the artist’s lifework, and a solid mix of contributions from old standbys such as Evan Dando, Dave Matthews, Mary Chapin Carpenter and new, younger favorites like Barnstar, Josh Ritter, Amos Lee, and Brett Dennen bringing a yawing but startlingly successful breadth to the collection. Reason to Believe: The Songs of Tim Hardin, on the other hand, with its primary focus around a stable of artists on the indie and indiefolk line, is both beautifully broken and more consistent, making it deeper in its way – a fair measure of single artist tribute, and thus deserving of top honors.



The Year’s Best Tribute Collection (multiple artists, free/streaming):
Long May You Run, J. Tillman Revisited

As noted above, we’re splitting our multi-artist tribute category this year – a strategy we’d ordinarily reserve to account for an unusually bountiful harvest. But in this case, the split we’ve chosen is natural: there’s a vast difference in curation between label-driven tribute albums and blog-solicited collections. And so we turn, distinctly, to those tributes populated by relative unknowns favored by the individual blogger who envisions, solicits, and puts the compilation together; it often sprawls far past the typical size of an album intended for hard-copy release, and may include multiple versions of the same song. And our access to the two types is vastly different: the former is generally for sale, with but a sample or two available for blog posting; the latter are generally free and/or stream only, populated as they are by truly independent players on the margins of genre, giving newfound meaning to the term “indie” after years of subsumption by the mass market.

This new category is no novelty: in past years, solicited collections have appeared on Stereogum, Pitchfork, and Paste; this year’s also-rans include a well-curated double-set tribute to The Postal Service album, and arguably, the Herohill-curated tribute to Leonard Cohen, which topped our list last year, would count in this category as well. But the shift in style and sound which springs from the fan-curated album at its best is exemplified by the clear winners in this category this year, Slowcoustic’s lovingly curated double-sized tributes to J. Tillman and Damien Jurado. In our original reviews, we called Long May You Run, J. Tillman Revisited, Slowcoustic’s emergent homage to Tillman’s oddly titled seminal sophomore solo album, “a triumph of curation and performance: appropriately imperfect, definitively Tillman, and shockingly diverse,” and we stand by that measure, though we also highly recommend the overstuffed Jurado tribute as well, for much the same reasons; taken together, they practically define a tiny quietfolk subcommunity at the heart of modern folk experimentation.


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist):
Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie Prince Billy, What The Brothers Sang

It was the Year of the Everly Brothers, with three full-album tributes on the docket: a sister act, two indiefolk mavericks, and Norah Jones and that guy from Green Day. Of these, we were surprised to like the Norah Jones/Billy Joe Armstrong collection, and pleased to hear favorite second-generation singer-songwriters The Chapin Sisters slick their hair down so faithfully; both, in their own way, are worthy of a second listen. But the deconstruction wrought by Faun Fables frontwoman Dawn McCarthy and indie maverick Bonnie “Prince” Billy on What The Brothers Sang is too potent and too precious: Oldham’s broken baritone and McCarthy’s warm alto establish a complex tapestry of sound, and their tendency towards languid arrangement and more obscure set pieces is quite something. The album is flexible in its treatment of the songbook, with each song rebuilt as a discrete genre expression with respect and not a little experimentation, making for a diverse and deeply intimate, but often tense and broken resurrection well worth repeated listening.

Honorable mention here goes to Noam Pikelny and Chris Thile, who used their time off from Punch Brothers touring to interpret two vastly different collections from almost diametrically opposed ends of the musical spectrum. We wrote about master mandolinist Thile’s all-classical, all-Bach album in July; Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – the banjo player and bandleader’s cover album of a cover album, which treats Baker’s seminal set of Bill Monroe tunes reverently – passed us by when it first came out, but the bluegrass purist in me loves it dearly.


The Year’s Best Tribute EP:
Nathan Edwards, The Music of Stephen Foster

With 8 tracks, Nathan Edwards’ celebration of the music of Stephen Foster is a hybrid album, almost – but not quite – too long to be an EP. But it remains a powerful high point in an otherwise sparse category, and since we put it just fine first time around, we’ll merely note that the warm vocal tones, exquisite instrumentation, and loving research which underlie this small-yet-ambitious project provide a unifying force that transcends mere songbook commonality…the result is seamless: a truly transformative yet eminently honest set that succeeds in its promise of updating the old songs for modern ears, finding the indiefolk, Americana, country and soul in songs long embedded in our national psyche. Amen.



The Year’s Best Covers Album:
The Big Bright, I Slept Thru the 80′s

We first featured two pre-release covers from The Big Bright last year, including their INXS cover in our Year’s Best Singles, and noted an EP-length pre-release floating out in the the ether more than a few months ago, making for an exceptionally long tease up to a December 2013 release for the fully realized album those smaller bursts claimed to anticipate. But in the end, the anticipation only made the final product sweeter. I Slept Through The 80′s is exactly what it promises to be – a loving deconstruction of 30 year old MTV new-wave and brit-pop hits, reimagined as soft, supple acoustic dreampop lullabies, with guitar, folk harmonies, and a hazy atmosphere of memory – and we’re thrilled to have it.

Lissa Schneckenburger’s simply titled but exquisitely sensitive Covers album, which we celebrated in May, makes for a very close runner up: every note counts, and every note lingers. Tie for third place goes to new albums from Hurray For The Riff Raff and Scott Matthew, whose broken voices and simple piano and guitar arrangements chill and comfort. And if we’re going all the way to fourth, we’ll put in a bid for Mara Levine’s Jewels And Harmony, a warm, contemporary post-revival singer-songwriter covers-with-friends folk album.

Even with five records topping our list, these favorites edge out among a surprisingly strong field. Yet another covers record from Mark Kozelek, and folkpop cellist Ben Sollee’s free Noisetrade release The Hollows Sessions, both of which went personally undiscovered until Cover Me included them in their own year’s end list, garner honorable mentions for eminently successful if increasingly formulaic approaches to coverage, mostly because we just love how Sollee and Kozelek break down and rebuild. Mud, Blood, and Beer, the third album by acoustic britfolk covers band The Bad Shepherds, is surprisingly listenable for an album of punk favorites. And although we were thrilled to find his second volume of Fan Chosen Covers in the mix, having made this list three years running, Eef Barzelay is hereby disqualified for future consideration despite the successful Kickstarter-driven promise of a Sound of Music EP to come in the early months of 2014.


The Year’s Best Covers EP:
Hannah Read and Charlie Van Kirk, Covers EP

Lots here, too – and much of it free to fans, from the joyful transformations on Levi Weaver’s mailing-list gift Antipodes to the just-released new installment in Okkervil River’s Golden Opportunities occasional covers EP series, which is a bit raucous for folk, but ends on a mellow note with a track sure to feature in Vol. 2 of our series.

In the final countdown, we ended up favoring two albums, each powerful in its own way. The Stray Birds huddle close harmonies around a single microphone to take on their favorites from the countryfolk world, and come off sounding crisp and clear, a tradfolk trio inhabiting their favorite songs to play out triumphs and tears with aplomb. And although the build on Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain is too good not to share here, Hannah Read and Charlie Van Kirk’s cover of MGMT’s Kids is truly definitive – which is really saying something, given how often the song has been covered. Add in a powerfully reconsidered, eminently deconstructed version of Nick Drake’s Riverman and an utterly haunting Radiohead cover, plus free Bandcamp download, and we’ve little choice but to give Read and Van Kirk the edge.



