Category: Sam Amidon


The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2019)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Covers Compilations & more!

January 5th, 2020 — 6:17pm


They say the turning of the year is symbolic, and to use it so: for reflection, a slate to be cleaned and set, restored, upon the walls of our living spaces.   In our time of need, there is solace, and a second chance built into our calendrical lives.  

And in the long, quiet hours to and from the adrenalin crises of our lives, music is our guide.   In the heartbreak rages and the long walks, it serves us.  In the peace of night, it sustains and soothes.  The discovery of it is joyful.  And the knowing of it, when it is at its best, and our need is greatest, is sublime.  

Such is our mandate, and our mission here: the comforting under the strange; the song of our hearts revealed or transformed.  Coverage.   The roots and branches of the music of the community, and the heart, in bloom, reborn.  

It’s hubris, perhaps, that brings us here – and no small bit of sheer stubbornness, to keep us coming back, for the past month and a bit, since our long, long hiatus through the majority of 2019.   We are humbled, practically imposters, after being away from the music for so long, and only so recently returned, in laying claim to anyone’s top ten, or five, or one…except our own. 

For although we were gone, the music still sustained us.   And here it is, at year’s end, the best still spinning on the tip of our tongues and ears.  

It’s good to be back with our 8th annual Year’s Best Coverfolk collection.  As always – and perhaps more than ever – it is neither definitive nor comprehensive, merely a celebration of the albums that have stuck, or stunned, or both, in a year where music was more important than ever. 

It is a list made with love and luck – at 35 songs, and almost two dozen albums, the soundtrack of our long hours of need and desire. 

Enjoy it.  Add its gems to your collections, the better to support the artists who serve our souls.  Come back, soon, for our celebration of the best coverfolk singles of 2019. 

And may your new year burn bright with possibility, too.  




The Year’s Best Covers EP

+ Emily Mure, Sad Songs and Waltzes
+ Rachel Sumner, The Things You Forgot
+ Margaret and Gregory, Songs for Loving and Dying
+ Moonlamb Project, Derivative Blues

The five tracks on The Things You Forgot, our tied-for-first Covers EP of the Year from Boston-based roots singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, enjoyed a slow release throughout the year, giving us time to steep in each song as it came, from the light cowgirl bluegrass of Josh Ritter’s Temptation of Adam in April to a surprisingly faithful layered-vox-and-strum Elliott Smith cover in October; by the time the full set came together with a stunningly sweet Simple Twist of Fate four weeks ago, we were already deeply in love.  The songs on The Things You Forgot are as unforgettable in version as they are in the originals; as a full disc, their compositional potency comes into focus thanks to clear-as-a-bell production and performance, each precious note sung and strummed a single, deliberate stroke.  The end result is a simple masterpiece, still lingering long after we first featured it in November’s New Artists, Old Songs mailbag review.  Though Sumner has roots in both the bluegrass and classical worlds, this is true-blue singer-songwriter folk through and through, too: achingly clear, and wide open to the world, with twang and tenderness enough to carry us through the fire of an unusually difficult year on its own.  

Twinned honors go to Emily Mure, another solo artist we’ve touted here before for her delightful covers of Cake’s Mexico and Bowie’s As The World Falls Down.  But Sad Songs and Waltzes catapults her to the top of any list: from the first warm chord to the rich wistful harmonies floating in air, the EP – named after a Willie Nelson classic that melts like butter in this songstress’ supple hands and voice – offers an enveloping journey through the transformed songbook of modern radio, sweet and subtle and oh so cool.  It’s the tender covers album Kate Wolf would have made, if she had been born a half century later, and raised on Radiohead, Wilco, and The Cranberries, all of whom are covered softly and well; even Coldplay’s Yellow, which has been so over-covered in the last decade, takes on new shape and meaning here, once captured in Mure’s capable, enrapturing gaze.  Listen deeply, and be comforted anew.  

