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.
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