The Year’s Best Coverfolk Videos (2019)
Living room covers, live cuts, in-studio sessions & more!


For a good portion of the last century, the audio recording held sway as the primary source of song for the masses. Radio helped, of course – but from a financial perspective, at least, if we wanted to control what we heard, we had to buy the record, tape, or CD, and settle in to listen, with nary but a sleeve or insert to help us picture the performance.

The birth and rise of MTV in our respective youth reshaped exposure through audio-visual means, of course. And as long as home instruments and music venues have remained a steadfast part of the landscape, live performance has always been there for us – though the re-establishment of the small hall and house concert as a viable means of connecting physically with artist and fans add a layer of intimacy and access which have helped sustain the journey of the small label performer, and the amateur. But like radio, these venues retain playlist control – there, the artist, and/or the DJ, determines what is worth playing. And behind it all, we knew, the rubrics of the popular and in-demand influenced the choice of song, and setlist, stifling the listener, prioritizing the produced and played over the player, leaving us nothing but the archival mixtape to control our own soundscape.

Which is to say: Once we listened in our bedrooms, on record players in bright colors of our choosing; once we listened in cars, accompanied by the visuality of the drive. Once we listened, period, in ways determined, for the most part, by the tastemakers, and their raw technology, and the industry of style. Finally, we watched, but vastly: our watching was voyeuristic, and still not ours to mod or mood.

But the post-millennial rise of YouTube shifts time and space. We become privy to the artist’s home, if they so choose; we can access the concert hall from states away; we can see and enjoy “live” sessions from the radio, which once would have been lost to the ages, in streaming real-time and – perhaps more importantly – in archival form. The visual playlist is ours to compile, giving us new access to performance – not just recording – as a means for our own expression. Versioning – in which an artist can demonstrate and display the demo-level cut, and show the evolution of a particular song in their mind and hands – becomes an artifact of the new tech: when it is that easy to spread each individual performance, the same song comes at us in ways that echo the many spaces and moods in which it is performed, making the beloved not just discoverable, but mutable, to match our own needs and desires.

How lucky we are to have lived in a decade where the performance of song can be shaped by the artist, and driven into our living room, to curate and shuffle as the listener wills it. How lucky to be able to choose which take, and which performance, we might prefer to loop into infinity. How lucky, indeed, to have the privilege of replay for the whole performance, eyes and ears together, at our fingertips – and in doing so, to rebuild, reframe, and retain the intimacy that once existed between and among singer, song, community, and listener.

Not all video performance is created alike, of course. Although all offer a glimpse into the world of their craft beyond the audible studio or rare live recording, we are most interested, in our year’s end reflection, with those videos that close the gap through the video portrayal, giving us not just insight, but relationship, with the artist as they play. As we’ve said for years: to strip these latter performances of their native multi-medium is to miss something essential about their incidence. And thus, correlatively, to celebrate them is to celebrate the space between us all.

Join us today, then, as we celebrate the very best native video performances, sets, sources and series from the wide and wonderful world of 2019, framed in a loose compilation of arbitrary categories designed only to best hold and hearken to the good stuff in a semblance of manage-ability. Let the performances herein offer insight, and a close companion, as the year comes to a close. And fear not, as we enter the new millennium: we’ll be back soon – give or take a day or two – with more coverfolk from the wide-open world, including our annual compilation of favorite cover albums and tributes from the year gone by.




Best Ongoing Live Video Series: Live From Here

Now in his third year at the helm of the now-rechristened radio series originally established by writer Garrison Keillor in the previous millennium, mandolin prodigy and all-around nice guy Chris Thile, rightly named one of just four artists of the decade over at a newly-revived No Depression magazine, has absolutely found his footing in Live From Here, a weekly set of songs, musical guests, stories, and loose comedic play which he celebrates with the same respect, awe, engagement and delight that made Keillor’s original hosting voice such a perfect medium for our own close connection. Not all of it is coverage, of course, but regular features keep ’em coming – including shortform covers and full-length tributes to great artists from all genres in his weekly survey of Musician Birthdays, and a penchant towards “everyone on stage” coverage a la previous Year’s Best Videos celebrant e-Town to end the show.

The video connection is strong here, too. Though produced first and foremost for the radio, Thile’s delightful Live From Here sessions are now all recorded and archived for the web in what has become a trademark blue-wash light; you can hear the glee on NPR, of course, but watching him grin that trademark grin through each act adds a whole new layer of love to performances from ongoing regulars Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive, a house band made from members of Punch Brothers and other wonderful newgrass compatriots, and other co-conspirators both rare and wonderful (including, recently, a Crooked Still reunion, and guest spots from John Prine, Paul Simon, They Might Be Giants, The Pixies, Dawes, The Tallest Man On Earth, and Sara Bareilles). Here’s a sampling to get you started: O’Donovan paying tribute to a Joni Mitchell classic, and Jarosz with just one of many, many sweet covers performed over the last year or two with her long-time mentor and friend Thile.








Best One-shot Video Series: Songs for Winter Walk 2019

Boston’s annual Winter Walk, a stroll-for-action which takes place in the cold of early February, is an anomaly even in the kind world of worthy causes: the event itself raises money and awareness of and for the Greater Boston homeless community not just through the distant celebration of those lucky enough to be able to help, but through companionship, as homeless folks and families march the two miles to Copley Square side by side with over a thousand supporters, ending with a shared meal and stories of the streets. Last year, as the date grew close, a playlist of contributing Boston-area musicians playing “original songs or versions of beloved songs of compassion, togetherness, community, and action” grew to help raise awareness of the walk and the community it supports; all are videos, most are covers, and the vast majority are filmed in intimate spaces – artist homes, snowy glades, and small dark studios – making for a set of performances just stunning in their solidarity, tenderness and pain.

Listen to a pair of favorites below from singer-songwriter Dan Mills and Naseem Khuri of Boston-based band Kingsley Flood, and then click through to the Songs for Winter Walk 2019 archives for more – including Lake Street Dive covering Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend, both Lori McKenna and Mark Erelli and Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards covering REM’s Everybody Hurts, Parsonsfield covering a traditional hymn by the woods’ edge, Anais Mitchell singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow cold in the snow, originals from Josh Ritter and Session Americana, and a host of other arrangements and reinventions from some of our very favorite locals gone or going big enough to matter to the world.




Best Small Studio Video Covers Series: stories

A house “band” of acoustic six-stringers and a rotating set of both up-and-coming and more established YouTube stars such as Nataly Dawn and Çasey Abrams reinterpret popular songs and standards from Drake and Billie Eilish to John Denver, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith and more in decidedly low-key folk ballad mode in stories, a new yet highly prolific series which sprung up in late October and has been filling our ears with regular delights ever since. It’s hard to find a flaw, here; though the settings remain the same, each artist is given the space to create their own mood and moment amidst the sepia tones that characterize the recording space, and we’ve enjoyed pulling the threads as we go, making of the series a who’s who survey of what’s new and noteworthy among the wonderful world of native online artistry. We’ve chosen a familiar voice and a pair of new ones, to represent the spectrum, but there’s dozens more where that came from, and the whole rabbit-hole is worth the hours.










Best Independent “Living Room” Cover Videos: Josh Turner/ Carson McKee / Reina del Cid

A Cantor friend turned us on to both Josh Turner (the guitarist, not the country singer) and Minneapolis-based independent artist-and-band Reina del Cid early this year, and we’re glad he did – and equally glad that from there, we followed the tracks to Turner collaborator Carson McKee, who sealed the deal with a growing number of songs recorded under his own name and channel, both with and without the aforementioned. Though of the three YouTube cross-posters, Turner & McKee are more typically on the same screen, if only due to geographical proximity and their work together as “The Other Favorites”, it’s no shame to celebrate the three artists all together, both for their ongoing association and collaborations and for their solo work, and claim their path to glory as central to our mandate: together, they represent a movement, and (as with our previous-year’s celebrations of Boyce Avenue, Nataly Dawn, Kina Grannis, Megan Davies, and Walk Off The Earth) the best of yet another crop of newly-hot, not-so-fast-to-fame singer-songwriters plying their work as interpreters and songwriters on the back of the streaming service via coverage – in many ways the core reason why we began posting year’s end covers to begin with.