Honorable mention this year goes to Margaret and Gregory, whose small, homespun, oddly diverse lo-fi folk-and-indie-rock Songs for Loving and Dying takes on Dylan, Gillian Welch, John Prine, AP Carter, and a Mr. Rogers classic: a short ride, yet wide ranging, both full of death and life-affirming; the imperfections are delightful, too, making for a delicate yet definitive celebration of the bedroom antifolk subgenre.  And although it, too, is amateur at heart, Belgian’s Moonlamb Project – a duo – has a great concept in Derivative Blues, a five-track released on Bandcamp back in May.  There’s nothing polished here: raw grit, growling accented vocals, and a grungy barroom guitar-and-harmonica blues mood lend sparse verisimilitude to tracks originally by Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Robert Plant, and gone-before-his-time Delta Bluesman Napoleon Washington, leaving us a potent reminder that the good stuff observes no boundaries.  




The Year’s Best Covers Album

+ Ben Lee, Quarter Century Classix
+ S.T. Manville, Somebody Else’s Songs
+ Unwoman, Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5
+ Corb Lund, Cover Your Tracks
+ Greg Laswell, Covers II
+ Angel Black-Orchid, Classic Beauty
+ Becky and Cloud, Decade

Relatively few full-length mass-market covers albums hit the radar this year; as such, our Year’s Best Covers Albums this year come sourced primarily from deep dives into Bandcamp and Soundcloud, where the primacy of home recording, musicians-as-producers, and indie sensibility hold sway.   But our by-a-nose favorite is one of the the exceptions: like us, Aussie indie pop rocker Ben Lee came to maturity amidst the alternative indie punk rock scene of the early nineties, even touring with Sebadoh in his late teens as part of his first band, and Quarter Century Classix, his dreamy snowed-in post-pop celebration of the soundtrack of our respective youths – Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., Guided By Voices, Pavement, and Sonic Youth among them – offers a surprisingly tender, eminently professional retelling of songs obscure yet seminal to those who share our origin story.   Session play from William Tyler and a guest spot from Petra Hayden only serve to cement Lee’s collection’s place in the great pantheon of honest, poignant tributes to a generation’s lost youth and deep influence.  And anyone unsure about whether this is folk need only check out his Daniel Johnston cover, which hits the essential sound of Dylan and the Byrds square on.

Lee’s tribute stands strong against two other 2019 collections heavy with similar trends towards the interpretation of the loud and the electric in our category this year.   The softer of these, ex-punk-rocker S. T. Manville‘s Somebody Else’s Songs, drops a dozen more modern pop punk tunes into hushed tones and a sparse, lower fidelity modality for a hazy acoustic ride through classics from Green Day, Jimmy Eats World, The Offspring and others; as we noted in November, it’s “pretty and pensive in performance”, and delightfully delicate from cover to cover, thanks to an understated approach: “quiet vocal and slow picking drone, with occasional light accents from accordion, banjo, and violin” still fill our ears, and serve us well.   

The other end of the spectrum runs raucous, and broader in its range.  Those who prefer their cover “folk” on the far edge of high stepping countrified barroom roots rock a la Wilco, Buddy Miller, or Steve Earle need look no farther than Canadian country roots artist Corb Lund, whose Cover Your Tracks – his first album in several years – is a bootkickin’ alt-country romp through some serious classics, most of which add twang and slide and otherwise hew relatively close to the energy of an unusually cohesive set of almost random originals –  from Dylan and Lee Hazelwood to ACDC and, most oddly, Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.   

