Sunday, July 24, 2011

Record Club: Sam Amidon "All is Well" (2007)



It's not where you take things from - it's where you take them to.
- Jean-Luc Godard

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.
- Jim Jarmusch

There’s a misnomer is modern music – in fact, in all modern art – that originality and authenticity of vision is of utmost importance, that an artist must write a song or a filmmaker must produce a novel concept in order to be worthy of consideration on the high altar of art. So widely accepted is this belief in individuality that the once-prevalent traditions of community art and the popular domain have mostly dwindled and become unfashionable. Over the course of his career, Vermont musician Sam Amidon has been gently deconstructing this myth by rearranging, reharmonizing, and recontextualizing ancient Appalachian folk songs. Managing a miraculous balancing act by paying gloriously self-conscious homage to public domain music and maintaining a vivid stamp of independence simultaneously, his work is living proof that originality and mimicry are not so mutually exclusive. The feelings I get listening to Amidon’s eclectic folk music are quite a unique privilege in contemporary music; I am privy to what feels like the private musings of a single consciousness and also the countless emotional undercurrents of a more universal consciousness. By the time the sentiments inherent in the songs Amidon lovingly covers reach his distinctively affectless croon, they’ve been filtered through an abundance of voices before him, yet they are somehow singular with each new utterance.

His 2007 album All is Well, his fourth effort in a body of work consisting of four proper solo LP's and a couple of EP's and team efforts for which Amidon regularly takes a massive artistic leap, is perhaps the best example of this balance between respect for the original and fearless pursuit of the new, a concise sampling of ten moody tracks from the displaced pages of American musical history. For the most part, Amidon luxuriates in the domain of traditional folk instrumentation (acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, piano), yet it's both the strange places he takes those instruments as well as the unexpected additions to the palette that make All is Well such a quietly enthralling work. His two pivotal collaborators - young American composer Nico Muhly and Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurosson, both of whom have formed their own impressive bodies of work - push Amidon out of his comfort zone of sparse folk exhibited on his prior album But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, using their own backgrounds in electronic and orchestral experimentation to provide nuanced and fanciful additions to Amidon's evocative, bare-bones covers.

The oddities creep in slowly though, allowing time for the equally impressive moments of pure restraint to take hold. This is evident right from the album's opening track, a cover of a tune called "Sugar Baby" popularized by banjo troubadour Dock Boggs in the 1920's, one of the record's highest peaks and a fitting introduction to the melancholy, introspective atmosphere Amidon likes to conjure. Boggs' gorgeously expressive version was a frantic assualt of messy banjo plucking and nearly unintelligible lyrics pleading desperately through thick static for his "sugar baby" to return to him. Amidon reverses the formula altogether. His is a slow, meditative rendition, one that so thoroughly stretches out the repetitive refrains ("I got no sugar baby now", " Who'll rock the cradle when you're gone?") that they acquire an aching emotional urgency more serious and convincing than that of Boggs. All of a sudden the story of a man pining for his true love to come back home to him and their child possesses a contemporary relevance, a plea for the many marriages on the rocks in today's scatterbrained society. Here Amidon's simple acoustic picking is supplemented by the muted electric guitar melodies of Pakistani musician Shahzad Ismaily and a single bass clarinet. At just over five minutes, the song's desolate sound-scape is hypnotizing in its repetitiousness and emotional sincerity.

"Sugar Baby" is probably the album's most musically straightforward tune; from here Amidon & Co. complicate the rhythms, melodies, countermelodies, and song structures, taking them further and further away from their origins. The contrast between a song like "Sugar Baby" and the subsequent track, the enigmatic and darkly propulsive "Little Johnny Brown", is much like the gaping contrast between past renditions of these songs and Amidon's. More often than not, the ancient folk songs Amidon is covering have rarely before even been paired with instruments, a notable example being "O Death", a morbid acapella poem famously sung by Ralph Stanley on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Therefore Amidon's compositions, which feel natural and lived-in, are all the more breathtaking for their having been ignited from either nothing or from something radically different. "Little Johnny Brown" is as stunning a testament as any, a series of words originally taken from a children's singing game by Ella Jenkins in the 1960's that become unsettling and almost demonic as they are looped and overlapped by Amidon towards the end of the track like a perverse equivalent of "Ring Around the Rosy", all while piano cadences and bizarrely percussive snaps and clicks circulate around Amidon's central guitar part.