The Year’s Best Streaming Covers Series:
Al Lewis, The Covers EP, Vol. 1

The five-song Al Lewis soundcloud series titled “The Covers EP, Vol. 1″ would have made the EP covers category above, but sadly, it was technically ineligible, as it was released first as a series of singles, and only later retracked as a streaming EP by the artist himself, without title and in the same sequence as our own. No matter: it’s a good year for new categories, and a fair deal to acknowledge an ongoing shift in how artists release covers overall to nominate slow-release EP-length covers sets.

And though the pandora’s box that this category creates can be a slippery slope, restricting ourselves to finite sets of covers released in a single year provides a clear second place winner, too. Though the Morning Benders have changed their name to the aggressive and less memorable POP ETC since their bedroom covers collection first slammed the blogs back in 2007, the raw, organic four-set of covers posted on Soundcloud this year, started as a distraction from studio recording and ultimately touted as a series, delight as much as those long-ago covers did, reminding us just why we loved them so much to begin with. Honorable mention goes to Bess Rogers, whose pay-what-you-wish occasionals series Songs Other People Wrote drifted too far from folk after starting pure languid Kathleen Edwards-ian popfolk with a Gin Blossoms cover that rocks pretty, indeed.









The Year’s Best Kidfolk Covers Album:
Jackie Oates, Lullabies

Perennial category favorite Elizabeth Mitchell released several covers albums this year – including a co-bill with fellow kindie icon Dan Zanes and a tribute to Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Christmas collection – and both will find plenty of play in our house, though the kids have moved on to tweenpop. But Jackie Oates blew us away: the English folk singer and fiddle player was new to us, as are so many of the British-born lullabies and sleep songs she lovingly interprets on Lullabies, but the combination is rich and beautiful, delicate and sweet, with harmonies and drones echoing in the head, leaving an impression of something like the Unthanks for the slumbering set (and it turns out Jackie was a founding member, so no surprise).


The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album (single artist): Sam Amidon, Bright Sunny South

It was a surprisingly rich field in the tradfolk category this year, from sea shanties to civil war collections to other collections that target time and place – and so, again, we split the category three ways, presenting single artist tradfolk albums separately from multi-artist concept albums and EP-length sets, as we have done for years in other categories, the better to distinguish between single artistic visions both small and large, and curatorial cohesion unified by genre, theme, or origin.

Single artist tradfolk albums are often heavy on the traditional, and more about saving the old sounds and celebrating the hand-me-down tradition; these albums do not so much celebrate artistic vision though interpretation as they celebrate authenticity through recreation – a valid and valuable pursuit, but less interesting to us as ethnographers of the covering folkways. But though it does tuck Mariah Carey and Tim McGraw covers in among the mix, Sam Amidon takes the tradfolk vein several steps farther, winning deserving kudos for Bright Sunny South, an album that represents the full maturation of his sound, with stunningly smooth, shimmery production finally allowing the frail and often meager instrumentation that Amidon brings to his interpretations to finally sound less lo-fidelity and more deliberately broken. As we said in our original entry, call it a thinker’s album, and give him the Grammy already, for nowhere else this year have we heard such intimacy, such clear recognition of the myriad paths of shapenote hymns and old-timey folk brought forcefully into the 21st century.

Runners up honors go to indie alt-folk collective Vandaveer for their murder ballads collection Oh, Willie, Please…, a stealth record that crept up on us unawares and then…wow.


The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers Album (multiple artists):
Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War and The Beautiful Old: Turn-Of-The-Century Songs
(tie)
No pirate albums here, especially given how scattershot Hal Wilmer’s second volume was in the end. But we do have two decidedly different yet equally honest tributes to time and place in Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War and The Beautiful Old: Turn-Of-The-Century Songs. The former is more South than North in tone, and heavy on the bluegrass players, with country and folk around the edges, and an essence that’s honest and true; the latter, which catalogs its songs chronologically from 1805 to 1918, is a bit more diverse, but with some strong performances from Jolie Goodnight, Carrie Elkin, Richard Thompson and others who know.



The Year’s Best Tradfolk Covers EP:
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads

In a category often populated by small sets produced on a whim, Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads stands out as a hands-down winner this year. We named the collection, a close collaboration between two exceptionally talented players already at the top of their game, the go-to winner in this category way back before Spring; since then, numerous otherblog end of year lists have cited the album among the best, period. And we were right for all the right reasons: as we noted then, the album is 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…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.


The Year’s Best Mostly Covers Album:
The Quiet American, Wild Bill Jones

When we created this category several years ago, we envisioned it as a way to honor those artists who saw coverage and interpretation as such a core component of their craft that they included multiple covers among the songs on a single album, the better to pay homage to their influences, and show their output as grounded in history.

Several fine albums fit the mold this year. Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, who found fine fortune on these pages for both their debut duet release in 2011 and this year’s Midwinter, returned with Fire & Fortune, in which Clarke’s mature, deceptively simple interpretation of timeless traditional laments and original ballads, Walker’s stunningly subtle fretwork, and inspired settings of low winds, gentle piano chords, and soaring strings combine marvelously, making a fragile atmosphere that welcomes even as it warns. And Night, a mixed-genre varietal, with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and folk artist Tift Merritt trading off genre origins from classical, pop, jazz, and original sources, is a vast and vindicating tour de force of artist and genre crossover. Both deserve year’s end recognition, and huge compliments.

But it is Wild Bill Jones, a stunning triumph from home-grown modern folk revival The Quiet American, that justifies this final category’s existence, and then some. The concept album by husband-and-wife duo Aaron and Nicole Keim is a tour de force, an utterly perfect concept album that collects and transforms traditional songs, timeless originals, and Daniel Johnston’s True Love Will Find You In The End into a seamless sepia-toned narrative of loneliness, loss, and love so smooth, you’ll need the liner notes to piece apart the sources. Kudos to the pair for validating our ongoing pursuit of coverage as folkways so well, showing just how valid and valuable the mix of original works and tradition can become in the hands of masters.



The Year’s Best YouTube Covers Series:
Daniela Andrade

Discovered while searching for popcovers to populate a YouTube feature, young Honduran-Canadian singer-songwriter Daniella Andrade stole our heart with a perfect pure voice and a gentle way with a guitar. She’s been recording and releasing videos since 2008, but this year was a killer; most recent cuts include several amazing collaborations, and a sexy, girlish cover of Santa Baby that sends us to the showers. Someone get this girl a label.

    Daniela Andrade: The A Team (orig. Ed Sheeran)


    Daniela Andrade & Gia Margaret: Summertime Sadness (orig. Lana Del Rey)


    Daniela Andrade x Jon Lawless: Hold On, We’re Going Home (orig. Drake)



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 donors will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2013 covers otherwise unblogged.

6 comments » | Amos Lee, Anais Mitchell, Bess Rogers, Best of 2013, Hannah Read, J. Tillman, Jackie Oates, Jefferson Hamer, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Lissa Schneckenburger, Nathan Edwards, Sam Amidon, The Big Bright, Tift Merritt, Tim Hardin, Tributes and Cover Compilations, Vandaveer

New Artists, Holiday Songs 2013:
Christmas coverfolk samplers, streams, and YouTube singles





Just past the wreaths and windows a bout of unseasonable Solstice warmth melts the New England snow from once-glistening treetops, opening the outdoors to a final foray into woods and shopping malls as we prepare the home and heart for Christmas Day itself. Inside, the tree is up, the halls decked with boughs and mistletoe; at night, when the kids are finally in bed, we nestle snug on the couch and lift our glasses of wine and nog to toast the lights that twinkle in the darkness.

As ever, nostalgia carries us into the last gasps of the season like an old friend, accompanying us on our rounds as we wind down our shopping to shed the stresses of the year and season. The kids clamor for their favorite songs, and the heart sings for the songs of our own childhoods. But by now, many of us have exhausted the familiar carols that play ad infinitum in our ears as we bustle to find our center, our moments of peace.

For your gift-wrapping pleasure, then, our final holiday feature of the year: a stocking stuffed full of young artists on the rise, plying the intensity of the season with carols designed to catch the ear and prompt further exploration. Listen as these new and newfound Noisetrade samplers, Bandcamp and Soundcloud streams, and YouTube visions give new voice to the beloved songs of Christmas.


Newfound favorites The Western Den are a young ambient folk duo prone to narrative lyricism, hauntingly beautiful arrangements, and gentle, etherial harmonies; the pulsing carols on their tiny 3-track Midwinter EP are an apt introduction to their work, with organic instrumental undertones from brass and strings that mix with their sweet voices, piano, and guitar to frame a myriad moments that soothe, silence, and soar. But we are equally floored by their ongoing celebration of nature and community, as evidenced by the year-round celebration of their peers in the Boston folk scene, and the plethora of photos taken among the leaves of every season, that fill their Facebook page. In the case of the Midwinter EP, these trends manifest in context as much as they do in craft: a pay-as-you-wish download, hand-sewn fabric sleeves for hardcopy, and the donation of all EP proceeds to UNICEF to aid children in the Philippines affected by the recent typhoon, surround their aural honesty with cherishing light, making the collection a perfect introduction to their breadth and beauty.





There’s irony aplenty in this true-blue Americana version of White Christmas from bluegrass quartet Wood & Wire, performed outdoors in their shirtsleeves just last week at the Zilker Holiday Tree for local radio station KUTX’s Austin Music Map project, which aims to build an “interactive portrait” of the vibrant music scene in a city where the snow never falls. The hum of the crowd that surrounds them as they play the grounds lends a vibrancy to their touching rendition of the Christmas classic even as beards, bass, banjo and mandolin ground the song in its southern setting.




NYC-based Nina Yasmineh trends towards lush indiepop, lovingly delivered and layered with longing; though the bold, pulsing piano that populates her 2013 debut EP Seven Years kept her from finding footing in the folkworld, it’s a joy nonetheless, aptly celebrated by a number of blogs upon its release this Summer. Happily, however, this year’s Christmas cover is eminently folk, with echoey vocals over a frozen landscape of sparse, slow-plucked guitar that totally transforms Mariah Carey’s bombastic dance-around into something wistful, gentle, and still.





Celebrated YouTube starlet Daniela Andrade was the only artist to appear twice in the Top 40 radiopop coverset we compiled earlier this year; we’ll not dwell too much on her now, as we’re expecting to revisit her work in the next few weeks as part of our upcoming Best Of 2013 features. But her newly-released “homemade” Christmas EP – available in download form, or streamable as a video series – showcases just why we’re so delighted to have found her, with intimate performance, whispery-sweet vocals, and the sexiest Santa Baby you’ll ever hear, a perfect teaser for the good things to come.





Not all of our old, familiar carols are played sweet and light, of course – and not all should be, either. Those looking for a holiday more fully grounded in grungy, gritty roots-rock will be well-served by the syrupy, sultry ballad Canadian band Del Bel makes of John Prine classic Christmas In Prison, which turns the tune into a Day of the Dead lament with heavy, heady electric bass and guitars, wailing whiskey vocals, and a fallen angel choir of saxophones and horns. Press materials here are right on target, quoting bassist and composer Tyler Belluz as saying that he “found a depressing Christmas tune and made it more depressing.”





In addition to writing chamber, orchestral and choral music for concert and film, Connecticut composer and singer-songwriter Jonny Rodgers performs and records his own songs with a combination of electronic loops, guitar, and tuned wineglasses. The combination of glasses and strings works especially well on Every Mother’s Child: 3 Songs For Christmas, making for relatively traditional interpretations of three hymns that glisten and shimmer like tinsel in the air. In keeping with the project’s title, half of the profits will go to Project Night Night, which donates tote bags filled with a blanket, a book and a stuffed animal to homeless children living in shelters; “making sure that every mother’s child has sweet dreams, even if they’re living in trying circumstances.”





Last but never least, Tuscaloosa, Alabama singer-songwriter Joshua Hilliker and vocalist Heather Hester recorded and released their Merry Christmas EP last year, but our discovery in the midst of this year’s annual Noisetrade exploration brings comfort and joy aplenty, even if there’s little to learn about the artist’s history or craft here (Hilliker’s webpage redirects back to Noisetrade itself). Still, strong arrangement and sweet performance tell a tale of their own: Joshua and Heather’s Away in a Manger is sublime; this take on African-American spiritual Everywhere I Go (more often listed as Somebody Talking ‘Bout Jesus) simply blows me away.

For comparison’s sake, two other EPs – also released last year, but newly-found – provide a breadth of comparison. Adam Townsend’s Give & Get EP, recorded with his wife to raise money and awareness for homeless kids and teens via GA-based charity StandUp For Kids, offers weary, homegrown sentiment for the holiday homestead. Meanwhile, Floridian singer-sonqwriter Josh Gilligan’s Christmas EP, which benefits Blood:Water Mission’s fight against the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa, trends more folkpop, but his new brush-and-horn arrangement of Away In A Manger, with its echoes of Calexico and other indie Americana bands, fits the contemporary folkscene sweetly. All three EPs are available for free, but as always, donate if you can, the better to support artists (and, in Gilligan and Townsend’s cases, their chosen beneficiaries) well worth celebrating.




Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our readers – may your days be merry and bright! We’ll be back in the next few days with the first volume of our annual two-part review of the best coverfolk albums and singles of 2013!

Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, New Artists Old Songs, Soundcloud Saturday

The World Spins Madly On:
Deb Talan of the Weepies announces breast cancer diagnosis




In days to come when your heart feels undone
may you always find an open hand
and take comfort wherever you can…

- Deb Talan, Comfort


Before she became half of popular folkpop duo The Weepies, Deb Talan was a singer-songwriter whose early solo albums overflowed with surprisingly touching acoustic guitar-playing and plaintive, sincere, literate lyrics sung in a sweet little-girl voice – a combination which blew us away when we first found her, entirely by accident, at a tiny basement coffeehouse in Northampton, MA just after the release of her first studio album Something Burning, and we fell head over heels in love.

Since we love indiefolk beats and close harmonies, and harbor no hipster sentiment here at Cover Lay Down, we were thrilled when her subsequent duo work with Steve Tannen – a life-and-music partnership built on mutual appreciation, and the common motifs of nature and sensitive souls – began to take flight in the alt and indie worlds, making The Weepies soft and well-deserved darlings of the early blogging community. And though it’s hard to stay in love with a band that has generally eschewed touring for family (officially, the duo has only toured twice since 2006), we were happy, too, to hear of the births of their three sons after their marriage – happy, that is, to hear of such happiness, in those who had given the world so much, and so well.