Here’s a triplet of full trio collaborations from the year, each nominally fronted by a different artist, plus a duo set, a rare solo cut from del Cid’s long-running “Sunday Morning” covers series, and a late-entry solo track from McKee just released last week to whet the proverbial whistle for much, much more; listen, and then 1) dig deep into the archives for many more covers from all three and each, and 2) join the crowd by subscribing to their prospective YouTube pages so you’ll never miss a cover.
















Best Produced Cover Video: Jacob Collier ft. dodie, Here Comes The Sun

We could have easily included an audio-only version of this Beatles cover in our year’s end compilation of single-shot coverage, instead of here; after all, there’s nothing “live” about the delightfully rich performance of Here Comes The Sun, a one-shot collab from rising star wunderkinds dodie and Jacob Collier which was officially released as the second track from Collier’s stunning Djesse Vol. 2, which also features Sam Amidon, Herbie Hancock, members of Take 6, and an incredible micro-tonal a capella cover of Moon River which is in the running for a Grammy this year. But two videographic aspects say otherwise: the jumpy outdoor garden-play of the singers themselves, which so aptly mirrors the song and its arrangement, and the split-screen portrayal of vocal layering, which doesn’t just measure up to the complex vocality of the performance, but portrays it, making real our potent introduction to Collier’s nuanced and new genre-smashing sound…and serving as a perfect companion to the delicate quietude of dodie’s own near-perfect 2019 bedroom Beatles cover, which we’ve included for comparison.








Honorable Mention: The Year’s Best Single-shot Live Coverfolk Videos

All in all, it was a wonderful year for the videographic acoustic-and-roots coverlover: far too much for us to manage here, though surely, as always, a few more video-origin tracks may well find their way onto compilations and mixtapes as the years progress. We’ll leave you today, then, with an unranked clearinghouse of 12 favorites from the vast panoply of sound that rings with delight in our ears at year’s end, all grounded firmly in the audiovisual creative process, which come to us from new and familiar artists, channels, and collaboratives whose ongoing coverage brings joy to our feed throughout the year. Enjoy – and, as always, if you like what you hear, follow through to hear more from and pay tribute to each and every one of these artists and production houses, in thanks and praise for a job well done.


























Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the ongoing support of artists, promoters, and readers like YOU. So if you like what you hear, do your part: listen deeply, like us on Facebook, come back often to keep abreast of new features, including our ongoing New Artists, Old Songs series, and our upcoming end-of-year feature covering The Year’s Best Coverfolk… and above all, share and purchase the music as you find it, the better to keep the arts alive.

Comment » | Aoife O'Donovan, Best of 2019, Kina Grannis, New Artists Old Songs, YouTube

A Very Merry Coverfolk, Vol. 3 (2019): Welcome Yule
with Allysen Callery, Ryan McMullan, Winter Union, The Petersens & more!




A smorgasbord today, as Solstice passes and our official Christmas celebration of a year’s worth of holiday coverage comes to a close. Find tender and mild, and hearty joy alongside: at tree, hearth, and table, the lights and the streets filled with twinkling snow.

We’ll be back between Christmas and New Years, as always, with our annual round up of The Year’s Best Coverfolk albums, tributes, series, and singles. Until then, may you, too, feel the singing of the season, and be served by it. And may all your Christmases be bright with sound and solace, and the aching feeling of hope in the chest as the season rises to greet you well.



Recorded in a church in Leeds, Christmas in Hevelwood starts off fingerpicked and discordant with a mournful and tense In The Bleak Midwinter, and never lets up: a pulsing loop-like Angels We Have Heard On High, a loose, singer-songwriter’s talksong O Come O Come Emmanuel, and a singular Joy To The World later, and we’re convinced: there is more in depth and breadth to be found in the carols of old, and when unearthed, its utter beauty kills. Hevelwood is (his Bandcamp bio tells us) the solo project of acoustic tale-spinner Tim Woodson of Yorkshire, but other than that, this EP and its artist stand alone and untethered, singletons shrouded in mystery. How appropriate.






Alternative NYC-based sibling group BAILEN is hard to categorize: their two-fer Holiday release sports both a funky classic rock take on Christmas Is All Around and a touching I’ll Be Home for Christmas patterned after the version in Love, Actually, but with added harmonies and a hint of homespun whimsy. It’s hard to tell which is the b-side, too – and we love that. Look for the brand new band again in a week or so, too, when more of their 2019 coverage, including their cover of The Sugarcubes’ Hit, hits our end of year list – a stunning reinvention, and decidedly folk, in a Fleet Foxes meets Crosby Stills and Nash mind meld. Or is it Fleetwood Mac meets First Aid Kit? Regardless: good stuff, all around.






Acoustic surf rock and the dusty soundtrack of the spaghetti folk western meet in Lonely Exile Here, a first seasonal foursome from drawling Arizona duo Bones In The Walls – who don’t have to say, but do anyway, that their sound comes straight out of the mountains and deserts of the American west.






It’s a little contrived, and a little repetitive. But there’s something so darling and delightful about this slide-and-gravel-driven single from Scottish country-punk-slash-alt-bluesman Dave Arcari, we just can’t resist including it. Palate-cleansing, at least – and worth it.






Traditional folk fans rejoice: the gentle, rich mix of voices that comprise A Winter Union rings loud with the joy of the English Christmas canon, thanks to a supergroup including Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage, whose duo work we’ve featured on these pages before, both at Christmas and in our 2017 year’s end roundup. Formed for a beautiful Christmas charity release in 2017, and reunited for a live show last year, the five-piece band toured around the UK this season and released this album “due to popular demand” after their last just this week. Last year’s concert becomes this year’s Live In Concert album? Yes, please. Come for the classics, but stay until the end, for a strong encore take on The Band.






I would I could remember how I found Jacquie Lawson‘s White Christmas, but it doesn’t matter, really: what matters is that we found it, and just in time. Simple, careful, sweet and oh so sad, the track simply shimmers, a dream in white.






Ghost-folk songstress Allysen Callery returns to Cover Lay Down with this year’s Covers of Christmas, a home-recorded, mixed-bag set released a day at a time in the final days leading up to Christmas itself. Many of the choices here are simple gifts, learned quickly and sourced broad – see, for example, her delicate, hollow take on Neil Young’s Birds – but several are true-blue Christmas songs, including soft and slippery deconstructions of holiday songs from Elvis, John Denver, In The Bleak Midwinter and Greensleeves. Act now to hear it: like her music, these annual advent sets are as fleeting and fragile as they are hauntingly beautiful, and are as likely as not to disappear before the passing of the year.






We’ve been listening to family bluegrass band The Petersens a lot this year, both because we’re suckers for close girl-group harmonies and true-blue Appalachian gospel arrangements, and because their covers swing and stomp, sticking in the ears and brain. Their choices of coverage belie their genre roots, too: Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, and more, making for a smashing year with a great promise of more to come.






Your favorite holiday Pogues song is generally covered as it comes: raucous, ragged, drunk and delightful. But stripped of all urgency and anger, Fairytale of New York turns out tender, like a slowly setting sun, or the waning of the year into naught. Don’t take our word for it. Twenty-something Irish pop darling Ryan McMullan proves it in the softest, most gentle version of the song we’ve heard, an incredible turn with guitar low and droning like a banjo, and every word and note poignant and hollow, echoing in the Belfast church where it was recorded softly, leaving us fans for life.





Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | Allysen Callery, Holiday Coverfolk

A Very Merry Coverfolk, Vol. 2 (2019)
(New takes on Yoko Ono, The Band, Brenda Lee & more!)