In fact, what is happening on a subtextual level in "Little Johnny Brown" is happening throughout the album in different ways: the sense of Muhly and Valgeir's fluffy additions teasing out the underlying emotions from Amidon's droning, inexpressive voice (interestingly enough I don't mean that as an insult), similar to the way Robert Bresson's nifty cinematographic moves suggest otherwise hidden tensions in the blank facades of his characters. As a result, the songs are open to a seemingly limitless number of interpretations as the multitude of impressions in Amidon's wry inflections pile up. Every song on All is Well consists of a narrator relaying a story: an immigrant's gleeful account of his lover back home in "Saro", a prideful and eventually violent encounter with the boyfriend of a girl he's flirting with in "Wild Bill Jones", a boy excitedly reminding his date to prepare her outfit in "Wedding Dress", a religious devotee's self-assured leaving of a woman in "Fall On My Knees", a guileless young romance in "Little Satchel", a fearful confrontation with premature death in "O Death", a boy's realization that his love for his family is bigger than his pride in the escape from home parable of "Prodigal Son", and a stoic acceptance of impending mortality in the closing title track. Yet each of these cursory summaries does little to suggest the sublime layers of emotional complexity buried within Amidon's takes. Among many other surprises, the pensive air of "Wild Bill Jones" suggests skepticism to battle the narrator's misguided sense of pride, the serpentine disconnection of sub-bass and fingerpicked banjo on "Fall On My Knees" and the distant cackle and dissonant strings the song concludes with all challenge the narrator's feelings and actions, and the deeply sad sprawl of the strings in "All is Well" demonstrate that all is indeed not well.

All is Well is arranged in such a way to offer shifting relationships on its core themes of guilt, naivete vs. wisdom, death, love, and faith. There are three strands running through the album: the guilt theme cutting across "Wild Bill Jones", "Fall On My Knees", and "Prodigal Son", the romance theme stretching through "Sugar Baby", "Saro", "Wedding Dress", and "Little Satchel", and the inquiry into mortality at first abstractly marking "Little Johnny Brown" and then directly approached in "O Death" and "All is Well". It's as if with the progression of the record Amidon's narrators grow increasingly world-weary and knowing, or in other instances, such as in the approach to love, more juvenile. One can witness the palpable release of fear from the protagonist of "O Death" by the time he gets to "All is Well", in which the greeting of death, at least lyrically, suggests an awakening. Similarly, the knee-jerk gun-slinging of "Wild Bill Jones" in the event of heavy jealousy gives way obliquely to the devastating weight of guilt in "Prodigal Son", wherein Amidon again works with repetitious refrains ("I believe I'll go back home / acknowledge I done wrong") against a bouncy and plaintive fanfare of upright bass, french horn, clarinet, and strings.

Throughout the album, there are moments of musical bliss that supersede any of the narrative or thematic content, such as the violins swelling up ecstatically at the 2:05 marker of "Saro", the many extended rings of piano and banjo in "Wild Bill Jones", the crack of Amidon's voice as he stretches for the high notes in "O Death", or the growing sense of anticipation expressed by the growing number of instruments in "All is Well". Nico Muhly, whose 2008 watermark of modern classical Mothertongue was among the many albums I considered for this Record Club pick, has an instinctive feel for orchestration that seems to be heightened when paired with other artists, so much so that as much as Muhly's sensibilities challenge Amidon, Amidon's spare folk forces Muhly to temper his sometimes madcap and unrestricted tendencies. Combining the legato string arrangements of Arvo Pärt, the fluttery bells and whistles of Sufjan Stevens, and the forceful repetitions of Phillip Glass yet maintaining a distinctive oddness of his own, Muhly brings surprising beauty to these songs, a measure of pastoral charm and fairy-tale whimsy that is able to dance around Amidon's voice in unpredictable but never overbearing ways. Furthemore, Valgeir's touches, less noticeable but no less affecting, offer subliminal hints of modern electronica and electro-acoustic improvisation, not to mention his high-fidelity engineering of the record gives great room for the instruments to reverberate in space.

If hard-pressed to pick a low point on All is Well, I'd have to settle on the jubilant "Little Satchel", if only for the fact that its romantic emotional spectrum sounds less open to various interpretations as the rest of the songs (and the octave synth churning underneath the acoustic guitar is probably my least favorite flourish on the album). But even this song is memorable in its own right, a sudden explosion of pure giddiness surrounded by darkness and instability. Truth is, I'm thoroughly smitten with the record, certainly Amidon's most coherent and consistently evocative effort yet (though his subsequent I See the Sign - which pushes his urge for experimentation further - comes close). It's such an eclectic, emotionally complex, and intimate listen, the kind of album that absolutely necessitates and rewards total immersion. I'm very curious what everyone else thinks of the record. Maybe someone will challenge my unending enthusiasm. What are the high points? What are the low points? To return to my opening credo, does the public domain nature of these songs hinder your appreciation of them, heighten it, or does it not matter at all?

(Also worth noting: if you like the album at all, I highly recommend catching Amidon live, as he's one of the most distinctive personalities you'll ever witness on stage. For a taste, see this video of "Little Johnny Brown" and then proceed further to his YouTube channel for wackier tidbits.)

47 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

I just wanted to start this off by saying that I loved this album. I'll return with more later, but right now I have to run to work. Be back in a bit. Great pick, Carson.

Troy Olson said...

(I wrote this up last night -- I'll read your post and comment on it shortly)

I find myself more engaged with lyrics when they relate to narratives in addition to, instead of solely, ideas/concepts (perhaps that's intellectually lazy, I don't know) which I guess would make folk music tailor made for me, seeing as it's rooted in that oral tradition of passing along histories. Yet, I've never been a fan of the the style. The closest I would get for many years would be The Band, who has obvious folk music influences in their songs (though I find them ironic to include considering their connection with Dylan going electric). Similarly, I've come to enjoy the recent trend of mixing folk music and indie rock aestetics (even as this has kind of reached a saturation point by now). In both of these cases, the music may sound like traditional folk music and the lyrics may be penned in that style, but more often than not, it's not "real" folk music.

That's all to say that I went into Amidon's album a bit weary when it was mentioned that it was nothing but covers of traditional folk songs. Yet that weariness was totally unfounded, as Amidon's work here is amazing. I previously wrote about how I'll often not put a ton of thought into deciphering the lyrics if the music captures my interest enough, but Amidon's album is one of those cases where I readily got in and enjoyed investigating the stories that went with the words. It's an album where I found myself pausing the song and writing down the lyrics, something I almost never do (admittedly, I didn't look too hard online for the lyrics, which are probably quite easy to find considering the source :P).

Amidon's voice has a haunting aura, like a ghost recounting these stories from another era. His arrangements provide aspects of the modern style I like, with synthesizers, horns, and ambient textures mixed in amongst an always present and simple acoustic guitar. Some sings keep a subdued simple template, like "Sugar Baby" or "Little Satchel," some songs are even more ambitious, such as "Little Johnny Brown" or "Wild Bill Jones," and some strike a mix between the two, like "Fall On My Knees" and "All Is Well"

I also like that Amidon varies the themes to the songs he chooses. There are tales of murder, love and love lost, hard times, and good times, life and death.

As for individual songs, "Saro" is absolutely beautiful and I've probably listened to it 20 times since starting into the album. It interesting that in the way Amidon arranges and sings the song, the words actually have a feeling of modernity to them as he brings the timelessness of the words out. In fact, I really love all four of the opening songs, with the next three providing a bit of a break in the action (none are bad, they just aren't as engaging as the ones before or after), before the great three song finale.

A great choice here, Carson.

Ed Howard said...

This is a very interesting pick, Carson, and your essay does a great job of exploring what you like so much about this disc. I'm especially interested in your tying of Amidon's music to the traditions of folk music and "community art," because I didn't really think of it in those terms. Amidon and his collaborators take so many liberties with these songs that their origin seems almost incidental. The traditional origins of the songs are revealed mostly by the occasionally archaic language of the lyrics, which do often seem to come from another time and clash in interesting ways against the lush, multi-layered arrangements, which are very far from the barebones nature of the original songs. These songs originated in the pre-recording era, and were conceived as such for "live" arrangements, often just voice and guitar or, as you point out about "O Death," voice alone. Amidon's constructions, on the other hand, are self-consciously the result of having a recording studio at hand, being able to multitrack parts and create complicated arrangements that move the songs very far away from the oral tradition in which they originated (not to mention the use of electronic flourishes on some tracks).