We could have put experimental acousto-electric cellist, producer, and composer Unwoman, aka San Franciscan steampunk singer-songwriter Erica Mulkey, in our EP category this year, simply on the strength of November 7-track release Just Go Away, with simply shines with glitchy drumtrack joy as it celebrates Blondie, Hole, Bowie, and more.  But that smaller set was just a coda to something much, much greater: double album Uncovered Volumes 4 & 5, which covers 30 amazing soundscapes originally released and recorded for (and in many cases, chosen by) the artist’s Patreon and Bandcamp supporters over the past several years.  It’s grand and at times even orchestral, but there’s little to skip through here: the set shows an artist with poise, balance, and a sense of the complex made real and personal, celebrating and worth celebrating at year’s end and beyond.  And although it’s a little overly dramatic for our daily tastes, we’d be remiss in skipping San Diego singer-songwriter Greg Laswell, last seen on these pages over a decade ago for his cross-gender Cyndi Lauper cover, who returns to the world of coverage this year with Covers II – a dark folkpop piece, with thudding piano, stimulating strings, and the strong addition of co-vocalist Molly Jenson throughout, to capture our own darker moments. 

Honorable mention even farther beyond the punk sourcebook goes to a pair of Bandcamp-only releases: Classic Beauty, an album of oft-covered, relatively faithful reproductions of 60s and 70s classics from self-admitted session singer and circus show collaborator Angel Black-Orchid that reminds us that authentic, brashy playback is its own form of apt tribute, and Decade, which offers well-articulated folk pop fare from French duo Becky and Cloud, celebrating their tenth anniversary with aptly titled covers album taking on a familiar indiefolk sourcebook head on: hits from Poison & Wine, Damien Rice, The Weepies and The Innocence Mission up against equally familiar songs from Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles.  Neither album is truly transformative, but both offer bright voices clearly articulated, bright song choices, and a brighter sound, thanks to production choices which trend towards faithful reproduction of songs generally framed in wider berth: it’s the buskers you’d miss your bus for, and that’s a good thing, too. 




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists)

+ Various Artists, Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits
+ Mercury Rev ft. Various Artists, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

For a while there, it was looking like 2019 would be a bust for compilation tribute records, at least as far as our softer roots-and-folk focus would allow: Mojo magazine, usually a go-to source for genre-pushing compilations in tribute, stuck to originals; 2014 follow-up This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson (Volume 2) turned up with Cheap Trick sounding like Cheap Trick, Martha Wainwright channeling the sixties, and even Mikaela Davis in hopping poprock flashiness; the recorded release of 2018’s live Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration concert came in far too slick; several micro-labels and collaboratives released underground tributes to outsider’s artist outsider artist Daniel Johnston after his death in early September, but they were all just as weird as the original.  

Psychedelic moodmakers Mercury Rev‘s tribute to Bobbie Gentry’s countryfolk classic The Delta Sweete gets a nod here, and not in our single artist tribute category, primarily because of how dependent the album is on a wonderfully-selected set of track-by-track guest female indiefolk vocalists, including turns from Norah Jones, Vashti Bunyan, Hope Sandoval, Lucinda Williams and others worth hearing. Still, Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, however wonderful, is genre-pushing, tenuously folk at best, even in its lighter moments, most notably Laura Marling’s tense, chiming, crescendoing dream of Refractions, and the soaring wall-of-gospel Beth Orton piece that follows; the rest sounds more like a remix of U2’s Achtung Baby as filtered through the majesty of both the Moody Blues and Thompson Twins production engineers.  (Although that’s not bad, necessarily – the band pulls the whole thing off really, really well.)  

Happily, Cover Me was on the ball when they covered Warren Zanes-produced tribute Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits twice this year: first in a short teaser post in August, then in a track by track five star review after the album’s release that claimed “instant classic” status for the record.  They’re right, of course: it’s all good, and quite good at that, from end to end a solid, strong tribute to a well-deserved gravel-voiced crooner of the downtrodden, with some of our favorite moods and voices – Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann, Roseanne Cash, Iris Dement – familiar to this type of project on the roster, and truly a canon of coverage in homage overall.  We’re especially loving the selections from newer artists, too: the simple grandeur of sister act Joseph’s title cut, which comes on so much more static, and then turns up so much more tense, when held up against Sarah Jarosz’ seemingly seminal cover of the same; Courtney Marie Andrews’ driving, high-countrified Downtown Train; Phoebe Bridger’s slow, mournful Appalachian-Celtic gospel hymn reinvention of Georgia Lee.    