This weekend’s streaming seasonal (Vol. 1) featured new takes on old familiar holiday songs, with a focus on the traditional canon: hymns, carols, and folk songs of the Christmas season, generally thick with birth and epiphany, but often also robust with fellowship and good cheer. But though a quick skim of Bandcamp and Soundcloud does seem to reveal an unusually strong rebirth of the old this year, just as oft-covered, these days, are the standards and radio-fare of a more modern, post-recording age: from Judy Garland and Bing Crosby through Joni, Yoko, Lennon, and McCartney; from George Michael and Mariah Carey’s pre-millennial fare to post-millennial classics from Sara Barellies, The Weepies, and more.

There’s no better time to dig deep into the more recent half of the holiday songbook: a persistence of ice falling from the sky – the sound like nothing more or less than a never ending rainstick, or perhaps the sizzle of an endless bacon fry-up – has cancelled school and kept us homeridden just in time to decorate the tree together, at least once the kids awaken. While we wait, here’s the current soundtrack to our hearth and home: a familiar set of songs written and first recorded within the last century that celebrate not so much the sacredness of the Christmas season as the stresses, joys, hopes, and simple observations of how we celebrate it, in a world where love and nature persist despite the commercialism; where everyone knows the songs, and the words to sing along, and does so.



Holiday Mix Vol. 9 is otherwise too punk, and all new holiday originals; download the whole thing at your own risk. But this year’s sampler from biannual Philly-based pop-up collective Super Friends’ record-making meet-up kicks off the season in true folk delight, with uke and stricken bells tinkling the streets of the snow-covered city with awe, like a wind up music box, slow and – in the end – almost stately. Yoko would be proud, I think; artist Zaina’s previous sampler forays into Christmas coverage, especially this 2017 take on I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, bear sharing, too, if only for their tiny, dense glee.





Piano balladry reigns on Welcome The Light, a slippery, surprising, and surprisingly diverse EP release featuring a Charlie Brown classic and otherwise old standards, where strong, nuanced interpretations of just four tracks and a wonderful hoarse flourish and fluidity veer Kate Lamont’s new collection towards folk with a smooth pop finish. Her triplet-driven rearrangement of Oh Come Oh Come Emannuel is especially dark and brooding and deeply beautiful; check out this one from start to finish for a perfect soundtrack to snow in darkness.





It’s called Christmas in the Country, and sure enough: both the choices of coverage and the stylistic duo work from Quebec-based Zach and Brie ring of the deep roots music of the American South at Christmas, with a slightly Musak-influenced and genre-warped yet lightly recognizable turn on Elvis die-hard Blue Christmas and an especially strong and fitting swing on Christmas Must Be Tonight, originally by fellow Canadian-American root rockers The Band.





We return to the short strings with Coming Home For Christmas, a uke-and-sax driven shortie of seasonal standards bordering on cheese but o-so-gently done, with kudos and thanks to MARLOWE, a rising star in the Hawaiian-hybrid style made popular by the likes of Jake Shimabukuro, warm vocals from collaborator Noah Wood, and a nice unexpected chord switch-out in I’ll Be Home For Christmas we have to assume is deliberate, given how well it reboots the song every time we hear it. Jazzfolk afficionados, rejoice: the sax solos here are ridiculously flavorful, too, especially in White Christmas.





There’s nothing light or acoustic about Cotter Koopman’s synth-driven ambient dream-pop on Back of the Barn: The Michigan-based artist’s tendency towards found sound collage experimentalism produces no shortage of startlement as each track progresses on his annual Advent releases, and this year’s release is so much more ear-scrambling than, say, last year’s delightfully sparse electrofolk take on Sufjan Stevens’ A Sun Came. But all yelps and spoken word aside, the spirit here is folk, indeed – and if you’ve been looking for that perfect deconstruction of Paul McCartney’s twee holiday favorite, look no further.





We don’t usually share instrumentals here at Cover Lay Down: it’s hard to argue coverage when lyrics – so essential to interpretation – aren’t part of the take. But we’ll make an exception for A Doggone Christmas, produced by Philadelphian “Psychedelic Appalachian” duo Foxhound, whose members have toured with Good Old War, Amos Lee & The Wood Brothers, and whose chops hit the same sweet spot from whence Grisman and Garcia’s back porch sessions spring, albeit at times with a bit more rockabilly in their toe-tapping instep. Start with their swinging take on Brenda Lee’s 1958 rockin’ classic; stick around for mellower versions of others covered elsewhere in this feature, most especially a practically perfect slack-string-and-fiddle sundown of a Little Drummer Boy, to boot. Bonus points for purchasers, too: a full 50% of all sales go to benefit Camp Mariposa, whose mission is to mentor children who have been impacted by substance abuse in their families.





Holy smokes, it’s sixties folklegend Judy Collins, still strong and pitch-perfect in her control of that soaring, gorgeous voice. We got a chance to see her live and up close just a few years ago at our favorite summer folk festival before she was whisked off faint into the heat of the day, but it seems winter becomes her: Collins’ newest album Winter Stories is a true-blue collaboration, with Norwegian singer-songwriter Jonas Fjeld and North Carolina bluegrass revivalists Chatham County Line, and it’s a whitman’s ribbon sampler of delight. Fjeld holds back here, letting us revel in Judy covering Joni as only Judy can – but if you get a chance, do sift through the whole LP; all three sets of artists are great and humble, and the mix is subtle, contemporary, magic.





Finally, we’ve featured Boston-based Holiday-only all-female collaborative Winterbloom here before, and cherish their members’ solo works, as well (see older features on both Antje Duvekot and Meg Hutchinson, both of whom have come to play solo at our currently-on-hiatus UU church coffeehouse concert series Unity House Presents). But this new claymation video from singer-songwriter and delightful visual artist Duvekot, with its live soundtrack of a song covered over 200 times by everyone from Radiohead to Doris Day since its first release in the early days of mass recording, is everything you might want in a truly folk multimedia experience for the season. Turn the volume up for this one, and let your heart be light, too.





Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk

A Very Merry Coverfolk, Vol. 1 (2019)
(New takes on old familiar hymns and carols)

 
No, this isn't our living room - I found it on Pinterest.

 

We’ve spent the weekend cleaning house, both figuratively and literally, and we’re proud of the results: a new WordPress install behind the scenes here at Cover Lay Down to fix some pesky spam issues (sorry, folks!) and a living room almost ready for a tree, already peppered with various figurines and ornaments of holiday cheer and temporarily festooned with drying dress shifts freshly washed in anticipation of the various holiday concerts and office parties to come. 

Now the fire burns bright under the half-eaten advent calendar, and as they have since morning, the soft, celebratory sounds of the holidays fill the air, piped through a growing sense of wonder and delight that Christmas – Christmas! – is upon us again.  Join us as we bring on the Holidays with our very own all-streaming seasonal sampler: this year’s first-out-of-the-gate folk EP and Album length releases, featuring favorites from the Elder Christmas Canon, gleaned from all our favorite sources, and simply shimmering with joy.

 


 

We kick off today’s focus on the traditional stuff (as opposed to the pop standards of Christmas, which will surely follow posthaste as the season progresses) with one of my favorite old hymns, done up weird and wonderful as one of four indiefolk delights on Jesse Blake Rundle’s charming EP It’s Light Now. Wait ’til the drum, vibraphone, and marimba kick in: goddamn and rat-a-tat, it blooms alright.

 


 

You gotta love a Christmas album that includes, among its “album of modern Christmas classics”, covers of non-holiday Smiths standard Please Please Please and a droning, gauzy zither-and-uke take on Yaz classic Only You, neither of which have previously been associated with Chrimbo at all. But Cambridge, UK duo Hitman Hooker (and friends) make it work, with modern standards and carols alongside, on A Christmas Gift For You, a grungy, lo-fi antifolk album that shimmers with the sheer, ragged glee of the season.  A raw, rare gift, indeed.

 


 

Slippery and thick and chilling as ice, with horns like a brass quartet doped up for the holidays: Lana Winterhalt’s take on traditional carol The Holly and The Ivy is a gorgeous track, with staircase vocals and an eternity in just 3 minutes.  The frozen futuristic tone her shimmery electronica accompaniment brings to Ave Maria make for a powerhouse second act, too.  The originals on Diamonds, a holiday-themed full-length, are equally stunning.

