Run For Cover is a weekly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. Prepare for a major bending of rules as we hear musicians throw around genres, tempos, style, and intent. Whether they’re picking up another’s song out of respect or boredom, the results have impressed us.
Folk is simultaneously for the fickle and the freakish. A musician and their guitar is as welcoming as it gets. The most casual, out-of-touch listener can find comfort in the soft tones and easy strumming that make folk the most accessible backdrop music. That’s why coffeeshops always pick quiet singer-songwriters to ease their freelancers while they scribble away. The other half of folk, however, challenges the instrument. It calls upon the singer to stretch their voice, pulling and reshaping it until it forces the guitar to do more with its sound. There’s something off about it. After a few seconds with it, though, it becomes oddly satisfying. Singer-songwriter Diane Cluck is a natural at this.
Cluck’s music stands right against the edge of freak-folk. Her scratchy, wondering vocals recall that unsettling variant, but she, instead, is quite taken with the term “intuitive folk.” And so singer-songwriter folk goes from a girl and her guitar to warped tones and half step slides.
Raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Diane Cluck grew up playing piano and went on to become classically trained thanks to a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Music. After uprooting herself over to New York City in 2000, she found her new home. Cluck was a regular at the Sidewalk Cafe in the Lower East Side, the same spot that birthed the city’s bright, quirky, niche scene of Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, and Jeffrey Lewis.
Until her resurface in 2014–Boneset, her first full-length in eight years–Diane Cluck’s genius was best encapsulated on Oh Vanille. On it, she embraces neo-folkdom with witty lyrics and a distinctive style of playing that sounds more like a harp than a campfire strum. The album’s peak comes in “Easy to Be Around”. Cluck doubles up on harmonies and bobs around with an undercurrent rhythm, getting up in your face while simultaneously letting you drag behind her. Although she’s singing about pocketing abandoned coal mine diamonds, her lyrics touch on possession, love, and ownership over one another. It hits hard, especially for a quiet tune from a girl and her guitar.
Six years ago, another musician was taking his turn trying on the singer-songwriter folk trope. New York native David Michael Stith, aka DM Stith, released his debut album Heavy Ghost in 2009. The multi-instrumentalist clung to his guitar but reached beyond its strings for a hollow, eerie sound. It recalls the haunting vocals of Grizzly Bear and the solemn piano of Sufjan Stevens. His songs are lush and densely layered, showing a strong sense of control over his sound and the interplay between notes.
For DM Stith, that comes naturally. He grew up in a musical family. His father was a college wind ensemble director and church choir director, his mother a pianist, his sisters opera singers, and his grandfather a professor in Cornell University’s music department.
The collage-like work of his sound mimics his other profession: graphic design. Stith got his MFA in graphic design at Indiana University one year before releasing his debut LP. After the program, he produced the artwork for his own record as well as other musicians, including labelmate My Brightest Diamond. His attention to color, blending techniques, and focal points clearly transfer over into his work as a musician. Heavy Ghost gives as much as you are willing to take. It’s a painting of sound, and he makes sure an endless number of interpretations are possible.
The year after his debut, he released Heavy Ghost Appendices, a series of hidden covers and new landscapes. As someone clearly interested in alternate twists on folk, DM Stith took his best swing at Diane Cluck’s “Easy to Be Around” and uncovered phenomenal depth. Stith replaces Cluck as a different type of mystic. His dark arrangements begin with foreboding piano and deep bass and horns. As his dry voice comes in, it hangs itself like a warning, mysterious and ominous. The raw, scratchy lilt of Cluck’s original is replaced with a rich turn that challenges the obvious way this cover could be done.
Diane Cluck’s brilliant minor harmonies are absent, but what DM Stith adds in their place makes for an entirely different mood. Stith is both soft spoken and wistfully elusive. His chamber cabaret sound slides hypnotic strumming and dissonant interludes back and forth, cleaning off the edges of Cluck’s voice to replace them with something less vicious, something innocent and brave. While the magic of her original lays in her one-of-a-kind voice, DM Stith focuses on the music cushioning her words, giving the song an ever-growing set of jaws that are as beautiful as they are terrifying, an image Cluck herself would approve of in a heartbeat.