I like your description of the resulting album as balanced between tradition and individuality. In fact, I'd say that what Amidon is doing is very original, even though he didn't actually write most of these songs. In practice, what that means is he didn't write the words; he and his collaborators certainly can be said to have written much of the music that winds around those words on this album, building on some lyrics and scraps of melody. Amidon is taking older texts and making something new with them, making them his own by elaborating on them. To use modern terminology that usually isn't applied to folk songs that were always played by multiple people, these are covers, but the kind of cover that reinvents a song and creates something new with it, rather than the more common rote recreation of another artist's style. Doing a cover well without just repeating the source takes originality, arguably as much or almost as much as it takes to actually write a song.

So I like this album a lot. It's musically quite rich and it's very interesting to hear how Amidon and company have built upon the foundations of the original folk songs. I'm not sure I fully share your passion for the album, though, because (and this is entirely subjective, I realize) I just don't feel it on an emotional/visceral level. I appreciate what Amidon is doing and like the sound in general, but I can't say that, over many spins in the last month, it's really affected me at a deeper level as it obviously seems to for you. Part of it is that Amidon is such an emotionally flat and disconnected singer, which you suggest is a purposeful choice, and I'd love to see you say more about why that works for you. For me, the music is tasteful and beautifully arranged, and Amidon intones everything in a disinterested tone, and I don't often feel the passion that I'm sure went into these loving rearrangements of older music. It's hard to put my finger on what exactly I'm struggling with here; I've been basically wondering why I don't love this more than I do, when everything about it is so interesting and so well-executed and seems so perfectly suited to my interests.

Troy Olson said...

(My thoughts after reading your post)

Okay, this is one impressive review of the album. I wish I had an iota of your skill in deconstructing music here.

Looks like I see eye-to-eye with you on what makes Amidon's music so effective. Your recap does a great job of getting at the aspects of these songs that Amidon and his collaborators have expanded upon, something which adds even more to the listening. I'll be off to YouTube later today to give a listen to more Traditional versions of some of these songs to see exactly what has been changed. You also give a much better insight into the sequencing of the album (one of those formalist aspects of music that I always appreciate, but often seems to be underplayed in reviews).

I particularly love this line:
"In fact, what is happening on a subtextual level in "Little Johnny Brown" is happening throughout the album in different ways: the sense of Muhly and Valgeir's fluffy additions teasing out the underlying emotions from Amidon's droning, inexpressive voice (interestingly enough I don't mean that as an insult), similar to the way Robert Bresson's nifty cinematographic moves suggest otherwise hidden tensions in the blank facades of his characters."

That's a wonderful analogy there - I was struggling to find the words to explain what I found so mesmerizing about this album, and that quote kind of crystalizes it for me (it helps that you put it in filmic terms that I have an easier time thinking in!)

As to your final questions, I mentioned my high point as being "Saro," and I'll second your low point, "Little Satchel" which as you point out doesn't quite have the depth that the rest of the album has (I look at it as a break in the action during the course of the album, so to speak). I'm sure those who are artists have more vociferous opinions on the use of songs that they did/didn't write, but for me it's irellevent. Public domain or self-penned, it's up to the singer to use them effectively and Amidon does so here in spectacular fashion.

Troy Olson said...

Interesting counterpoint, Ed. It seems for the most part that the issue is that the album simply didn't connect for you (and in such a way that drives me crazy when I encounter it myself -- where I KNOW I should like this, but something is just missing) but I'm curious...

Does some of your opinion come from the feeling that there is more power in folk music when it is tied to the instrumentation and modes of its era?

Would, as Carson asks, this have worked better for you if these weren't traditional folk songs Amidon was covering, thus removing that layer of abstraction?

Ed Howard said...

Troy, I don't think that's my problem at all, in fact I really dig that Amidon is playing with these songs in this way. I'm certainly no folk purist and find it fascinating when art recontextualizes and comments on things through appropriation and reworking (that Godard quote at the top is very appropriate in that respect).