 


 

Those looking for something a little more relaxed and traditional need look no further than Noel, a gentle, gleeful, touchingly amateur three-fer from Mackenzie Profitt of King’s Lynn, UK. The name appears to be a duo, or so say the male-and-female harmonies; thanks to a Bandcamp page otherwise bereft of information, we’ll have to let the songs speak for themselves elsewise.

 


 

Fragile and decidedly moody – in a good, majestically indiefolk mode, of course – comes the first track of Home For the Holidays: A Christmas Collection, a collection unassuming on the surface yet rich in the friendship and collaboration its first-named artists imply. And this one moves along, folks: kudos, especially, to “Noah, Mitch, & Kate” for a dreamy, uke-driven sunshine of a track in Silent Night, and others both old and popular done in surprisingly diverse and playful style.

 


 

Mosquito Fleet describes their sound as etherial soundscapes, and they’re not wrong; compare their ambient take on I Heard The Bells with the Anais Mitchell track we featured last week for an interesting study: both build slow to a triumphant note appropriate to the poem’s sentiment, but this one pulls back and forth more, creating an interesting tension and no small amount of mystery as its rich instrumental and vocal layers come together to reach towards the angels.  Click through, too, for an Auld Lang Syne b-side – a popular track this year, but in this case, making for a pairing that reaches into the world of poetics stunningly.  

 


 

12th Night masquerades as a slow form of punk folk; its underbelly is scummy Texan alt-rock with retro guitar licks and an urgency that can’t be beat, recorded on 45 but played on 33. Thanks to a penchant for dreampop arrangement, it’s nowhere near too heavy to include in a list for the folkfan, neither.  Everyone’s covering O Come Emmanuel this year, and this band’s covered it twice, both electric and acoustic…so although we’ve started with the second-gentlest track among their full set of tradcarols (one which turns surprisingly discordant, in canon, in the end), click back to the start of the collection for the good old grit and grunge that is modern indieroots music at its very best…

 


 

Finally, and in a different medium, thanks to artist preference of release format: Celtic-American Roots band RUNA first found themselves on these pages in 2014, when Current Affairs, the supergroup’s third full-length, won top honors in our year’s end traditional album category.  Here, in a first release from a brand new Winter Song EP, the quintet closes out our midseasonal set with a cheery take on a familiar upbeat friend.

 

 

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Tradfolk

Christmas, (Re)Covered: Covers of and from Anais Mitchell
plus links to over 100 Holiday and Winter Coverfolk delights!

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There’s something very folk about Christmas culture. Just one week into December, and the air is permeated with sounds of peace and love, comfort and joy that everybody knows, and can sing along to: on the radio; by the woodstove when the children are slowly preparing the living room for the tree; even at the mall, where no amount of commercialistic candor can muffle the startling thrill of a decent take on a piped in classic once again.

It’s gladdening to ring out old and new. And sure enough, plow through the archives, and you’ll find we’ve shared hundreds of Holiday coverfolk tracks and albums here at Cover Lay Down since our very first Christmas, ranging wide inside the festive folk tent, with sources from the secular to the scared, and the traditional to the modern. Today, we kick off the 2019 advent calendar with a long list of those previous features for your tree-side playlist pleasure…plus a pair of new Christmas covers of and from folkdarling Anais Mitchell to kick off the 2019 holiday season. Enjoy!


We featured the work of Vermont-bred, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in 2017, on the cusp of acclaim and a Tony award for the Broadway folk opera bombshell Hadestown, and touched on the infrequent but always welcome works of Popcorn Behavior cofounder and Sam Amidon collaborator Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett much earlier, in our old blogspot home; here, in a track nominally released via an amazon.com exclusive years ago but not officially available outside of the commercial behemoth until this year, their collaboration soars, as two darlings of the post-traditional folk world take what well may be my favorite carol and drown it in the deep journey of sorrow and hope it deserves: joyful, joyful, with pulsing, ringing bells and a spectered wall of sound that rises and falls like the heartrushes of the season. It’s a tiny single gem: no small coda to Hadestown, or to Doveman’s 2008 tribute to the Footloose soundtrack, but a reminder that great artists make great art in doses small and grand alike, and celebrate it apace.


The oft-retro but always sweet harmonies of “Juno award winning pop-folk band” Good Lovelies remind my father of The Roches, especially in how they tend to pull in and out of their homophonic alignment; I find their voices more melodic, as my own tastes run, and might more readily compare them to the Haden Triplets or even The Staves. But although the album’s arrangements trend more towards the Andrews Sisters of old, Evergreen, the brand new miostly-covers Christmas collection from the trio – who we’ve also seen at the Holidays here before, thanks to a take on Gordon Lightfoot winter classic On A Winter’s Night which appeared on their 2015 holiday tour EP Winter’s Calling – runs a wide and delightful gamut, from a smooth, softly boogie-woogie Little Saint Nick to a truly swinging girl-group Jingle Bells straight out of a USO tour, alongside plenty of soft-to-upbeat drum-and-brass classics with jazz, rock, and country influence, and a quiet fireside version of several – including a song penned by Anais herself, originally released in 2007 on the very same album that presaged Hadestown with the track Hades and Persephone.

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Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

Comment » | Anais Mitchell, Holiday Coverfolk

Drive: Covering the Road and Miles
with Richard Shindell, Passenger, Patty Griffin, Lotte Kestner & more!

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Saturdays used to be ours: the one day a week when no one had to work, or get ready for it. And because we live in the woods, that generally meant driving somewhere – breakfast, a museum, a festival, a small town to wander in, a tour of some old estate – anything, really, as long as it afforded us a chance to be together, just the four of us in and out of the minivan, looking out the window and sharing in the joy of adventure and discovery.

Now I get up while they’re sleeping, and start each Saturday with a long trip alone in the car: first the rural roads, then the small towns, with their weekender Farmer’s Markets, now dwindled down to a single canopy with root vegetables and a stalwart local in a parka; from there into Sturbridge and its commercial strip; then onto the Turnpike, then South on 495, and then another half hour North again, along and into the sleepy suburbs. Finally, I arrive at the assisted living complex where I lived this summer, while I moved my father and as much of his photos, books and records as we could carry from his independent living apartment into a 12×20 room, creating in the process a compact yet life-sized diorama of a life once lived large and well. We have lunch, which can take hours: out of the apartment with keys and credit card, in and out of the car, into the restaurant, back home again. I help out for a few hours more, tending to bills and chores, maybe reteaching him how to turn on the CD player, or starting a Netflix video for him to watch later.

And then I say goodbye. And I do the same drive all over again, only backwards, and in darkness.

I could drive it in my sleep, either way.


15489376505_c68717f886_k-700x466-700x466My brothers would come, but they live in other countries; he’s an only child, and his cousins live too far. He tends to avoid the other residents – they are, after all, a decade or more older than him on average, and he doesn’t identify with their needs or outlook, nor with their acceptance of what they can and cannot do for themselves.

And so, mostly, when it comes to Dad, it’s me or nothing.

It’s hard to watch. My father used to be Superman, though the world got more of him than I did: a self-made man in Saville Row suits and a thousand silk ties, a hard-stock business- card-carrying managing partner who pulled himself up into suburban success with nothing more than street smarts, determination, and a blazing intellect. He was one of the most powerful, influential lawyers in Boston; he had a hundred dear, close friends. His marriage worked, or so it looked on the outside; his kids were happy, see above.

Then Dad started falling asleep at his desk at work. Early onset Parkinson’s led to early retirement; his marriage fell apart; his kids moved out, and on. His circle of friends began to shrink; once he moved on to this small, spare assisted living apartment complex 30 minutes away, with a few exceptions, they stopped coming by altogether.

He blames the distance, but I think we both know the truth. And we forgive them, because we know it’s hard to watch those you love lose the things that brought you that love in the first place.

I’m a lot closer to my father than I used to be – even as the list of things my father used to be grows longer every week. But I’m fighting for balance, too. For years, I gave Saturdays to the children; now, just as the specter of college and adulthood begins to blossom in them, I choose to give my father the time I used to save for us. And it matters. To become my father’s lists, his agendas, his shopping cart guide, I have had to take a leave of absence from the adventures we used to take Saturdays, when the kids were small.

