This is the third set of interpretations of (primarily) traditional, public domain material from multivalent modern folk artist Sam Amidon. Like its predecessor, 2007's All Is Well, it was recorded in Iceland with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and features the subtle, masterful orchestral arrangements of Nico Muhly; key contributions also come from drummer/percussionist Shahzad Ismaily and from Beth Orton, who sings alongside Amidon on four songs. Each of these collaborators adds to the album's rich, expansive, textural palette, allowing considerable psychological range within its generously subdued tone, from the urgency of opening murder ballad "How Come That Blood" (with Ismaily's tense, churning percussion and pointed mini-Moog jabs) to the lush, billowing sweetness of "Pretty Fair Damsel" (Muhly's florid celeste and woodwind figures), and the fluid tranquility of "Climbing High Mountains" (a restful treatment that tempers the song's world-weary lyric.) But always at the forefront are Amidon's voice --which recalls Will Oldham in its restraint and slight rustic roughness -- and, especially, the songs he has chosen to make his own. These include several tunes from the Georgia Sea Islands, learned (via Amidon's folksinging parents) from the powerful renditions of Bessie Jones, and sung in duet with Orton: the "singing-game" "Johanna the Row-Di" and "Way Go, Lily" (refashioned from a peppy handclapping jingle into a gently yearning ballad), and the admonishing folk-gospel number "You Better Mind," given a fervent, rousing reading and a vigorous arrangement that's at once stately and spirited. Christian themes (and apocalyptic imagery) crop up elsewhere, notably on the spare, somberly portentous title track and the simply sung lament "Kedron," but even the selections that aren't explicitly religious are treated with a gospel-like solemnity and directness of feeling. Muhly's playfully inventive arrangements work marvelously throughout to complement this seriousness with a delicate balance of levity, but the album's most lighthearted (and unexpected) moment is also perhaps its most spiritual: "Relief," a simple, deeply felt paean to the persevering goodness of life, might appear in this context like an old-time folk number -- after all, what kind of knucklehead would pen a line like "what a relief to know that the war is over" in days like these? -- but in fact it's by R. Kelly, salvaged from the unreleased 2008 fiasco 12 Play: 4th Quarter. And it's stunningly gorgeous; further confirmation, if any were needed, that Amidon's instincts and talents as a musical conservationist, interpreter, and reanimator are to be wholly trusted and cherished.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman