Review Summary: Perfect, in its own way.
I want to preface this critique of Sam Amidon
by posing a question: what makes an album perfect?
It’s not something I usually deliberate upon due to the subjective nature of all art, but Amidon’s self-titled piece has forced me to at least confront my own definition. You see, I’ve always valued originality in music – in other words, a good
original song would always beat out an excellent
cover of the same track. There’s something to be said for the time and effort it takes to extract musical gratification from a simple idea or emotion. For most of my life, I’ve felt that a musician’s artistry is derived from that ability, and that anyone who recreates a song is merely riding on the coattails of the true visionary. I’m still not convinced that Mr. Amidon has swayed me, but his approach to covering songs is like few I’ve ever heard.
Amidon has made a rare career out of “reinterpreting” classic folk/country/Americana tunes. These interpretations are vivid re-imagining as opposed to mere retreads – they rarely sound anything
like the original piece, and in most cases one would be hard-pressed to connect an Amidon tune to its original counterpart unless they were already well-versed in the song’s lyrics. Further aiding Amidon’s cause is the fact that his well of tracks consist of very few household names. The Stoneman’s 1952 track ‘The Spanish Merchant’s Daughter’ isn’t likely to ring very many bells, nor is the 1969 Taj Mahal rendition of ‘Light Rain Blues’, but each of the songs thrive and complement each other on 2020’s Sam Amidon
. It’s almost like he takes a magnifying glass to older black-and-white tracks, colorizes them, and elevates them to their full potential.
Part of what makes Amidon’s craft so admirable is that it’s not entirely self-serving; he’s bringing an entire collection of oft-forgotten tracks back into our collective consciousness. I’ve spent nearly as much time researching the original cuts from which Sam Amidon
was derived as I have listening to Sam Amidon
itself, and it’s been just as educational as it has been enjoyable. Sam’s portrayal of these songs is not egoistic; he selects pieces that have retained personal meaning to him, such as Harkin Freye’s hymnal-like 1940s piece ‘Time Has Made a Change’, which Amidon fondly recalls singing with his parents during his childhood. Between the motives surrounding his song selection and the value that comes with raising awareness for elapsed and largely unaccounted for early-1900s folk, the idea that he’s “covering” these songs becomes entirely permissible in my eyes – to the extent that I view it as a point of pride for Amidon. With so many consumers and critics in the modern music industry bemoaning the idea that “all music has been done before”, Sam’s approach of dusting off old, tattered folk tunes actually makes a modicum of sense. If it seems like there are no new avenues for exploration, then find something meaningful to you and make it your own. With Sam Amidon
, he’s certainly done that.
floats by like a daydream. Whether it’s ‘Maggie’ hovering atop pitter-pat drums, ‘Pretty Polly’ strolling through a field of pastoral guitars and flutes, or ‘Light Rain Blues’ sinking into an effervescent pool of electronics, the atmosphere remains mesmerizing and tightly-knit. Vocally, Amidon recalls a modern Nick Drake; high praise to be certain but also well-deserved. Instrumentally, atmospherically, and production-wise, I’d liken Sam Amidon
to Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog
– it’s clearly rooted in acoustic folk and strong melody, but it also dives into rich, textural electronics which provide an almost aqueous contrast to the album’s earthier tones. While the scenery varies between tracks, at no point does the foundation of Sam Amidon
This isn’t the sort of album that makes more sense during a certain time of day, or amid the elements of a particular season. Sam Amidon
transforms your surroundings – whatever they may be – and makes them memorable. In the past few days I listened to Amidon’s self-titled offering while driving to my brother’s wedding – through sunset-tinted amber farm fields and rolling hills – as well as alone in my room, watching rain splatter upon my bedroom window as I sat in the dark by the faint glow of a computer monitor. I won’t forget either occasion, because Sam Amidon
is so rich in atmosphere, melody, and emotion that it allows you to attach meaning to anything from life’s biggest moments to the most mundane instances of isolation. I can still hear the swirling woodwinds and fiddles of ‘Cuckoo’ in my head and picture the rural countryside, just as I can recall how monotonous the ensuing evening became as it drew on, each “no sir, no sir, no sir, no –” from ‘Spanish Merchant’s Daughter’ hitting me harder with each gorgeous repetition. I’ve only had three days with Sam Amidon
, and I already feel like I’ve made a lifetime of memories with it. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
All too often, it’s tempting to evaluate art based on measurable criterion: how complex the instrumentation is, the range of the vocalist, the creativity of the drumming, the innovation of the songwriting – and while that’s all undoubtedly important, sometimes a record’s success simply boils down to one’s ability to connect with the music. Sam Amidon
might be a series of reimagined folk songs, but I can’t remember going out of my way to listen to any album – over and over and over again – the way that I do for this. In advance of the record’s release, Amidon described his 2020 self-titled record as the fullest realization to date of his artistic vision. If ever there was something I would have disputed prior to actually hearing the music, it would be the idea that a batch of covers couldn’t possibly be the apex of a musician’s career – and if it was, that it couldn’t have been much of a career to begin with. Sam Amidon
, in all of its unfurling melodic beauty and spellbinding aura, has totally altered my outlook. To revisit the question I posed earlier – what makes an album perfect?
– I’d now answer that ideal art does not necessarily need
to stem from the original composer. In reinventing and giving a modern twist to timeless but overlooked folk gems, Sam Amidon has concocted something entirely unique that nobody else could, or arguably ever would, have done...in itself, a form of inspired creation. There’s an undeniable magic to this thing. I highly encourage you to check your reservations at the door and dive in.