I worry, sometimes, on the long miles back and forth to Boston every weekend, that the model I am giving them is one which will ask them to take time from their own kids to give it to me, someday. Parkinson’s is hereditary, after all. My mother’s father had it, too.

But mostly, on those long miles down the turnpike, and in those afternoons in and out of Dad’s tiny room on the assisted living floor, I’m struggling with something bigger than anything I can put into words. I think it’s what my students call “the feels” – a complicated set of sadness and love and powerlessness in the face of loss that calls us to be still, and embrace our affliction, because we can’t do anything else.

It’s disorienting to just drive, and feel. Feeling the feels doesn’t play to my strengths. I’m like Dad, in that way: I’m used to being someone who makes sense of the world by taming it, turning it into something sensible and concrete – through writing, or teaching, and other product-oriented pursuits.

I know Dad is struggling with this, too. I know, because in my wallet, I carry one of his newer business cards – the ones that he made after his retirement, that just say “every step of the journey, is the journey”. For a long time, it sustained me on Saturdays, as I drove in for what I think of, increasingly, as a sort of shared Zen practice: the two of us, in the waning afternoon light, trying to find our balance in the shifting eye of the storm that is our lives, together, now; and in the aftermath, as I drove back home quietly in the darkness.


2018-Honda-Civic-Hatchback-E_oCars generally represent freedom or power, control or escape; the ability to get the hell out, or to come back home again. But just as that one friend with a truck knows you’ll call him up for help on moving day, soft songwriters know that the car can be the chain that pulls you down, too: the enabling tool, the thief of time.

More and more, on those long hours back and forth on what used to be my time with my wife and kids, I’ve come to think of the car as a burden, the road as prison cell, the driving as the penance for too much love, and a life lived fully up until now.

And although this year, for Thanksgiving, I am grateful for so much in my life, I really, really miss the days when we drove together, the four of us, over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house and table.

Because this year, for the first time, they left without me, to have a beachside adventure with their young cousins, my wife’s parents and her sisters, and their respective dogs before moving on to the delightful oceanside inn where we would meet up for the feast.

And for me, on my own, it was two hours to pick up Dad, two hours South to meet up with the clan, two hours of helping Dad through the restaurant buffet, and then four hours back again, just me and my faltering, fading father, driving in mostly silence, listening to the relationship between us stutter and fade as he sleeps and struggles to understand.

It was a long way there, and a long way home, to have so little time with the rest of the family I love. And it was hard, really hard, for Dad to ask in the car about the others at the table, and to realize that I had spent all my time and attention attending to him.

But this Saturday I took the day off, and drove downtown with the family for the annual multi-venue town crafts fair. I held hands with the wee one, now tall and slender at 14, as we picked out stocking stuffers, as we have done each year: small earrings and baubles, local honey balms and soaps, fingerless gloves and yarn scarves, handmade journals for secrets and poetry. The elderchild brought her new boyfriend, who was Romeo in the play we just finished; he seemed grateful to be with her, and eager to discover the delights of small community life alongside us. My wife and I kissed in passing, each time we found each other among the hustle and squeeze of stalls – we’re romantics; the seasonal kick-off gets to us, I guess.

It was a good day, for such a short drive. And good, too, to be home with time enough to write, and compile a playlist of driving songs.

May your travels this season be pensive and merry, in equal delight and measure.

And if you need company for the long, lonely miles, try these.

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, follow links to purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

2 comments » | Mixtapes

New Artists, Old Songs: From Indiefolk to Americana
with covers of Billie Eilish, Green Day, Joe Strummer & more!

It’s been a very long time since we blogged about new discoveries from the mailbag, and longer, still, since we trawled YouTube and Bandcamp for what was once a regular skim of everything new and noteworthy we could find.

Yet the emails we get remain insistent; a futurist’s echo chamber, clamoring to be the source of new release. And after a long absence, the echo matters. Indiefolk bands and singer-songwriters get too easily lost in the shuffle of pop radio that carries us to work and home most days. Months of solo releases from new-to-us experimentalists and neo-traditionalists from litter the inbox; bookmarked pass-alongs from social media flit by like brass rings, ripe for the picking. There’s so much to discover, and so much we’ve yet to hear.

The long-neglected stack of shareables bulges with transformative joy and sorrow. Covers we are bound to love swim just under the surface. So we took a day, and sifted through the inbox archives – April, Summer, September – to see what floated to the top of our pop-saturated ears. Here’s the results.

J Hacha de ZolaA buzzing cacophony of acoustic instruments from many lands (Kaval, Gadulka, Banjo and an upright acoustic bass) drag a dark song three fathoms deeper in this beautiful pseudo-Balkan transformation of 17 year old freakpop sensation Billie Eilish’s Bury A Friend. From NJ-based J Hacha de Zola, whose high-fusion “urban junkyard” style prompted Paste to proclaim him “a wild man in the vein of such fire breathing artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart;” UnPOPular, the 3-track covers EP this cut presages, drops Dec. 6th, with additional covers of Lourde and Halsley.

siywcoverTony Halchak’s take on this old, bouncy Bobby McFerrin hit could have been a one-trick pony – a simple slow-down of an upper, a common mechanism of coverage that by lyrical definition generally turns cheer and release to worry and crease, revealing depth and often irony in the vocals. But there are gems in this approach (Johnny Cash’s Hurt comes to mind, as does Ryan Adams’ Wonderwall) and this cover – which comes off of the Coal Country, PA singer-songwriter’s fourth full-length record, transcends and delivers, forcing us into it its inevitable reversal naked and whole, with whispered vocals and dank, strung-out lullaby arrangement, all slow, haunting keys and steady heartbeat strings. (The accompanying video is a bit heavyhanded, but like the song, it makes its point – there is, in the end, happiness and hope to be found here, in the work of saving the world.)

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 8.23.08 PMSo many covers of Between The Bars have appeared on these pages in the last few years, especially from female artists such as Annie Dressner, Andrea Silva, Jessica Lea Mayfield with Seth Avett, and Emily Mure, whose own amazing 6-song covers EP Sad Songs and Waltzes released this summer. But Boston-based singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, newly solo after several years as guitarist and singer-songwriter for bluegrass string phenom Twisted Pine, delivers a take that is precise and fluid, a well-produced delight, just right with Elliott Smith’s doubled vocals, and crystal clear flourishes in voice and guitar that refine the song into something glossy and tense. Her cover of Kacy and Clayton’s Rocks and Gravel is equally sweet and light, soaring vocals and harmonies grounded in low strings for a perfect balance. Both will appear on EP The Things You Forgot, another December release which will feature new solo studio recordings of five covers that Sumner includes regularly in her live sets.

unnamedYoung Texan duo-plus-collaborators Owen-Glass claim roots revival as their spiritual home; their well-received debut The Rope & The Rabbit attracted some solid attention from the indiefolk and Americana crowds alike, thanks to a stripped-down sound and husky vocals. The band’s take on this political pushback from post-Portland scene activist indierock band Portugal. The Man is washed out and maudlin, a lamentation of loss and love, sorrow drowning in waves where the original screamed cultural disdain into the wind.

