Review Summary: Amidon and Muhly return with more old folk ballads and an R. Kelly cover to boot.
Though Sam Amidon’s reshaping of traditional, old folk and Americana tunes seems a bit flat in concept, a trip through his second release I See The Sign
is nothing like being lost in one of those America-of-yore themed educational parks. There’s no time warp here, nor any feeling of antiquity, and at no point does it ever feel unbearably dated; Amidon’s reimagining places these songs starkly in the present, despite lyrical objections. Aided by the contributions of composer Nico Muhly and vocalist Beth Orton, he returns with a record that is assuredly less muddled than 2008’s All is Well
, if only because he’s injected this batch of humble rural ballads with a melancholy far less sad than the last one.
Most significantly, where All is Well
seemed trapped in a barn, I See The Sign
is out on the prairie. Songs like “Climbing High Mountains” feel clearer and less claustrophobic than anything off his debut and are hugely rewarding for it. The plain-voiced hymnal repetitions of Amidon’s cries (“Lord I’m climbing high mountains trying to get home”) are the stoic focal point as horns, strings and a timely piano weave around the words. It feels resonant far beyond the echo of the walls but in the breeze of a warm wind and it’s that incredibly agrestic feeling that runs through the spine of this album. However, Amidon doesn’t throw his listener back to simpler times as much as he presents simpler feelings; happy, sad, what works is the tremendous clarity. As such, Muhly’s arrangements are charmingly modest, resembling the subtlety of his work that marked The National’s “So Far Around The Bend” or to a lesser extent Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest
more so than his latest collaboration on Jonsi’s Go
, focusing primarily on simple woodwind and string touches.
Like All is Well
, however, this is definitely not an immediately rewarding experience. Opener “How Come That Blood” is oddly disheveling, with finger plucking, tapped percussion and sporadic string swirls, and it’s a song that may take a few listens for anyone to even wrap their head around, let alone enjoy. The most immediate stand out is in fact the only song that wasn’t retrieved from the catalogue of an ancient country bumpkin and Amidon has reworked R. Kelly’s “Relief” into a version far more stirring than the original ever was, fitting it with a hopeful, ascending incline. What’s most striking about the cover is that Amidon is able to sell R. Kelly’s typically R. Kelly lyrics with genuine emotion and it emphasizes terrifically the true power of a voice that at first impression didn’t seem to reveal anything at all.
That’s really the crux of what makes Sam Amidon such a unique talent – there’s always more than meets the eye (or rather, ear). Due respect must be given to his main collaborator Muhly, but holding Amidon as the central creative mind (and as the name on the cover reads), he manages to carve his signature into songs that were written in a time long before his own. The album flows with a consistency that would fool anyone unaware that he hadn’t actually penned these songs himself and tracks like the wonderful “Pretty Fair Damsel” are beautiful on the surface but reveal themselves into something even more once you begin to discover the nuances that flutter around in the mix. There's a density to these tracks that belie the airy, simple nature they seem to suggest and it's this quality that gives them such life beyond the initial listens. Through his channeling of other artists imaginings, Sam Amidon is earning himself a place in the folk world that's genuinely his own.