Talan and Tannen’s successes on the charts and at home make yesterday’s revelation that Deb has been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer all the more poignant. But in typical fashion, the couple seems upbeat about their prospects, noting that the unexpected side effects of diagnosis include “feeling very grateful to be living in the 21st century, having a lot more patience when our boys get crazy, REALLY enjoying making music right now”, and following their original post with a second note, today, thanking their fans and friends for their support, inviting folks to send Deb a love note or care package or a few words of encouragement via snail mail, and encouraging everyone to “make an appointment for yourself to get your yearly cancer screening, right now.”

Though we find ourselves saddened by the news, Talan’s songwriting provides its own solace, in its way, with lyrics that speak to, and comfort, the heart. And although I daresay Talan and Tanner are most often the better interpreters of their own songs – pretty much every song they have ever produced is a gem, eminently worth purchasing and savoring ad infinitum – there’s a few covers out there which manage to make these precious songs vibrant and new without sullying their reputation or burying the lede. Here to prove it: a small set of coverfolk versions, from tender to triumphant, that aptly reflect the couple’s strength and wisdom, with our best wishes and neverending kudos to Deb, Steve, Theo, Alex, and Nicholas for keeping their heads high and their spirits clear as they plan for an uncertain future.



5 comments » | Covered In Folk, The Weepies, Tidbit Tuesday

Single Song Sunday: Fairytale Of New York
(15 coverfolk versions of a surprisingly sentimental punk favorite)





It’s hard to remember where I first heard The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, but it’s easy to imagine why it stuck in my ears: I was 14 in 1987, jaded by pop music and just starting to find my way to punk, and on the surface, this song turns the typical holiday world on its ear. Indeed, the song is often seen as an antithesis to the many powerful, sweet, and well-covered songs in the new Christmas canon – a schizophrenic, gleefully obscene drunkard’s dream straight out of Tom Waits, with a dash of the jig and a technicolor vision of Irish holidays in the gutter that primes the pump for raucous indie encore coverage such as this week’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon performance by Iron & Wine, Calexico, Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards.

But like so many of our Single Song Sunday songs, Fairytale of New York has depth and promise, with much more under its scummy surface than its reputation might suggest. Its continued popularity in the 21st century is no anomaly: this is a sentimental song, in the end, that tells a tale of past and present, hope, hardship and hearth consistent with the season, and made real by its setting in the proletariat classes.

That the song remains so familiar, so frequently covered and caroled, is a testament to its portraiture and its power. And if the rousing duet that rises from the ashes of maudlin balladry to bait our downtrodden, roughshod narrator into a bawdy, joyous exchange of dirty words and dirtier thoughts keeps the song from placement alongside the maudlin modernity of Bing, Elvis, McCartney and Mariah on so many radio playlists in the US this time of year, then it falls to others like us to keep it alive on this side of the pond.


Fairytale of New York needs less support in the British and Emerald Isles, of course. It was a quick success there when released as a single by Celtic Punk band The Pogues for Christmas in 1987, a holiday harbinger from their seminal album If I Should Fall From Grace With God that featured the last-minute addition of English singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, who was label-less at the time, but married to Pogues producer Steve Lillywhite. Anecdotally, Fairytale was written in response to a challenge to find a new Christmas song, and in many ways, the concept fit the band, whose interest in bridging tradition was a driving creative force and a key component of its popularity. The song benefitted greatly from its emergence in the early days of MTV, with a starkly black and white video filmed in NYC, and it rose rapidly on the charts; its canonical presence has since been fueled by rerelease in 1991, and again in 2005, after the song was voted most popular Christmas song by VH1 UK.

But history and context stand alongside song itself in explicating our familiarity. Though originally written to be a duet with Pogues bass player Cait O’Riordan, who left the band before recording, the disparate voices of Shane MacGowan and MacColl are tied closely to the tonality of the original here. So, too, is the sudden tonal shift that leads into the duet, changing the song from haunted, hoarse immigrant’s drunk-tank piano ballad to an Irish pub-rouser populated by alcoholics and addicts, pipes and drum.

Both differences – arrangement and harmonic setting – emphasize the distance of memory as our drunkard dreams, combining with the composition itself to form a strong trifecta of elemental types to explain its success. And because they seem so determinant to the song’s power, many covers, like the aforementioned indie supergroup cover, treat both the duet and its tonal distance as canonical. KT Tunstall and Ed Harcourt, for example, play it relatively straight, though effectively, as do YouTube stars ortoPilot and Kate McGill. So, too, does the heavier rock version released by Jesse Malin in the US version of his covers album On Your Sleeve in 2008, which matches the heavy beats and bells of Springsteen’s Santa Claus Is Coming To Town to the keys of the original, burying sentiment in triumph by the song’s end.

Others transcend these limitations, taking the song one step farther from the oft-heard. Laura Boyle layers her own voice into the song, with echoes and a quiet picked-chord guitar undertone that make for a startling quietude. Alfredo De Pietra and Tom Mitchell’s solo covers, both released on Soundcloud, stick with gentle strummed triplets throughout, flattening the tonal shift to illuminate the sweetness. And several more beautiful solo covers, from the guitar-driven performances of Irish folksinger Christy Moore and snowbound steetcorner busker Ciaran Cooney to a frozen, entirely piano cover from Texas singer-songwriter Bob Schneider that skips the duet section altogether, emphasize the wistful loneliness of MacGowan’s narrator, isolating him further from the promise of Christmas redemption encoded in the original.

There’s diversity in the middle ground, too. The version recorded by Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine) and Billy Bragg in 2009 for a live BBC session, offers a perfect case of just how much room for interpretation is available in this arrangement; neither Harcourt’s mellow tones nor Bragg’s ragged voice are as broken as MacGowan’s, but the contrast remains, and the replacement of Welch’s harp for the piano part lends an even more dreamlike tone to the ballad that opens the song.

The layered beauty, full choir, and early duet harmonies that Canadian indiepop band Stars apply to their cover, released in 2005, trade the clear delineation for a more anticipatory and fluid performance. Well-known video cover artists Walk Off The Earth drop the band altogether, sticking to guitar accompaniment for their duet, drifting back and forth between several gently rolling styles, which gets them there more gradually, and allows them to travel less distance to get there in the first place. And similarly, though in entirely different genres, bands like The Beef Seeds (with tongue in cheek countrygrass) and Matthew and the Atlas (in sublime indiefolk) keep the song’s second half lighter with less rock and more folk instrumentation, flattening the difference between the two pieces of the song, emphasizing the song’s inherent tenderness.

So join us for a very special holiday Single Song Sunday set – a compendium of coverage, from Celtic Punk to gentle singer-songwriter fare, that explores the breadth of possible in tradition transformed through the immigrant’s dream at Christmas. Download the whole set, or check out individual performances individually, to find the breadth of promise in what may well be the most culturally significant late 20th century addition to the Christmas canon. And dream big yourself, no matter what your lot – for it’s Christmas, and the world is full of possibility.


Single Song Sunday: Fairytale of New York, Covered in Folk [zip!]


    Iron & Wine and Calexico with Glen Hansard and Kathleen Edwards: Fairytale of New York [2013]



Looking for a broader selection of seasonal coverfolk? Check out this year’s new Christmas cover collections, our drunkard’s christmas mixtape and 18 more sets of Christmas kidfolk, wintersongs, and holiday carols from the Cover Lay Down archives … and then stay tuned later this week for EP features from a holy host of new artists in the holiday spirit, and a set of singleshot coverage that will fill your stocking and warm your heart as the holiday approaches!



Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk songsets and ethnographic explorations throughout the year thanks to the generous patronage of readers like you. Want to help? Here’s how:

  • Support the continued creation of music by purchasing artists’ work directly from their own websites and shows whenever possible.
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  • Share the wealth – and the songs – by sending us your own coverfolk finds and recordings.


2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Single Song Sunday

Celebrate ALL The Christmas!
Coverfolk Mixes from Christmases Past (2008-2012)





The season is well upon us, and the snow is falling on the trees, making a white world of what was green and brown. After school, the wee one takes the sled out; though the scant inch or two that’s fallen is too soft for traction, she seems happy enough playing on the driveway. And I am happy, too: at the fire which warms our house, and the blankets which beckon beside it; at the freedom of an afternoon shut in by snow; at the happiness of children at play.

Like the snow – and like the fleeting calm that permeates its moments – holiday favorites tend to fall, stick for a week or two, and then melt away; though their ephemeral nature makes them precious, so, too, do the songs of every season fade too easily into the haze of memory, like Dylan’s blur of childhood Christmases in Wales. And yet just as one season’s gems hardly represent the total canon of any of the artists we feature, to spend one’s time going back and forth between the public pap of the radio dial and this year’s newest holiday soundtrack is to dwell on the popular and new – a trend which neither honors the stillnesses of the season nor the comfort of its rituals and traditions.

This week and next, our coverfolk advent calendar will feature a seasonal set of new artist EPs, and single-shot videos and streaming tracks to make the spirits bright; as always, we urge pursuit of all artists through and after the holidays, that the present might lead to support and fandom, the better to keep the fires of folk alight. For now, though, we’ve dug through the archives to bring you our Christmases past – a set of seasonal mixtapes from the secular to the sublime, and the silly to the sane, curated and shared here on the blog between 2008 and 2012. Enjoy the archives, and may the spirit of the season find you in good health and good humor.

2008



2009



2010



2011



2012


Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes, Reposts

Holiday Cheer: New Christmas Cover Collections
from Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Elizabeth Mitchell, Andrew Greer & more!





The radio stations play Christmas music indiscriminately as if it were a genre, holding arias against Elvis, segueing neatly from crooners to choirs, cramming the droll alongside the dreck. The Amazon charts are cluttered with cloying new Christmas releases from Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle, and that family from Duck Dynasty. And the biggest buzz in the folkworld at the holidays this year revolves around Just One Angel v2.0, a newly-curated two-disc set of silly-to-sublime holiday originals from a cohort of contemporary singer-songwriters which – while generally strong in its own right – is hardly fodder for a coverfolk blog.

But the season brings gifts evermore, and this year is no exception. Below, a taste of new Christmas albums full of covers and carols for the folkset, from tradfolk to indiefolk to contemporary singer-songwriter fare – something for everyone, under the tree.



British tradfolk duo Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker have hit these pages several times before – most recently in July, in celebration of sophomore effort Fire & Fortune, which we praised for “Clarke’s mature, deceptively simple interpretation of timeless traditional laments and original ballads, Walker’s stunningly subtle fretwork, and inspired settings of low winds, gentle piano chords, and soaring strings combine marvelously, making a fragile atmosphere that welcomes even as it warns.”

But although the settings here are generally sparser, the simply-titled Midwinter – a December-only Bandcamp release that will give 50% of its profits to UNICEF’s Children of Syria Appeal – is only unassuming on the surface. Clarke’s poised, pure vocals soar; Walker’s classical-folk guitar treatment rings; though its most revenant cuts would not seem out of place in church, it warms our home marvelously with its timeless arrangements, from the hearty a capella duet of Shepherds Arise to the rich, woodwind-driven triplets of We Three Kings. An unapologetic Christmas album so perfect in its treatment, so pure in its performance, so potent in its intimacy, we cannot help but preemptively lament the short-lived season.



Constant companion Elizabeth Mitchell, whose kidfolk settings and recreations of popular song for the younger set have long topped our playlists, has expanded her repertoire in the past few years, most recently with Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie, a full album of Woody Guthrie kidfolk classics, released by Smithsonian Folkways in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday, which we celebrated upon its release in the Summer of 2012. But although we have continued to suggest that many of Mitchell’s songs are not just for children, the songs lovingly presented on The Sounding Joy, a delightful collection of sparsely set carols selected from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1953 songbook American Folk Songs for Christmas, represent the first full collection from this teacher-turned-artist that are truly as universally accessible as they are enjoyable.

As with many recent works by Mitchell, the majority of tracks on The Sounding Joy are sweet, reverent, gently gleeful folk treatments of the classics, led by Mitchell’s simple vocals, harmonies from John Sebastian, Aoife O’Donovan, Natalie Merchant, Amy Helm, Dan Zanes, husband Daniel Littleton, and more, and a light collection of Appalachian strings, winds, and brushes that echo their source. But some tracks are gentler than others; in this case, the soft piano duet that comes of Joseph and Mary, Seeger’s setting of The Cherry Tree Carol, is a heart-stopping lament, pulsing sorrow and joy enough to make the whole pursuit worthwhile.



Gently plucked strings and a heavenly folk tenor reminiscent of Mark Erelli or an early Paul Simon make In The Bleak Winter one of many crowning jewels of Andrew Greer‘s newest release Angel Band: The Christmas Sessions, but it’s hard to pick a favorite. Greer, a versatile Nashville singer-songwriter, has had a meteoric rise since the release of his 2009 debut Open Book, fueled in no small part by a strong fan base in the Christian music community, but don’t let the affiliation scare you off: the last album from this accomplished interpreter of Americana, an instrumental set of hymns, charted quite high on the folk charts, as did Angel Band: The Hymn Sessions, a collection of vintage hymns translated into stringforms alongside special guests like Ron Block of Alison Krauss & Union Station, Sandra McCracken, Julie Lee and The McCrary Sisters.

Snag The Hymn Sessions and a bonus EP-sized set of acoustic holiday carols for a suggested donation over at Noisetrade, and then head over to Greer’s website to order and savor Angel Band: The Christmas Sessions in all its holy glory for just five bucks.



We’ll be visiting a small but stellar collection of seasonal EPs later this week in a very special holiday edition of our New Artists, Old Songs feature series. But although with two originals and three covers in the set, it is technically not a cover collection, our list today would nonetheless be incomplete without mention of Snowed In, the newest release from singer-songwriter Mindy Smith. Snowed In keeps coming up tagged Countrypop on my playlists, which is a shame: there’s nothing to differentiate this from gentle contemporary folk in the vein of Kris Delmhorst or Lori McKenna, and everything to love in this tiny, wistful collection of winter songs both new and old.



Every Christmas since their inception in 1999, Sleeping At Last – once the name of a teenage garage band that won favor and label-distribution after notice from Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame; now the nom de plume used by suburban Chicago singer-songwriter and band-founder Ryan O’Neal in solo guise – has recorded and released a new holiday song as a gift for family and friends. Last year, for the first time, their Christmas Collection was offered as a full album available freely on Noisetrade, and this year’s soaring, uke-and-choir rendition of John Lennon’s classic Happy Xmas (War Is Over) makes for a fine addition to the canon. O’Neal gets major bonus points, too, for reimagining Men Without Hats 80′s classic The Safety Dance as a hushed, melancholic indiefolk lament for last week’s episode of The Carrie Diaries – making of both song and singer a gift, indeed.



Finally, A Rarebird In A Pear Tree, Vol. 3, the third holiday compilation from the indie label, is a typically eclectic mixed-bag of indie credibility, with dreampop, chamberfolk, and the occasional beat-driven indierock on the record, and a tip-if-you-like Noisetrade release. But the music flows, it’s all good, and the quiet, solo guitar-and-vox coverage we most crave this time of year is plentiful and pleasing. The end of the collection is especially dear: Jordan Fox’ ringing, hoarse O Little Town Of Bethlehem is a tiny gem; Shelly Gordon’s Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is melancholy and deceptively bare.



Download our Christmas Cover Collections 2013 mix in handy zipped format. Subscribe to our Facebook page for bonus tracks, tidbits, and more throughout the week. Buy music locally, and direct from artists’ preferred sources, always. And be sure to stay tuned for more holiday fare from the folkworld as the days continue to darken!

2 comments » | Andrew Greer, Best of 2013, Elizabeth Mitchell, Holiday Coverfolk, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Christmas Cheer Coverfolk:
Seasonal Songs of Drinking, Revisited





An unexpected week in the hospital with the chronically ill elderchild has temporarily postponed what was intended to be a triumphant return to regular blogging. But last night, she was well enough to come home, and to exclaim sleepily with delight at our neighborhood alight with the trees and pageantry of Christmas as we drove though the darkened streets. And I am delighted, myself, to note that 80 years ago today, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified, ending national Prohibition, and paving the way for a return to the Christmas tradition of drinking with good company – a ritual sorely lacking in the sterile halls of even the most friendly in-patient ward.

And so a hastily-constructed thematic feature, previously lost to our server troubles last winter, is reborn.

Join us, as we lift a glass to the season and the day with a decidedly mixed-bar set of songs celebrating home, family, and holiday drinking. We’ll be back next week with some new and classic coverfolk cheer as we continue our celebration of Christmas 2013. May God bless us, every one.



Download the Cover Lay Down Drinking at Xmas mix in one convenient zip file!

1 comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes, Reposts

Give A Little Bit: On Buying Local in a Global World
(A Cover Lay Down Holiday Gift Guide)


Sale


Monday the wee one came home frustrated that her class has been chosen to sing “Joy To The World, My Shopping’s Done” in this year’s school holiday pageant. They made it about getting things, she said, but holidays are supposed to be about giving and being together. And so we sent a timely note to school, excusing her from the pageant and all related planning activities. And the very next day, in art class, while the rest of the class glued price tags and fake dollar bills to their decorative paper pageant hats, my daughter cheerfully constructed a hat for the girl who was absent.

We’re proud of our child for working to live out her principles. We are proud, too, of her ability to see and articulate their incidence, and to seek reassurance and help to practice them effectively and without confrontation. And we are thrilled to find, just hours later, that the new Pope’s papal platform – one founded on denouncing trickle-down commercialism, and the renunciation of its detrimental social effects – marks our child as prescient, indeed.

But as parents, we are also, unabashedly, proud of ourselves. For the expression of the spirit of commerce in its myriad forms is great and everpresent, and its antithesis few and far between, in our larger society. If the expression of discomfort at its practice came from anywhere, it came – in large part – from us.

This is not a political blog. Since our inception in 2007, however, we have done our part at Cover Lay Down to fight back against the subtle tyrannies of the consumptive society. Our insistence on offering links to purchase and stream music from sources closest to the hearts and wallets of the artists themselves, and our refusal to provide ads on this space, stem from an articulated desire to “walk the walk” of ethical consumption. And because a blog is dialogic, so do we also, from time to time, step up onto the soapbox to speak out specifically on why, and how, to better support the local and the intimate – a position befitting a blog whose ethnomusical mandate explores the coincidence of sharing-through-coverage and the communal purposefulness of folk.

Today, then, for the second year in a row, we take the time to provide our own antithesis to the buy-everything-now message that seems to typify the ever-lengthening holiday season in the Western world by offering a 2013 edition of our anti-commercialist, pro-artist gift giving guide for the holidays – a harbinger of things to come after almost three months of sparse sabbatical. Read on for last year’s treatise, plus an updated list of methods and mechanisms for supporting the local and the soul-serving this giving season…and, of course, a few songs to get you into the spirit.



Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 12.41.05 PMBlack Friday is duly noted for causing havoc and stress in the mass marketplace. But if we greet its well-intentioned antithesis Buy Nothing Day with suspicion here at Cover Lay Down, it is because there is nothing inherently anti-commercial about merely deferring product-purchase if we still plan to make it to the mall eventually.

Concerns about the way big business undermines and eats away at the profitability of direct creator-to-consumer relationships are real and valid, of course. But to see consumption as all or nothing is problematic: those who quite literally refuse to buy things unwittingly undermine their own communities, for example, by cutting into taxes for schools and roads, and by destroying the ability of neighborhood artists and local community retailers to survive doing what they love.

Happily, however, there’s a whole spectrum of opportunity outside of the false dichotomy of Black Friday and Buy Nothing Day. And the answer isn’t buying nothing – it’s buying local.

We’ve long championed buying local here at Cover Lay Down. We frequent local farmer’s markets and crafts fairs; we buy apples from orchards, and beer from the brewery; we keep maple syrup and honey that was harvested by friends. In our musical purchases, we try to buy at shows, as this tends to provide the most money for artists, and helps support local venues; we’ve posted about library finds several times, too, and celebrate regional labels and artists wherever possible.

But in the digital age, buying local means not only supporting your local shops, producers, and buskers – it also means supporting the small, the immediate, the independent, and the community-minded. As such, wherever possible, the links which we offer alongside our downloadables and streams go directly to artist websites and other artist-recommended sources, the better to respect the rights and ongoing careers of creators and craftspersons everywhere.

Which is to say: we’re about authenticity and sustainability here, a set of concepts deeply entwined with the organic and acoustic music we celebrate. With that in mind, here’s some suggestions for how to honor the community sentiment which stands at the foundation of folk music, even as you look for ways to show your appreciation and love this holiday season.


1. Give the gift of recorded music. Cover Lay Down stands behind every artist we blog, and many of our regular features, such as our New Artists, Old Songs series, focus on new and newly-reconsidered music and musicians worth sharing with friends. So browse our archives and your own, and then buy CDs and downloads for friends and family direct from artist websites, independent artist-friendly labels like Signature Sounds, Compass, Waterbug, Bloodshot, Red House, and Sugar Hill Records, promotional houses like Hearth Music and Mishara Music, and small artist collaboratives and fan-fueled microlabels like Mason Jar Music, Yer Bird, Rarebird, Northplatte, and Asthmatic Kitty. Or, if you prefer to centralize your shopping, skip the chain stores and internet behemoths that undermine local mom-and-pops and pay mere pennies on the dollar, and shop instead at your local struggling music shop, Bandcamp, CD Baby, or even Etsy.