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 8.07.52 PMA full-sized debut release with a simple premise – pop punk favorites from The Offspring, Bad Religion, Green Day and more turned down into a wash of layered, lo-fi acoustic takes – the eleven tracks of Somebody Else’s Songs from ex-punk rocker S.T. Manville bear an equally simple tonal range, narrow in scope yet pretty and pensive in performance, mostly featuring a quiet vocal and slow picking drone, with occasional light accents from accordion, banjo, and violin. Check out the whole thing on Soundcloud, from whence so much of today’s delights spring forth, and prepare for a good hour of gentle, dreamy feels.

a1950363258_16Fans of heavy, high-production folk-rock-pop fusion will just love the new turn from polymath Rain Perry, the So Cal director, playwright, actor, author, and songwriter whose fifth album Let’s Be Brave, which dropped in April, featured takes on Springsteen classic Rocky Ground and Joe Strummer along a screaming tribe of hook-laden heavyweights like this. If you like the sound, thank producer Mark Hallman, who played most of the instruments, too, except a couple of guitars; if you’re having trouble justifying this as folk music, consider that the Grammy-winning Hallman has also produced work for Ani DiFranco, Tom Russell, and Eliza Gilkyson…and that the duo also trends softer, as in this gorgeous take on Gillian Welch’s bitter anthem Everything Is Free, about which we’ve been musing for an upcoming feature.

goodwayThere’s more than a hint of freakfolk vibe in Cameron Smith’s creaky, lugubrious update of old Leonard Cohen chestnut The Traitor, as if the eerie sound of a bowed saw was bound to come out of the speakers any moment; the hollow sounds of Dylan and the ages ring in harmonica, organ, and slow strum for the Doom Ghost cover, too. The raw, minimalist tracks come from March release A Good Way To Say Goodbye, where they are nominally a switch-out artifact of a hasty production process, but we’ll beg to differ on their merit: the imperfections are a delight, especially given how much fun but how little folk we find in Smith’s usual haunts, where he sings lead and plays pretty much everything in glitchy, thrashing electronic alter ego Sur Duda.

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 10.33.20 PMFinally, meet aeseaes, aka multi-instrumentalist married couple Travis and Allie, who since getting together in 2016 are making their name as artists on Twitch, livestreaming a home-based career as performers and producers with their cats and love on full display. The beauty of these songs is etherial: I was pulled in by their cello and plucked guitar take on oft-covered Tears for Fears track Mad World, and a solid take on Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game in a similar mode, but thank goodness for following threads: I simply drown in their ringing take on Grimes, a solid lake of eternity frozen in the air. Their take on Little Red Riding Hood, a spooky studio artifact of last year’s Holiday sets, raises hope for more, too, as the years move forward.

1 comment » | New Artists Old Songs, Tributes and Cover Compilations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down has been exploring the ethnographic intersection of folk and coversong since 2007 thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and readers like YOU. So do your part: listen, love, like, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

4 comments » | Covered In Folk, Mark Knopfler

The Year’s Best Coverfolk Albums (2018)
Tributes, Tradfolk, Covers Compilations & more!

man-in-black-jacket-listening-to-music

It’s still just past the turning of the year. And though we have been away a long, long time, our thoughts still turn to the coverage of it: that which has been on heavy rotation, and intrigued us, and wormed its way into our ears and hearts while we were gone; the things we should have said something about, and now can reconcile.

As always, we aim to celebrate the way artists performing in and around the traditional folk-and-roots categories wring the well-loved and familiar through the transformative urge. And, although this year’s entries blur the boundaries of those categories more than ever, as always, in our dip into the ether of a single sun’s rotation we find delights galore: in tasty and tasteful tributes aplenty, and in the loving call to the forebears and influencers that is the album-length coverset.

But to sift, we have learned, is also to relive the year: every heartache, every triumph, every contemplation. Our foray into the archives of one more suncircle gone by has a predictable effect far beyond that of mere archival rediscovery: the harvest of these seeds and fruit cleanses the landscape; the palate rejoices. And in its own inevitable way, the process is tinged, too, with sadness and loss, as we recall those various moments which were served by song, and say goodbye to them, to move on in the world.

In their way, covers albums are like the winter birds: familiar yet fleeting, hungry and heavy, beautiful and barren, surprising and often rare in the cold. We spend our days all year scouring the skies, and listening through the forest trees, and savoring them one by one as they winnow into our senses. And then, as the year comes to a close, we scatter the seeds, and praise the birds that come, calling each one both harbinger, and a symbol of the year gone by.

For the seventh year in a row, then: Cover Lay Down is proud and humbled to present our Best Of The Year, starting with our very favorite folk, indie, acoustic, roots, bluegrass and Americana tribute albums and covers compilations of 2018, and continuing later this week with a compendium of those single-shot tracks that sung the greatest delight to our deepest selves this year.

May it humble you, too, to remember that the world is ever turning, throwing off the light and heat that sustain and enervate, nurture and hold. And may we live in awe, our soundtrack the flights of a thousand birds we have heard before – though never like this, and never again, in this moment, simply here.


The Year’s Best Covers Album (Single Artist)

+ Laurie MacAllister, The Lies The Poets Tell
+ William Elliott Whitmore, Kilonova
+ Boom Forest, Wisconsin
+ Jack Carty, A Cover and Another
+ Eldin Drljevic, Acoustic Covers
+ John Wesley Harding, Other People’s Greatest Hits
+ Jennifer Warnes, Another Time, Another Place

As we noted way back in January, when folktrio Red Molly went on hiatus last year with the promise of solo product fueled by cohort crowdsourcing, the result was a delight: discs of original songs by Molly Venter duo project Goodnight Moonshine and dobro slinger Abbie Gardner, Laurie MacAllister’s tour de force of a covers album, and the promise of more to come from all incarnations. It’s the covers we’re concerned with here, though, and we’re happy to stand by our original assessment that – although its high production is glossy at times – overall, MacAllister’s The Lies The Poets Tell is a stellar exemplar of contemporary folk, diverse and “sumptuous” in its arrangement and instrumentation, rich with borrowed male-vox duets and stunning in its presentation, a “gorgeous, intensely intimate translation of favorite songs and deep cuts from a veritable who’s who of the songwriter’s songwriter’s scene” well worth its year-end crown.

William Elliott Whitmore‘s Kilonova, which ties for first among several in our (much larger) otherwise-unblogged pile, trends dissimilarly towards the rustic, grungy, alt-country side of folk. Like the deep-voiced Iowa farmer who made it, the album, complete with heavy guitar and a ragged way with voice and melody, aims to pay tribute to a broad collection of songs from a century of influential soundscape, and succeeds in spades; though fans of the mellow may be startled by a few heavier tracks on the covers collection, featuring that full-band country-and-twang Bloodshot Records sound, the majority run towards the sparse and hoarse – and in all cases, there’s something eminently direct, essential, and elegant about these well-rehearsed covers, most of which have featured in Whitmore’s live shows for years. Every cut reveals and revels in the power of coverage and tribute, and – at its best, such as his banjo take on Bad Religion – Whitmore’s adept ability to pull at the roots of punk and country and come up folk makes the record, and his own, shine like the sepia sun.

Other runners up this year trend towards the soft, the private, and the less polished. Wisconsin, a name-your-price session shared on Bandcamp early in the year by 2015 Cover Lay Down Christmas coverage celebrants Boom Forest, represents perhaps the lowest fidelity recording ever in this category, but it’s worth it: a gauzy fever dream recorded straight to hissing old-school cassette in the frozen Wisconsin winter, fragile and flushed with fleeting warmth and intimacy. Similarly, Jack Carty’s A Cover And Another series, released one by one as videographic living room recordings and subsequently streamed as a wholecloth collection, comes out raw but clear, at times unpolished but always clearly beloved, the face to face smallroom social media performance as servant to the folkways bringing forth joyful, honest renditions of both familiar and often overlooked songs from the ether of a mid-generation memory, with Springsteen, Elliott Smith, Joni and Gillian Welch tunes held against The Church, Radiohead, Death Cab For Cutie and more. Eldin Drljevic’s quiet late-night, one-take meditations on songs from Bon Iver to Depeche Mode to The Beatles are beautiful, primordial, and essential in their own way. And although John Wesley Harding‘s aptly-titled Greatest Other People’s Hits is a hybrid, with past recordings curated alongside previously unreleased interpretations of the likes of Lou Reed and George Harrison, the collection stands as a solid set, worth celebrating whole alongside the rest of them.

Those who, like I did, grew up on Jennifer WarnesFamous Blue Raincoat, a gentle, loving interpretation of the Leonard Cohen canon, will also relish the way she tenderly takes on Pearl Jam, Mark Knopfler, Ray Bonneville, and others thirty years later on Another Time, Another Place, filling the room with the soft, full ringing production power of horn-based arrangements, swelling strings, and the precision of a crystal crooner’s voice mellowed and still mostly unmarred by time. It’s not for everyone, especially the indiefolk crowd – but as a coda throwback to the softer side of revival folk, where Linda Rondstadt and Joan Baez hold sway, and Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson still perform, it holds its own.