I think my failure to connect with the album on the deepest level — and again, I do like it quite a bit — is just subjective and tough to describe. Maybe Carson's Bresson comparison is telling in that respect: I often have very similar problems fully connecting with Bresson despite appreciating what he's doing in the abstract.

Carson said...

Wow, thanks for the fruitful comments, guys! I'll have to make my way through this slowly.

Troy: I'm glad to see that the album affected you so strongly that it encouraged you to write up a preamble of your feelings last night! That's a pretty solid introduction to your relationship with folk music, and your transition to actually liking it a lot here seems to make sense. Amidon is not quite, despite his roots in Appalachia, a traditional folk singer, and he's not interested in regurgitating these songs as they were in the past, at least not on this album.

What you say about the album illustrating its themes through narratives is very true, and it's something I love about it. Of course, the words aren't Amidon's, but it's the way he intones them that is able to bring out the complex undertones. I've never paused to write down lyrics, but I can see how it might allow you to mull over a certain line for a while to really get at what it's suggesting on a thematic level.

I share your enthusiasm for "Saro", which is easily one of the album's best tracks. Muhly's string arrangements there are just lovely. I'm curious what you mean when you say the lyrics of "Saro" have a modernity to them as expressed by Amidon. I tend to think this of the whole album, for sure, but I think that "Saro" has especially archaic language. For me, the album doesn't really have a dull moment, or much of a "break from the action". It's always switching up the tempos and moods. "Wild Bill Jones", for its linear first-person narrative, is one of the most engaging songs on the record in my opinion.

Thanks for the kind words about the essay too. I put a lot of time into it. Unfortunately, you might find yourself falling short of actually finding many of these songs on YouTube. A lot of them are somewhat sourceless, or they don't have a semi-modern rendition other than Amidon's. I was able to find a couple porch acapella version of "Saro" though that were transfixing.

Carson said...

Ed: Haha, sometimes it's impossible to put into words why we can't quite connect with an album that we feel like we should be connecting with. I guess that I should stress that as much as I will admit that Amidon is a "droning, inexpressive" singer, that is his natural voice, not some deliberate effect he's striving for. I also think that it is definitely not completely emotionless. There are subtle hints of pained expression in the slight variations in his inflection, not always easy to pick up but there nonetheless. I like the idea of the music being able to supply much of the emotion that is bubbling under the surface of Amidon's voice, and in general I prefer singers who aren't always belting it out. The approach here is almost reminiscent of the young narrator in Days of Heaven: it's a voice that is willfully naive, simply recounting visual or sonic stimuli like a little boy unsure of what to really think about it. That allows for the listener (or viewer) to fill in those gaps.

What's also fascinating about his voice is the way that it happens to ventriloquize many of the old Appalachian singers Amidon is covering. Dock Boggs and Ralph Stanley, for instance, are two singers who always sounded somewhat disconnected and indifferent to the stories they were telling. It's a matter of stoicism, of wanting to sound bigger than the stories yet also paradoxically revealing a sense of immaturity and emotional confusion.

I hear what you're saying about Amidon making something new with the old, and I didn't mean to suggest that the songs here were entirely covers of the original songs. You're right that it's just the lyrics that are borrowed. Everything else is a product of Amidon, Muhly, Valgeir, and their multiple instrumentalists weaving their own image of the songs, building up a musical romanticism only implicit in the originals. When I say Amidon is paying homage to community art, I mean a few things. Appalachian folk music began as songs that were not dictated by one author. They were free to be passed around, and the experience of playing them for other people became something that was much more personal, intimate, and blue-collar than many other forms of music. Moreover, the passing down of these songs over the ages represents a kind of mythical community of people, not a literal gathering but similar to the way ancestry represents a sense of togetherness and family. So Amidon is consciously continuing this long line of musical inheritance while also striving to create something new with it, which is sort of the intention anyway.

Carson said...

Funnily enough, Ed, for whatever reason I predicted you might have a similar response, and perhaps my inclusion of quotes by Godard and Jarmusch was a subconscious way of creating a constellation of artists who provoke similar reactions (both directors make films that I have trouble "fully connecting with despite appreciating what [they're] doing in the abstract", and I know how much of a Godard fan you are!

Troy Olson said...

Carson

I probably made the writing down lyrics thing sound more profound than it really was -- part of it was out of necessity as I didn't have my computer nearby, and some of it was probably due to me knowing I'd need to write some comments down on the album :) Still, it's not something I'd normally take the time to do, so it does say something.