2. Give the gift of subscription. It is still a matter of debate in the music community whether the proliferation of digital streaming services is bad, potentially career-smothering news for artists. But some artists offer “backstage passes” or “VIP” access to their art and its craft, and the benefits – which can include exclusive demo tracks, concert streams, early access to new studio work, and deep discounts – are generally worth the cost. Last year’s favorite model, Jake Armerding’s Music Is Food CSA project, provided a monthly virtual “box” of song and artwork for just a dollar a month; this year, the trend has turned to projects in which patrons themselves have a voice in the creative process through feedback and demo-testing. For those ready to take the plunge, we recommend El Dorado, a subscription service from Clem Snide founder Eef Barzelay in which patrons receive and inspire a new, exclusive 3-5
song EP each month, and pay-what-you-feel projects from Merry Ellen Kirk, Jess Klein, and others at Patronism.org, which offer access to their entire body of work, alongside opportunities to become an active part of the creation process as new songs emerge.

3. Give the gift of access. Spring for a gift subscription to Daytrotter ($32/year) for the music lover in your life, and let them download years worth of studio sessions and stream exclusive live sessions from a broad set of musicians. Buy them a Skype session with a favorite folk musician, such as Denison Witmer, who turned to the medium in order to spend more time with his wife and newborn son. Or sign them up for Concert Window, a free-for-trial service which offers live concerts almost every night from some of our favorite folk venues, and where two-thirds of profits go to musicians and venues. The live performances and sessions which these subscriptions net can be viewed alone, or shared with a friend over a beer on the couch – and the virtual concert is especially apt for friends housebound by physical limitation, geographical isolation, or preference.

4. Give the gift of time. It’s good to get out with friends, and shared experiences make the best kinds of gifts; by linking directly to artist web pages, we make it as easy as possible to check out tour dates. Support your local coffeehouse or small venue by booking a table or row for you and your loved ones. Take a child to their first concert, and open up their world to the immediacy and intimacy of live performance. Take a friend, or a group, and open them up to a new artist’s work. Or host a successful house concert, and invite friends, the better to share the artists and music you love.

5. Give the gift of artistic sustainability. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Pledge Music help artists make art, and donations in someone else’s name are always a nice gift – it shows you’re thinking of them, and it honors the connection you share through music. And just as donating to your local radio station can net you a free mug, crowdfunding comes with the promise of product – a reward you can redirect, if you give in someone else’s name. So browse the folk categories on each site, or ask around for recommendations on what to support. Some local examples we’re excited to share this year: folk duo The Sea, The Sea, who we have both championed and hosted locally, are currently raising funds for an official release of stunning debut album Love We Are Love; preorder, or pay up for some bonuses, and both you and your gift recipient get to help ensure that the album gets the promotion and production it deserves. Boston-based CLD fave countryfolk singer-songwriter Amy Black, who charmed us with gorgeous solo Kris Delmhorst and Loretta Lynn covers back in 2011, is eager to release This Is Home, a sophomore solo CD recorded last summer in Nashville; bonus levels here include a sweet 4-song EP of covers recently recorded in Muscle Shoals with Spooner Oldham and Will Kimbrough and a personalized video performance. Farther afield, Austin, Texas Americana scenestress Raina Rose, who funded her own Kickstarter album successfully last year, continues to tout projects from a talented network of young artists, including up and coming releases from Alexa Woodward and J. Wagner. And parents and kidfolk lovers will be especially proud to support Lullabies and Songs of Comfort, a new project in the works from tour buddies and fellow folkmamas Edie Carey and Sarah Sample which promises a sweet mix of the old and the new for all ages.

6. Give the gift of promotion. This one is mostly about giving the artists themselves some of your hard-earned time and energy, but artists need gifts, too. So like artists’ Facebook pages, and show others in your feed what you are listening to, the better to spread the word. Join a street team, and volunteer (by yourself or with a friend, as a fun gift date) to help sell CDs, hang posters, or man the door at local coffeehouses and clubs, thus freeing artists to spend their time playing, meeting the crowd, and sustaining their own fan base. Start a blog, for you or a friend, or donate to support one in their name.

7. Stay tuned. Looking for something a little more concrete in the way of coverfolk recommendations? Willing to wait for a few more weeks to decide which albums to purchase for your loved ones and friends? Just as we did last year, Cover Lay Down will be sharing our “best of 2013″ by mid-December; the items on those lists constitute our highest recommendations, and function as a concise gift guide for the coverfolk lover in your life. And if it’s holiday music you’re looking for, just wait until next week, when we kick off our coverage of this year’s seasonal releases…

Until then, here’s a short set of relevant covers to get you in the gift-giving spirit.

2 comments » | Mixtapes, Reposts

Covered In Folk: Robyn
(Lucy Wainwright Roche, Ellie Goulding, Brittany Ann & more!)





In a post-Mouseketeer world, teenage pop sensations trend heavily towards the faux-innocent and inauthentic; of these, though many artists who rise too early fade into obscurity just as quickly, others, from Justin Timberlake to Miley Cyrus, manage to grow into adult artists who take claim of their own artistic output and their fame.

But just as the halls of the high school where I teach hide small pockets of moody geniuses struggling to master their own expression, anomalies exist in the world of the popular. And the best of these teenage artists emerge early: 16 year old New Zealand sensation Lorde, for example, whose recent hit Royals found double coverage in our YouTube Top 40 acoustic coverset last month, is just beginning her career, but the coy determination she brings to her songs of self-sufficiency and salvation seems a strong indicator of future success.

Those looking for a poster child for the homegrown authentic able to play the airwaves with authenticity from the get-go need look no further than Swedish dance-pop artist Robyn, who hit the international scene at the tender age of 18, when her singles Show Me Love and Do You Know (What It Takes) reached the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. Today, as part of our ongoing mandate to celebrate the authentic in all genres through folk coverage, we present our favorite acoustic and folk covers of this well-deserving feature subject.

Like many young pop phenoms, Robyn (born Robin Miriam Carlsson) was a rising star in childhood. The daughter of two stage actors, her voice-over and stage work began at age 9, and she recorded her first television theme song at 12; she was discovered that same year by Swedish pop sensation Meja during a school-based music workshop, and signed to RCA Records at 16.

Two years later, after her major label debut Robyn Is Here caught fire, slamming her into the global spotlight, Robyn returned to her native Sweden exhausted. For her next two albums, the autobiographical My Truth and 2002 pop-slash-R&B release Keep This Fire Burning, she and her team decided to skip an international release, in order to maintain her health and support a healthier, more cautious development as an artist. But the release of her self-titled 2005 electronic dance album made a low profile impossible. And with a Grammy nomination in her pocket, Robyn finally took her place on the world stage again, with appearances across the globe.

Now in her mid-thirties, the outspoken Robyn has established herself on the world stage as an artist of talent and poise with a clear-headed vision that is as decidedly post-feminist as it is postmodern. And although her studio output is sparse – officially, she has released just half a dozen albums, with an average of one new record every four or five years – the process and product which this body of work represents speak to a carefully tendered craft and a deliberate, well-managed sense of self that shines through her songbook.

Robyn is no stranger to coverage – her covers of Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone, plus songs by Bjork, Alicia Keys, Prince, and Coldplay, reveal a sensitivity to the depths and beauty in the works of her Top 40 peers. And the world of the popular responds to Robyn, too: see, for example, Wakey Wakey’s anthemic gender-bent piano pop ballad version of Call Your Boyfriend, and Noah and the Whale’s grungy 2011 take on the same, or Kings of Leon’s recent alt-rock take on the equally well-covered Robyn hit Dancing On My Own, which turns the song on its ear, drenching it in hard-edged No Depression guitar wails and slow drumbeats.

As with so many of our Covered In Folk featured artists, stripping the synths and heavy beats from Robyn’s songbook reveals a surprisingly melancholy, pensive catalog, chock full of coherent narratives about gender politics and heartbreak at the margins of modern identity – making her work particularly attractive for those who would transform it. Our Covered In Folk collection kicks off with a brand new recording from CLD fave second-generation singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche, which debuted this week on new album There’s a Last Time for Everything, and moves on to covers from popfolk sweetheart Ellie Goulding, Pennsylvania singer-songwriter Brittany Ann, Texas singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe, artistic polymath Aeryn Martin, and more. Listen, enjoy, and – as always – pursue the paths of those whose sound and sensibility appeal to your own tastes, the better to sustain art and artists that speak to, for, and within our communities.



Lucy Wainwright Roche: Call Your Girlfriend (2013)




Javier Dunn: Call Your Girlfriend (2012)




Ellie Goulding & Erik Hassle: Be Mine (2009)




Sarah Jaffe: Hang With Me (2011)




Aeryn Martin: With Every Heartbeat (2010)




Brittany Ann: Dancing On My Own (2013)




Gavin Beach ft. Jamie Cleaton: Dancing On My Own (2011)




Emma White: Indestructible (2011)




Vanessa Medina: Show Me Love (2012)



1 comment » | Covered In Folk, Robyn

Revisited: Mary Lou Lord Covers
Lucinda Williams, Jason Molina, Big Star, Pink Floyd & more!





When we last checked in on Mary Lou Lord, she seemed to be on permanent hiatus following a 2005 diagnosis with a rare vocal cord affliction, though an appearance at SXSW the following year suggested she was still open to possibility. But the pixie-faced singer-songwriter who rose from the subways of Boston to indiegrunge fame through a combination of raw talent and close relationships with both Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith has been on the move lately, co-founding Girls Rock Camp in Boston, embarking on a new kickstarter-driven album, hosting open mics, and playing alongside her talented teenaged daughter Annabelle in a recent live tribute to Elliott Smith alongside Rhett Miller, Chris Thile, Bob Dorough, and others that was featured in The New Yorker.

More generally, Lord’s Facebook feed is a daily dose of awesome, a delightful combination of raw human observation and the loving curation and celebration of a number of amazing musical legacies both past and present, from Joni Mitchell and Smith himself to mutual faves Elizabeth Mitchell, Haley Bonar, Teddy Thompson, and First Aid Kit. Though she is still recovering from a serious fall off a fire escape last month, that didn’t stop her from making major news in Stereogum after an “epic” Facebook response to Courtney Love’s terrible rendition of Big Star hit Thirteen wandered into a more general response to Love’s tendency to claim in public interviews that Lord snuck onto Kurt and Courtney’s porch to kill their cat – a thoughtful, emotional, coherent use of social media that only cemented our faith in the woman’s resilience, and made Courtney seem even more insane, as if such thing were possible.

As Lord noted at her recent live performance, she doesn’t perform much anymore, and a small but growing set of Soundcloud covers, including takes on Jason Molina, Dylan, and Richard Thompson, reveal an artist still struggling to vocalize, though the resulting strain has a rare intimacy, and reveals charm of its own. But if this is a comeback, we’re all for it. Read our original feature, check out our newly-expanded list of covers – including a stunning Lucinda Williams take from her newest album – and follow Mary Lou Lord on Facebook to keep up with the resurrecting career of a well-deserving superstar.



February, 2008

As far as I can tell, the only major distinction between modern folk and a certain sort of indie music seems to be how the artists choose to produce and use instruments on their songs. And though you won’t find this sort of fuzzed-out guitar on the other folkblogs, the way the modern singer-songwriter mentality seems to find voice in both indierock and folk fascinates me.

But production isn’t what makes folk, and even if it were, the distinction is often fluid. The small but growing cadre of indie artists who perform in both folk and alt-rock modes owe no small debt to a select group of artists — Evan Dando, Lou Barlow, Tanya Donelly, Jeff Tweedy, Ben Gibbard and others — who have, over the years, moved easily across the bridge between the two forms. But these artists, in turn, owe the very existence of that bridge to other, lesser-known forerunners, like Elliott Smith and Daniel Johnston, who spent their entire careers building the bridge for them to cross.

As part of our ongoing exploration of this curious relationship, today we feature one underappreciated artist who is more often found among the indierock, but who has claimed folk credibility from the start: Mary Lou Lord, folksinger and cover artist.


I was a high school student in Boston during Mary Lou Lord’s busker days, and not an apt or diligent pupil; I often skipped class to head off down the T into Harvard Square with friends. Given our relative age, then, and her own preference for playing along the Red Line, I suppose I must have passed by Lord a couple of times. But back then, my ears were full of post-punk grunge, and she was just another streetcorner kid with an acoustic guitar, a ragged approach, and an innocent, little-girl voice. By the time she started recording alongside the best of the growing post-punk world, I had already moved on.

The heavy fuzz and feedback of much of her production puts the bulk of Mary Lou Lord’s recorded work squarely in line with early nineties alt-rock; if you’re looking for her in your local indie record store, you’ll find it alongside the pre-grunge of artists like The Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield. But like Beck, Lord has always had a folk heart, and worn it proudly. Though she’s famous for her catfights with Courtney Love, she toured and recorded with Elliott Smith, and opened for Cover Lay Down fave Shawn Colvin. By identifying herself with those artists and others, Lord categorizes herself as an artist straddling the bridge between singer-songwriter folk and the indie world.

The songs that Lord has chosen to cover over her two-decade career speak volumes about which artists she considers her musical peers and forefathers, and here, too, we find a curious connection with the folkworld. In and among the Magnetic Fields and Big Star covers, we find covers of Smith and Colvin, indiefolkie Daniel Johnston, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and even oldschool pre-folkie Elizabeth Cotten. Clearly, this is a woman who listens to folk music on her own time, recognizes good songwriting regardless of original instrumentation, and takes them where she can find them.

Here’s a few of my favorite Mary Lou Lord coversongs which hit that spectrum, and then some. Most are solo acoustic, delicate and coy, but don’t be scared by the occasional guitarfuzz; this is, at heart, a form of folk. Heck, if feedback was all it took, Dylan wouldn’t be a folkie anymore, either.


    Mary Lou Lord Soundcloud Covers [2012-2013]



It’s hard to link to the collected works of Mary Lou Lord; her recorded output remains scattered across several indie labels, some of them short-lived. But some of her back catalog is still available, and it’s chock full of folk covers.

Folk fans are probably best served by starting with the cover-heavy Live City Sounds, a hard-to-come-by acoustic album with several Richard Thompson covers which sounds like the streets where I once passed Mary Lou Lord in her busking days. Alt-punk label Kill Rock Stars also still carries a split bill EP and a couple of compilations.

Though her newest album seems not to have been released yet – she leaked the new Lucinda Williams track last year herself after it started getting play on media outlets – those looking for a more recent treasure trove would be well served to bookmark Mary Lou’s Soundcloud page, which has a growing mix of living room coverage and old found studio sound, including some mid-nineties tracks of her goofing around with Elliott Smith.


Bonus tracks? Sure – here’s a couple more Big Star coversongs in the same grungefolk vein. Dando’s cover is one of my favorite coversongs ever, hands down. And doesn’t Mary Lou Lord sound like a female version of Elliott Smith?


1 comment » | (Re)Covered, Mary Lou Lord, Reposts

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