The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist)

+ Steve Earle, Guy
+ Sudhananda with Lucia Lilikoi, Golden Slumbers
+
Janileigh Cohen, Bird on a Wire

We figured Steve Earle‘s tribute to Guy Clark – a quickly-recorded and heartfelt tribute to one-time mentor and friend, and thus, in its way, a companion piece to his previous end-of-the-decade tribute, 2009’s Townes – was going to slam this category, as long as it didn’t go too hard for folk.   Sure enough, though it certainly teeters on the edge in its louder, more bombastic tracks, the simply-titled Guy comes in loving, generous, gritty, and heartstrong in the end – a solid choice for those already invested in the world of No Depression, a high point in the alt-country roots range, and a fine reminder that Earle is still atop his own game.  

Our runners-up lie not far behind, though vastly different in sound.   First up: Golden Slumbers, a collection of Beatles covers originally intended to be instrumental lullabies, until long-haired project visionary, multi-instrumentalist, and long-time children’s music producer Sudhananda met Spanish vocalist Lucia Lilikoi.   Slow and syrupy, recorded at 432 hertz for warmth, and driven throughout by classical-sounding layers of guitar, harp, and keys, Golden Slumbers comes across as a delicate contemporary folk album – not just for kids at all, but perfect for those looking to wind down at the end of day with something that aims to be perfect, and comes damn close, from a master mixer, engineer, producer, artist, and arranger who has previously worked with Maria Muldaur and Donovan.   

Second, although its title points to but one of its subjects, we celebrate Janileigh Cohen‘s album Bird On A Wire, a tribute to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan – an odd pairing that works.  Simple, quiet guitar (or, sometimes, piano) and sweet, aching vocals go back and forth among a second string of less-and-better-covered tracks from both songbooks, revealing range and a depth of understanding that closes a gap we never knew hid in our brains, unveiling the common underpinnings of two poet-lyricist masters with delicacy and care.   It’s not complex, but it doesn’t have to be: If It Be Your Will has never felt more satisfied, or more brave; One Too Many Mornings has never sounded sadder.




The Year’s Best Tradfolk Collection

+ Tui, Pretty Little Mister
+ Thirty Pounds of Bone & Phillip Reeder, Still Everywhere They Went
+ Sam Amidon, Fatal Flower Garden

Appropriately sparse, almost atonal fiddle-and-banjo play hold sway on Pretty Little Mister, a raw collection from young old time duo Tui, whose transformation of the old sound and lyrics ring strong with timeless sorrow and Appalachian alliance.  It’s short, but so are the songs; it’s authentic, to be sure, but in a familiar, intimate neo-traditionalist mode, learned through scholarship and close collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, just right for the modern tradfolk crowd that surrounds the likes of Anna & Elizabeth, Andrew Bird, and Sam Amdion, albeit with a few more instrumentals in the mix than we generally share and celebrate.  No matter: those looking for their tradfolk to sound traditional, yet looking for something new and wonderful in the stark combination of voices and instruments, could easily stop and linger here for days.  

The drowning sounds of creaking hull and deck, droning engine, surf, gulls, wind, and a passing Coast Guard helicopter on Still Everywhere They Went, a set of well-chosen traditional British fishing and maritime songs made modern and strange by performers and fellow university lecturers in ethnomusicology Johny Lamb (aka lo-fi recording artist Thirty Pounds of Bone) and Phillip Reeder, are as authentic as they come: originally recorded aboard a moving, working 1974 fishing boat out of Cornwall, the collection of eight songs – a “mini-album”, if anything, justifying a blur in this year’s category between long and short form releases – push the shanty form into its context, making for a unique yet wonderful journey not so much crossing past and present as collapsing them into deep, crowded, almost futuristic fathoms. 

And speaking of Sam Amidon: though it’s hard for a four-track to compete with something so sprawling, his short EP release Fatal Flower Garden (officially released on 7″ vinyl) offers a small collector’s gem for year’s end: four perfect tracks, each on their own and altogether precious and fragile, warm and weary as anything.   It’s been a few years since we last saw Sam, but this tiny teaser is a potent reminder that he is at the top of his game – and the top of the craft – as a vessel and interpreter: Amidon first arranged these songs for a concert in tribute to Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and though they yaw wide, indeed, each is just perfect in its way, leaving us hopeful about the tradition and its continued survival through the respectful evolution of the masters among us.   Bonus points: with a single exception – EP-ending instrumental Train on the Island, which churns fiddle wonderfully throughout – these songs would fit just perfectly alongside aching favorites from Bon Iver, Ray LaMontagne, Iron and Wine, and the rest of the moody indiefolk crowd; indiebloggers and radio runners, take note and spread the word.    




The Year’s Best Mostly/Half-Covers Album

+ Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other
+ BAILEN, Mixtape
+ Nicolette Macleod, Love and Gold

Every year, we toy with collapsing this category, and just letting individual tracks come through in our collection of Year’s Best Singles.  But the placement of covers up against original work is its own kind of tribute, and nowhere is this more evident than in our main honorees for this year’s half-covers albums – three artists, and/or artist collaborations, who approach the issue in entirely different ways.     

First up: There Is No Other, from Rhiannon Giddens with pianist and percussionist Francesco Turrisi – an expert in the often-unacknowledged influence of Arabic and Middle Eastern music on the European “sound” which together trace and recreate a common thread among a clean and fluid mix of songs, pulling from the Appalachian tradition and far beyond, to Nina Simone, opera, and more, plus two original songs that fit so perfectly among the old, you’d have to know them to identify them as other.  The diversity of sources is enough to make There Is No Other a non-contender as a full covers or a truly traditional album – where it would have easily tied for top honors, to be sure – but it remains, as reviewers have said since its Spring release, a handbook for both the evolution of popular music, and the universality of folk, with banjo, frame drum, and cello settings, coupled with Giddens’ huge talent for song resurrection, making for something well worth celebrating everywhere.   

Meanwhile, as promised in our previous celebration of their Holiday fare, BAILEN‘s Mixtape offers an aptly titled mix of album cuts, previously-unreleased originals, and four wonderful covers which together serve to map the influences of the NYC-based trio’s hard-to-categorize, vastly diverse sound: a wonderful and surprisingly faithful live Joni Mitchell cover, a stripped down song from Billie Eilish, a soft, dreamy, high-harmony-rich cover of The Sugarcubes’ Hit, and a June Taboresque take on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, all of whom can be heard in the rich echoes of their folk-to-pop-and-back-again recordings and live shows.   And finally, from across the pond: though its covers and originals stand out as heavily vocally-driven, and in many cases a capella through and through, the soundscape created by Glaswegian “singer/songwriter, sound-designer, performer & live improvised sound maker” Nicolette Macleod on April’s Love and Gold is exquisite and fully-formed, weaving traditional British Isle folksongs with her own compositions to create a rich tapestry of song that soars and swoops like birds in a landscape otherwise ominous and still.  


Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, share, and above all, follow links to purchase the music you love, the better to keep the arts – and the artists – alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a New Year’s contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors receive undying praise, and a special blogger-curated gift mixtape of well-loved but otherwise unshared covers from 2018.

Comment » | Best of 2019, Emily Mure, Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Amidon, Tradfolk, Tributes and Cover Compilations

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

March 13th, 2018 — 2:45pm

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

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

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

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

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

Always ad-free and artist-centered, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of coverage and folk roots on the web since 2007 thanks to the kind support of readers like you. If you like what you hear, click through to purchase albums and support the artists we love, the better to keep the music going in an age of micro-transactions. And, as always, if you wish to help us in our ongoing mission, we hope you’ll consider a donation to Cover Lay Down.

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

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

December 29th, 2013 — 12:03am



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

Tributes and Cover Compilations, Summer 2013
(Bach, Motown, Stephen Foster, The Postal Service, Damien Jurado & more!)

