Bonus tracks, found coverage, and previews. Because in the folk tradition, music belongs to the community. Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features twice weekly, explicitly for the purpose of introducing you to new and previously-unappreciated musicians, that you might follow the threads to those artists’ original works.
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 Warnes‘ Famous 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.
+ 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.
+ 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.
+ 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.
+ 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..
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 Donor’s 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.