Sam Amidon - Sam Amidon Music Album Reviews

Sam Amidon - Sam Amidon Music Album Reviews
Amidon’s self-titled record continues his polyglot blending of folk, classical, and jazz, drawing a resounding personal statement out of songs in the public domain. 

“Revival” is a funny term for “mass commercialization,” but that’s just one of the paradoxes of the 20th-century folk music revival. Another is that it minted a production line for new folk songs, which once was an oxymoron. Sure, someone had written the old traditional tunes, but often they had been passed down regional and familial generations for so long that no one remembered who. They existed outside of copyright law, and they were played on acoustic instruments because that’s what people had around. None of this can be said for, say, Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” but still, we tend to call that one a “folk song,” too. It’s become conventional to brand any lightly dressed acoustic song as folk without regard for the former essence of the term—that it had been shaped by many voices over time.
This isn’t to say that mass media automatically taints folk music; it can also just provide a larger vessel through which it can travel. Sam Amidon is living proof. There’s hardly an original to be found on the six LPs—two on Bedroom Community and four on Nonesuch—that make up his main discography, though there are many daringly original arrangements, and The Following Mountain mixed original lyrics in the traditional. Amidon stages a polyglot conversation among folk, classical and jazz, re-dreaming traditional tunes as contemporary conservatory music with minimalist grit. Few artists have drawn as strong a personal statement from the public domain.

Amidon reportedly regards his new, self-titled album as the fullest realization of his vision, and indeed, it’s a digestible nine-song omnibus of his modes and moods. Amidon was drawn into the modern classical world of Iceland’s Bedroom Community by Nico Muhly; the icy, crackling ambience of many of the label’s acts and the composer’s lissome orchestrations still influence his work. Regular collaborators such as Shahzad Ismaily and Sam Gendel bathe his guitar and banjo in a high-contrast palette, from flute and saxophone to Moog bass. It can shift as needed from dark coloration (“Spanish Merchant’s Daughter”) to springy rhythms, which peak in a sort of rainforest hoedown on “Cuckoo.”

“Cuckoo” emphasizes Amidon’s habit of pulling folk taut to the edge of dance, befitting its origins as social music with a wide range of practical uses. Likewise, “Maggie” begins with a house-music feint that lingers subliminally in the coldly fiery funk that emerges. But these are balanced by moments of piercing simplicity, where the arrangements melt away from the pure pleasure of Amidon’s voice. All its buoyant softness is revealed on “Hallelujah,” a 19th-century shape note song, and “Time Has Made a Change,” a hymn by Harkins Frye that Amidon’s parents sang around the house when he was young.

Such personal threads are shot through the album. “Pretty Polly,” an oft-covered English murder ballad that Dock Boggs stamped almost a century ago, appears not because it’s novel, but because it was one of the first trad tunes Amidon learned to play. Perhaps it’s telling that he omits just one aspect of his prior albums: the pop cover, whether it was Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” or (gulp) R. Kelly’s “Relief” in 2010. In context, these inclusions suggested that these songs had shaped Amidon as much as Appalachian folk. The closest he comes to a pop cover is a version of Taj Mahal’s “Light Rain Blues.” But he doesn’t need to shoehorn in a modern pop song to underscore that this old music is utterly modern, which is demonstrated most vividly in its cool, commanding vitality—a revival in the truest sense.
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Sam Amidon - Sam Amidon Music Album Reviews Sam Amidon - Sam Amidon Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Monday, November 16, 2020 Rating: 5

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