July 11th, 2013 — 3:17pm

There’s a lot of great new stuff bubbling up through the ether out there. Today, we dig into a few warm-weather months of mailbag offerings to reveal a carefully vetted mid-year set of new and impending album-length coverfolk collections sure to tickle the coverlover’s fancy.

The 8 song reinterpretations on The Music of Stephen Foster, a new homage to the “Father of American Music” from midwestern “acoustic folk and electroacoustic musician” Nathan Edwards, are quite diverse, when you get down to it, ranging from James Taylor orchestral to echoey electroacoustic indiefolk. Yet 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. Stream two tracks below, and preorder here in digital or hardcopy for a July 16 drop date.

    Nathan Edwards: Beautiful Dreamer (orig. Stephen Foster)

    Nathan Edwards: I Would Not Die In Springtime (orig. Stephen Foster)

If we’re late to the party on Sam Amidon‘s newest covers-and-tradfolk release, it’s because Bright Sunny South is startlingly complex, with deep exploration that grates as easily as it glorifies, and a shift in tone from track to track that seems, at times, less a journey than a yawing catalog of inner voices. Indeed, at its most experimental, Bright Sunny South is hard to listen to, and maybe that’s the point: Sam’s shaky voice, like a raggedly bowed saw blade, remains creaky and primordial; most reviewers have complained about his Mariah Carey cover, which seems overly gentle and abstract for its concrete and commercial lyrics, and the smashing electric feedback session that closes the otherwise pensive tradsong He’s Taken My Feet, while compositionally adept, seems too confrontational every time.

But if Bright Sunny South is a (purposefully) mixed bag, it’s an amazingly mature one, 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. Some tracks are melodic, others, like As I Roved Out, are more wholly deconstructed, – their lyrics collapsed and reshuffled, their fragments of tradition echoing through in pastiche – but each has a tension that reveals and reveres. 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.

    Sam Amidon: As I Roved Out (trad.)

I’m still not sure how to categorize If You Wait Long Enough: Songs of Will Stratton, a benefit tribute album for the young indie singer-songwriter and composer whose cancer diagnosis last year illuminated the conflicted plight of artists in a world where medical bills are often unaffordable for those working outside the world of 9 to 5 employment. The ingredients for folk, or at least a sort of honesty generally sprung from the modern roots inheritors, are all there: though many tracks include a grungy wash of electric guitar undercurrent, most are spare and acoustic at heart, and there’s dreamscapes galore, which certainly suits Stratton’s generally witty and self-effacing lyrical phrases. But to shelve this album as even predominantly folk is to both ignore the synth-driven indie pop and rock elements of Kid in the Attic’s beat-heavy Do You Remember the Morning and Jesse Rifkin’s club-ready Katydid, and to mistake performance for genre.

Greatness will out, however. What this album decidedly is, is an honest, cohesive, organic introduction to the works of an undersung artist in need of support from a set of artists who clearly care for both that body of work, and the body of the man who produced it; as such, it stands easily among the better tributes we’ve heard this year. So check out the more primitive tracks, such as the swirling banjo-driven climb from sadness into subdued promise brought by Brattleboro-based acoustic string explorer Sam Moss and the Ineligible Bachelors (with Corey DiMario of Crooked Still on upright bass, and Amidon sibling Stefan of Sweetback Sisters on percussion), and Louisiana-born, Brooklyn-grounded songcrafter Zachary Cale‘s tender and pensive Bluebells, then stream and buy on Bandcamp to support Will’s recovery and treatment.

    Sam Moss and the Ineligible Bachelors: The Relatively Fair (orig. Will Stratton)

    Zachary Cale: Bluebells (orig. Will Stratton)

As an addendum to the above, fans of Sam Amidon and/or primitive folk would do well to check out The Parlor Is Pleasant on Sunday Night, Sam Moss and fellow Vermonster Jackson Emmer’s eminently fragile late 2012 duo collection of old-time songs of “jubilation…and defeat”: while not new, my thread-pulling discovery of the collection while researching the above made me an instant fan.

We often complain of mass market mixed-genre tribute albums, even as we celebrate the folk tracks therein. But if the approach taken by Never Give Up: Celebrating 10 Years of The Postal Service, a new multi-artist tribute produced in honor of the joint ten-year anniversary of curating blog Independent Clauses and seminal Postal Service album Give Up, seems much more listener-friendly – with its 21 track setlist divided into discrete folk and indiepop “albums” – who are we to argue when the result is easily more than an album’s worth of great covers?

Which is to say: if not every track is to our taste on either disk, well, that’s to be expected when working with unknowns; there are more hits than misses here, with multiple coverage of well-recognized songs allowing the listener to choose sides, and hipsters to defend theirs endlessly. Perhaps that’s the point: I’m wholly in love with the ability to line ’em up, and utterly lost in the way Venna’s hope and heavenly harmonies play against the bouncy brush, bass, fiddle and banjo Seven Handle Circus bring to their own version of well-known indie shout-out Such Great Heights, a pairing which will play consecutively in the player below. And that’s just the folk side, which says something about the hard edge on the indiepop end of things.

Suggesting strongly that blog-born coverage collections may be a bit more fan-friendly by definition, similar curative circumstances result in a similarly sprawling yet surprisingly strong Damien Jurado tribute from Slowcoustic, which, like the well-produced J. Tillman tribute Slowcoustic produced earlier this year, has been slowly released over the last week. More cohesive by design – blog host and Yer Bird label founder Sandy focuses on a much narrower spectrum of lo-fi “slow acoustic” music, making for more commonality of sound and approach in his mix – the new Jurado homage is nevertheless deliciously imperfect, and overstuffed with double and triple takes on some of the indiefolk darling’s most poignant compositions, each one rawer than the last. As always, we’re thrilled with turnouts from Cover Lay Down faves Hezekiah Jones, Doc Feldman, and Lotte Kestner, and pleased to find some new love and appreciation in the mix from Kim Janssen, Jeremy Squires, and more; for a track-by-track breakdown of contributing artists and the choices they’ve made in coverage, head directly to Slowcoustic’s 5-part treatment of the collection, without passing “go”.

Finally, from the edges of folk but still firmly grounded in the roots of American acoustic music come two genre coverage collections, one Motown soul, one eminently old-school classical. First, Chris Thile’s all-classical, all-Bach album, wherein a collection of sonatas and partitas translate into masterfully crisp mandolin tunes without losing a drop of bravado, thus proving once again just why this artist recently received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant; the album doesn’t drop ’til August, but pre-orders are ongoing, and the video below is a great teaser. And second, Decoration Day, Vol. 2, a new EP-length multi-artist covers compilation from the indiefolk collective at Mason Jar Music, which takes a funky 60’s era Motown approach on songs originally by Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Taylor, and Bill Withers, plus a Beatles tune and a Willie Dixon number, bringing the collection into the millennium with an ear towards the acoustic and the “new Americana” melting pot. Fledgling NYC label Mason Jar’s mostly-Brooklyn tradfolk collection of stormsongs after Hurricane Sandy was one of our favorite albums of 2012; finding their Decoration Day EP series ongoing is a delight, especially after their first volume brought such wonderful talent and folk stylings to 200 years of popular American song; as a bonus, we get to celebrate sweet up-and-coming soul-meets-singer-songwriter Emily Elbert again, which is always wonderful.

    Chris Thile: Sonata No. 1 in G Minor

Cover Lay Down features new thematic songsets and artist-focused entries twice weekly throughout the year thanks to patrons and supporters like you. Coming soon: more mailbag coverage from up-and-coming artists, and a new Single Song Sunday collection uncovers the path a Rolling Stones tune takes in becoming an outlaw country classic.

2 comments » | Chris Thile, Sam Amidon, Tributes and Cover Compilations

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