Valgeir Sigur?sson's Bedroom Community label welcomes the second release from U.S. newcomer, Sam Amidon. At Sigur?sson's state-of-the-art Greenhouse Studios, Sam was left to concentrate on his intuitive interpretations of age-old folk-songs, a skill on which he proves himself to be a unique talent, drawing simultaneously on his experiences growing up a child of folk musicians in Vermont, and his more recent work in New York with the experimental indie-rock bands Doveman and Stars Like Fleas. From the opening notes of the first track, "Sugar Baby," it's as clear that All Is Well is a different album from his previous offerings, and by the album centerpiece, the wistfully poignant "Saro," it's obvious that this album is very special, indeed. With horns erupting and dissipating around the listener, Amidon's trademark delivery is perfectly offset by the tenderly plucked notes of his six-string. Nico Muhly's orchestration is not the only addition to Amidon's barrel of sounds. A dizzying amalgam of trombone, Eyvind Kang's ghostly viola, and processed percussion convert a children's singing game from the Georgia Sea Islands into the ominous ambiguity of "Little Johnny Brown." The distinctive bass of Ben Frost is evident on the pensive "Fall on My Knees," while subtle layers of electronics add an intrinsically modern aspect to the proceedings. Couple this with Sigur?sson's production wizardry and you'll realize that despite links to the Appalachian folk music of the past, All Is Well is an album that could only exist in the present. One of the unquestionable triumphs of All Is Well is its diversity. From introspective ballads of jealousy such as "Wild Bill Jones" to upbeat barn-dancing ditties such as "Little Satchel," the structure of the album is paramount in making everything work so naturally. Sam leaves the listener with a feeling of resolution parallel to that of a keen reader thumbing the last page of a favorite novel. He sings of death's spindly fingers finding him, a prospect he handles with no trepidation -- for he has Muhly's flourishing string arrangements to give him courage and form a stable bed for his tender lyricisms. In the length of an album, Amidon has struggled through gunfights, paternal tensions, religious guilt and the lonely life of a nomad, but he leaves us with the message that "all is well"; a defining statement that is bound to warm the hearts of even the coldest gun-slinger.
Review by Ned Raggett
Samamidon's second album and first for Bedroom Community, All Is Well is, at its core, a very pleasant modern folk album filled with interpretations of older public domain standards, with Sam Amidon's ruminative voice and steady playing not in and of itself immediately unique. A song like "Saro," with its truly lovely arrangement and Amidon's stellar performance, however inevitably his vocal style suggests but does not replicate Nick Drake's, is justification for its release as it stands. However, there's a calm drive at the heart of many of his songs that shows why he's been affiliated with the world of low-key dance experiments as much as anything else, as songs like "Sugar Baby" show. "Little Johnny Brown" is one of the apotheoses of this album's approach, with a variety of sympathetic guests, including Ben Frost on programming and Eyvind Kang on murky viola shading, creating a counterbalance between folk roots and something starkly modern that resembles a slightly more smooth Long Fin Killie, tense and mysterious. Meanwhile, "Wedding Dress" is as sweet a straightforward amble as it could be, Amidon's banjo playing as notable as his guitar work, while "O Death," if even more straightforward in terms his singing, has its melody played like a minimal mantra, heavily echoed and moved forward in the mix, a contrast that makes Amidon sound like he's almost singing through the instruments. It's a small touch but an effective one.
All Is Well
[Bedroom Community; 2007]
Samamidon (or Sam Amidon, as he sometimes bills himself) hails from Vermont and is the scion of a musical family with roots in Appalachia. A contributor to such indie projects as Doveman and Stars Like Fleas, he recorded five albums with his band Assembly before releasing a debut solo album of traditional Irish tunes performed on solo fiddle. A second full-length, But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, out last year on Plug Research, might be called his first "proper" release, if only because it was the first with a marketing push and a wide availability. Even so, it didn't move too far from what came before: old folk songs translated to new, modern contexts. And a Tears for Fears cover.
Amidon's new album, the ominously titled All Is Well (very little is ever well in these songs), again includes new readings of public domain compositions, and yet it feels like a great leap forward, thanks to Amidon's more relaxed approach and the contributions of composer Nico Muhly, himself a Vermonter. Where Chicken was well-meaning but occasionally dry, the trio of artists responsible for the record-- Amidon, Muhly, and Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigur?sson (All Is Well was recorded at Sigur?sson's Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik and released on his Bedroom Community label)-- create a very specific space with these arrangements, which goes beyond simply setting mood and atmosphere. These songs inhabit their own world, closed off from the rest of humanity. Eschewing the hammy theatrics of indie folkies like Langhorne Slim and Two Gallants, All Is Well is an exceedingly private album, designed to usher you in and shut out everything else around you. It's a headphones album, but not one that relies on studio effects to maintain your interest.
It helps that these songs typically traffic in internal monologues with a first-person narrator. In "Saro" Amidon sings the part of an immigrant from an unnamed country who describes the vast land around him and takes both grief and solace in missing his true love back home. Later, the singer inhabits the title character of "Prodigal Son", matter-of-factly recounting his fateful homecoming. Amidon sells these sentiments with a soft croak, not unpretty but also not expected. Despite his lifelong training, he manages to sound untrained-- a regular soul comforting himself with music before confronting a bleak world again. His voice breaks evocatively when he hits the high notes on Dock Boggs' "Sugar Baby", conveying the continual ache of a lost loved one: "I'll rock the cradle when you're gone," Amidon sings, as if mustering the stoicism needed to face the next day.
Muhly's arrangements prove decidedly more modern, drawing inspiration from the repetitions of Philip Glass, the drones of Max Richter, and the flutteriness of Sufjan Stevens. "Little Johnny Brown", a folk tune popularized by Ella Jenkins in the 1960s, percolates with ambient noise-- fragments of piano, pots and pans percussion, unidentified thumps-- that coalesces into a calamitous drone. Surprisingly, it works. Throughout All Is Well, Amidon, Muhly, and Sigur?sson slow these songs considerably, but the curious instrumentation ensures they never lose momentum. Banjo and spoons generate tension on "Fall on My Knees" as a lone fiddle swirls in the background, and "Wild Bill Jones" and "O Death" are anchored by mournful horn fanfares and sustained piano notes that fade in and out between Amidon's vocals.
All Is Well is sequenced so that the uptempo tunes crowd the album's middle section, offsetting the gravity of what comes before and will come afterwards with a pair of celebratory songs. Flickering woodwinds and heavy strings add a sense of theatrical expectancy to the relatively spry "Wedding Dress" and "Little Satchel", which complement each other nicely and give a hopeful spin to an otherwise grave album. Occasionally, Muhly's score sounds too busy for such modest songs, but mostly the instruments interact so closely with Amidon's understated vocals that the arrangement and the performance become indistinguishable. This quality makes All Is Well a very forward-thinking album, despite its reliance on traditional tunes. With his team of musicians working so closely together, Amidon doesn't just update the old world to the new, but finds the roots of the new world in the old.
-Stephen M. Deusner, February 08, 2008