The Year’s Best Covers EP (Single Artist)

+ Andrew Combs, 5 Covers And A Song
+ Twisted Pine, Dreams
+ Harmless Sparks, Something Borrowed
+ Vanessa Carlton, 6 Covers (singles)
+ Ana Leorne, unreleased songs

Quite a strong showing in this category this year. But you’ll forgive us if we give our strongest kudos to a half-pint collection that admits, right up front, that it’s got an original in the mix.

Stylistically, Nashville singer-songwriter Andrew Combs claims to straddle “classic country and contemporary pop”. But notably, and as acknowledged by baseline tags on Bandcamp and elsewhere, his 2018 release 5 Covers and a Song fits neatly in the americana and folkworlds, where it stands out as a stellar exemplar of the modern relationship between folk song and folk sound. Combs has a fine string-and-horn arranger and producer in Jordan Lehning, and the ensemble he’s assembled here brings a rich sound to a wide diversity of influences and songcraft: The Strokes with a dab of high-fuzz Los Lobos horns and can-bang madness, a wash of pulsing indiefolk in the Blake Mills; the languid Nillsson-esque dreampop of Lucinda Williams ballad I Envy The Wind; above it all, a voice versatile and yearning, and covers worth collecting, and savoring for hours.

Still-rising New Englander band Twisted Pine‘s covers album Dreams, on the other hand, is imperfectly perfect: a robust but fractured approach, highly arranged yet with instrumentation just understated and rough enough, makes each track a light, lighthearted acoustic gem. Wisps of dancehall pop, rock, and disco hits flit like memory in these barebones yet eminently rhythmic bluegrass settings; it’s no secret we have a soft spot for the young, energetic acoustic quartet sound, but it’s been a long, long while since we heard a four piece so joyfully playful with the edges of formality, or enjoyed it half as much.

Meanwhile, though tiny at four total tracks, early EP-of-the-year contender Harmless Sparks, brought to us in February when we were still blogging semi-regularly, remains at the top of the list, thanks in no small part to gorgeous, spare, practically languid electro-dreampop settings of My Favorite Things and more as promised. Ana Leorne’s equally slight collection of unreleased songs, released in March to celebrate and support International Women’s Day, offers a beautiful voice ravaged by time and “electroclash” in previous band The Clits, now encased in a gentle setting that rings of a young Bonnie Raitt’s drunken and revealing Jabberwocky Club bootleg session. And although technically it’s not an album at all, we’d be nowhere without an honest nod to Vanessa Carlton, whose sextet of midyear singles would have been blogged if we were blogging. Spanning Robyn, Karen Dalton, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, and more, as a cobbled-together collection, the set rings true and tried – a shimmery wash and gloss of plugged-in guitar, layered echo-chamber voices and long-held chords laid over tense heartbeats; popfolk, unresolved.


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (Single Artist)

+ Lights, Scorpion B Sides Covers
+ Lindsay Ell, The Continuum Project
+ Jake Armerding, Graceland Live

We’ve yawed wide with our definition of folk in considering this year’s best tribute albums. And we’ve split the category, too, the better to distinguish the single artist homage (which generally springs from a singular place of deep respect and kinship) from the curated tribute (more diverse in source and thus sentiment, with artists each pouring their heart into a song which may or may not have deep personal relevance to them). The result is a one-of-a-kind situation: here, three solo artists paying tribute not just to other artists, but specifically to individual records by those artists, offering deep yet restless intersections, moments in their particular time and space…and in our subsequent category, a wide range of well-curated artist rosters, many self-declared and known centrally in other genres, which blurs the line between mixed-genre collections and more narrow tributes aimed at a particular ear or range on the radio dial.

If there’s more electric echo than acoustic stringwork in our solo set, it’s because the fruit justifies the orchard boundary. Lindsay Ell‘s rework of John Mayer album Continuum serves as case in point: with prominent electric blues and a soulful voice crossing at Beale Street and Nashville, Canadian newcomer Ell won kudos and top end-of-year Billboard honors last year in the Country category for 2017 debut The Project, but the combination here on album number two is a percussive yet minimal delight equally comfortable in my father’s blues collection and on the folkshelves here at home. And although most of Jake Armerding‘s live and predominantly acoustic Graceland set, released as an exclusive bonus for those who donated to his Octave Mandolin album crowdsource campaign, was recorded pre-2018, and its tracks pulled from what seems to be audience recordings and muddy soundboards, as a project, it’s a delight all the same, showing love and chops, and featuring strong back-up work in live sessions from a variety of fellow Boston-and-beyond folkgrass players.

Our top album of the year here, however, is not just a hybrid cross; it’s also forbidden fruit. Canadian popsinger Lights was forced by her label to take down all streaming incidence of her full-album take on Drake’s Scorpion B Sides; you can still some of it via YouTube, but most of it is gone from the ether. And what a loss: Lights’ 2015 live in-studio acoustic Hotline Bling was a mere harbinger of what she can do with Drake in the studio; her covers of Jaded and After Dark here are exquisite, and the rest equally sublime. You can certainly hear the production finesse, but this isn’t pop so much as the lightest touch on the acoustic dream-realm, delicate where the original was plaintive, lending a sheer of abstraction and resignedness to what otherwise would not reach nearly as far, or as well. Find it, with our blessing.


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (Multiple Artists)

+ I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas
+ MOJO Presents Green Leaves: Nick Drake Covered
+ When The Wind Blows: Songs of Townes Van Zandt

We named I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, a tribute to Mountain Goats album All Hail West Texas, a strong contender for Year’s Best Tribute Album back in January; though at that time less than half of this glorious collection had been released, it was already clear that a) it would be awesome, and b) not all of it would be folk by most stretches of the imagination. Completed in April after a long track-by-track season, the overall album does what it sets out to do and then some, showing just how versatile and wide-ranging in influence and flexibility John Darnielle’s songwriting can be, with Andrew Bird, Erin McKeown, Amanda Palmer, Craig Finn, and other altfolk faves in the mix. The last two entries in the series prove the rule: though the covers come from opposite ends of the Americana spectrum, the slow build into a Wilco-esque haze of Holy Sons’ Source Decay fades perfectly into the uplifting, masterful fingerpicking and sweet voice of Carrie Elkin at album’s end.

In other label-and-project news, MOJO magazine continued its long tradition of excellent coverage with a tribute to Nick Drake; if it’s second here, it’s only because the lesser tracks are just good. But the best tracks are amazing: beautiful, tender, as fractured and frail in their own way as the originals, with Vashti Bunyan, Judy Dyble, and more from the weird and delicate end of folk taking us through the painful, distant haze that represents the short but potent legacy of Nick Drake.

Finally, though sprawling at 32 tracks and – like so many other massive collections – not without its weak spots, When The Wind Blows, this year’s Townes tribute, is more solid than most, with stellar turns from a predominantly masculine set of red dirt and clay crooners and songwriters. Subgenre stalwarts Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix and Joe Ely bring consistent, respectful performances; newer-comers, from Ben Bedford to Matt Harlan to The Orphan Brigade, are more playful as they pass the torch around.


The Year’s Best Tribute EP

+ Craig Cardiff, Upstream Fishing All The Words, He Is: A Birthday Tribute to Bob Dylan
+ Matt Nathanson, Pyromattia
+ A Fond Farewell: A Tribute to The Music of Elliott Smith

I’ve become a huge Craig Cardiff fan this year, mining his archives for a plethora of covers albums and b-sides, all the while bemoaning the data gap between Canadian and American folk which presumably kept me from discovering this one-time Juno winner (and long-time Rose Cousins collaborator) for so long. The prolific Cardiff produced two coversets in 2018: an excellent Christmas album (cheerily titled Winter! Winter! Winter!), and Upstream Fishing All The Words, He Is, a five-track tribute to Dylan, the reigning king of covered song and a fresh-minted Nobel Laureate, that rings with angst and simple, subtle arrangements rich with strong guitar and soulful voice and the barest of accompanying riffs and ringing loops. Spin back in time, too, for sweet late-2017 half-covers EP release Novemberish (Songs From The Rain), and 2010 all-female-artist tribute Mothers and Daughters.

If Matt Nathanson‘s predominantly unplugged acoustic rock tribute to Def Leppard is a surprising second, it’s because, well, they’re hardly an obvious influence on Nathanson, an artist more known for riding the modern indie-driven popfolk line. But Nathanson gets kudos and credit for Pyromattia, which pulls the bare bones and sinews out of the grunt and grunge with an acoustic unplugged approach that calls back to the alternative pop of Toad The Wet Sprocket, Crowded House, and other balladeers and front porch rockers of the same era.

And if New Jersey tribute A Fond Farewell muddles genre, well, so did its tributary Elliott Smith, whom this short, sometimes-staccato farewell honors effectively. The six-pack runs a surprisingly broad range – from an urgent, ominous take on Between The Bars to the richly orchestrated indie-mystical ambiance of Zach Russack’s Waltz No. 1 to Joe Cirotti’s album-ender, far from perfunctory, in its fine, fragile, and fractured Rambling Jack Elliott-meets-Elliott Smith fingerpicking style.


The Year’s Best Traditional Album

+ mammiferes, Olema
+ Anna & Elizabeth, The Invisible Comes To Us

Those looking for gentle takes on ancient song, go elsewhere: put simply, this year’s best pair of traditional albums raze the boundaries between folk tradition and the environment, remixing culture and community into something visceral, and more than simply music. If they stand alone in their category, it is because theirs is a total reclamation.

Of them, the lesser-known “futurefolk” collective mammifères earns its honors for taking the sonic remix to the next level fully realized, and for the sheer potency of the collection fully de- and reconstructed: a collage of sound with an experimental polish, punctuated by all the blips and wailing electronica that buries and drags these songs into the vastness of the variable world. Aa a full-length debut, Olema claims to channel its tradition through a particular place in California, and apparently, that place is a chaotic, organic stew, a pastiche of sound. We described lead vocalist and bandleader Lukas Papenfusscline’s previous placement in our Year’s Best back in 2016, as a “hallucinogenic field recording from the road”, but Olema is eminently more jarring and realized, with Jazz and jamband elements and a terrifying tone transforming the songs of our centuries into the rantings of madmen. Essential, in all meanings of the word; a divine, disquieting artifact of the folkways. Lomax would be proud.

It’s equally hard to know how to categorize The Invisible Comes To Us, both musically and in terms of compositional framework. Built around the Middlebury College archives of song collector Helen Hartness Flanders, the album – the third from celebrated newtrad players Anna & Elizabeth, and as such frequently recognized in other year’s end folk and coverage blogs – features broken, battered folk songs heavy with the rich sounds of electronica and field recordings, yawing wide among dreampop, altfolk, and more offshoots of the traditions, yet rooted firmly in the raw acoustic ambiance of its forerunners. In its best moments, it’s like listening to the US version of the British psychedelic folkscene emerge in whole-cloth. A little less raw, a little more sweet, putting The Invisible Comes To Us back up against mammiferes’ Olena nets a twinned pair: this one, more gently undone, which spins sound from the ether, and the other, which dissolves songs into it; one which sees the world as encroaching, the other as integrative and organic as static on the radio. Not a bad year for the tradition, indeed.


Best Coverfolk Video Series

+ Imaginary Future

In some previous years, we’ve found enough great YouTubed coverfolk delights out there to justify a separate video feature; in others, in the interest of time and sanity, we’ve merely included a handful of favorites here, at the end of our album feature. This year, only one artist’s series stood out, but it’s a perfect, quiet coda to our celebration of 2018: a whole wonderful year of coverage from Imaginary Future, aka singer-songwriter Jesse Epstein, whose marriage to YouTube star Kina Grannis is notable in part because her voice can be heard in harmony with his own occasionally here, and the duo sounds great.

Epstein invites comparison with Grannis, who appeared on Cover Lay Down as recently as our end-of-year 2017 video feature; his nom de plume is taken from a lyric in one of his wife’s songs. But Imaginary Future is also very much a sincere solo act, with a quietfolk approach all his own. Arrangements are sparse, with a second harmony line dubbed in for most choruses, and set in similar tempos (slow) and tone (wispy). Song selections go broadly into various popular genres, but trend consistently towards simple love-and-hope songs done simply, too: Let It Be, Lean On Me, The Cranberries’ Dreams, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. There’s even a sameness about these video settings, too, each one close in and intimate, that helps hold the constant output together as a series.

Where other folk cover series at least attempt some diversity, in other words, Imaginary Future sticks to what he does best: delicate performance, tender tribute, and settings that serve the songs. It works, and – like every other song that came through our ears and hearts this year, and lingered long enough to be found worthy of this year’s list – we’re glad to have found him.

Imaginary Future: Let’s Stay Together (orig. Al Green)



Imaginary Future: Let It Be (orig. The Beatles)



Imaginary Future: Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (orig. Tame Impala)



Imaginary Future: Wild World (orig. Cat Stevens)

Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down enters our second decade digging deep at the ethnographic intersection of folkways and coversong thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU.

So do your part: listen, love, like, 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 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 2017-2018, including exclusive live covers from our very own Unity House Concert series.

4 comments » | Best of 2018, Tribute Albums, Tributes and Cover Compilations

In Praise of Summer, As It Goes
(A Cover Lay Down mix)

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This week was a slammer: first week of school for both myself and the kids, late-night rehearsals for the play I am directing, which opens next weekend; the wife away for days, on retreat as she works towards certification in her late-in-life spiritual calling as a religious educator. With a heat wave in the middle of it, the air cavernous and close. And both children sick, in a house where hurt will always be.

But my classroom is outfitted in new white boards and stocked with a year’s worth of supplies, thanks to the world’s shortest crowdsource campaign at Donors Choose. This morning I came in late after a shorter-than-expected meeting with the smallerchild’s new teachers, and my intervention students were writing, quietly, building confidence as they grappled with their haphazard prompt without me. My AP class is eager and bright, engaged and having fun; the seniors, who I cared for over two years and then thought I had abandoned last Spring, come to visit with respectful grins, seeking their oracle as they look towards college. Last block, the girl who couldn’t stop chattering Monday asked if she could read her work to the class, and the kids settled in, respectful and sure, to see what they could praise, and found more than enough to satisfy us all.

The play is a stunner. My wife is home, and beautiful, and still smarter than me – tonight’s date at the new restaurant in town felt like renewal. The wee one – at thirteen a willowy, slim pale creature – pushes through her hours and days, and comes home babbling joyfully of friends and teachers she loves for the first time in years. The elderchild pushes, too – through a short dose of steroids that took her to the children’s hospital for the first time in almost two months; through the newest and deepest-so-far of loves, a quiet boy who holds our fancy, too, and stayed with us last weekend in Vermont, at summer’s last summerhome, where every year might be our last.

There is pain in our lives: in my student’s struggle to catch up and transcend the urban blight; in the workload and the weariness; in how little we see our spouses and parents, and the distances that yaw between us; in the prone existence my children live in the darkness as each day wanes, curled around their chronic aches. I come home with a voice hoarse and torn, too tired to care for the rest. Eventually, I think, something else, like this space, too, may have to give.

But there are blessings here, too, and pride – and not just for now: these, and a thousand other pieces of this imperfect world, its challenges met, its promises real.

Each night, as the sun sets behind the trees of a still-summer yard, something I cannot see or hear suddenly startles the turkeys and their babies, almost grown and only slightly smaller, that cross our driveway. And they fly into the low trees like my heart: heavy, in its way, yet weightless in another; winged and free, able to lift still from the earth.

And there is music there, of an origin deep in me and all of us: rustling and beautiful; rejuvenating; reassuring; real.

I am not often here, it’s true. But I love you as I love the world. Let us be here together, as the September world starts to spin again.

3 comments » | Metablog, Mixtapes, Teaching

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