As to your other question to me, my comment on "Saro" looks entirely garbled as I read it now (I'm guessing I meant to delete a phrase in there but forgot to before posting it). My clarification would be that even if "Saro" does have that archaic language to it (hell, the first two lines are "I came to this country/18 and 49") the way the song is arranged and sung removed that feeling of it being tied to a specific point in time, per se, and lets it have a feeling of a more modern song of a lost love.

Carson said...

Yes, that's definitely true of "Saro". That's also the great thing about so many of these songs is that they don't feel tied down to the original context in which they were written/sung. The themes (some of which are about coming of age, others that are more universally applicable, and others that sound strikingly wise, like a man approaching death and reflecting on his entire life) are able to relate to any time period.

Jake said...

I have to echo Ed's thoughts on Amidon as a singer. He sings like a schoolchild reading Shakespeare: utterly disconnected and flat. It must be a conscious choice (or at least one that can't be helped), as I can't imagine him having as little passion for the material as his voice conveys given how obscure it is. He actually derails a number of the songs for me, especially "O Death," which of course hinges on his vocal performance. You call it stoicism, but to me Amidon does not sound like a natural storyteller, and if he strove to stand outside his stories, he doesn't sound bigger or smaller at all, only alienated.

I do like the arrangements, though. I played "Wedding Dress" several times in a row when I gave everything a re-listen, and add myself to the chorus of hurrahs for "Saro," though I think the song is so beautiful that it suffers most from how little Amidon puts into it. Muhly's arrangement and Sigurðsson's production give the song such grace, but Amidon gives no life to the poignant lyrics.

Still, overall I highly enjoyed the lighter first half, though I was generally annoyed by the more somber second half that kept pulling at the disconnect between arrangement and vocal delivery until I stopped caring. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by Amidon and would agree wholeheartedly with your central premise of the ridiculous "originality" fetish. After all, Amidon sounds unlike any lo-fi folk artist I've heard, and that's only because what he rips off is more esoteric.

Carson said...

Jake, I think it's off-base to say that Amidon is "ripping off" esoteric folk music. That implies that he's stealing their ideas, whereas he's merely using the lyrics and spinning entirely new music around them. I also wouldn't call him a "lo-fi" folk artist; in fact, one thing I love about these recordings is how high-fidelity they are, how you can hear everything so clearly.

I guess I can't argue with subjective impressions. The flatness and disconnection is only cosmetic for me. I find layers of emotionality the more I listen to his voice, and the divide between the lushness of the arrangements and the dryness of his voice is what makes for such an interesting contrast.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I don't think Amidon is ripping off anything, really. His general sound fits neatly into the modern indie/folk scene, but his particular variant on the sound, and his variance from his source material, marks him out as a unique voice in his own right.

I agree with everyone that "Saro" is a standout, but I also agree with Jake that "O Death" in particular suffers from Amidon's disaffected vocals. Perhaps it's just because that's the song here that I'm most familiar with in other interpretations, but it seems to demand a depth of feeling that I don't think Amidon really brings to any of these songs, in terms of vocal style.

A point of comparison that keeps occurring to me is David Thomas Broughton, who has been a recent obsession of mine. He's frequently compared with Amidon, and vice versa, and they even toured together recently, but I absolutely love his music (which isn't derived from folk songs but shares Amidon's ear for distinctive arrangements that blend folk and more experimental sounds. The difference between them, to me, comes down to the fact that Broughton just strikes me as a much more soulful, emotionally intense singer, even though he has his own affectations and odd disconnects. I wonder if you're familiar with him, Carson, since you seem to like this style of music.

Carson said...

Ed, thanks for the tip-off. I haven't heard of Broughton, but I'll be sure to check him out and report back.

I want to stress that I don't find Amidon's lack of soulfulness and emotional intensity to be a bad thing. I think there's room for an openly intense singer and someone like Amidon to fit in the same musical world and for there to be distinct merits to each. The cinematic comparisons keep coming back. Bresson's characters, or Linda from Days of Heaven, are not at all evocative, but it's their blankness and understatement that is so fascinating against the sweep of the cinematography, or in this case, the music. So what you two see as the low point of the album ("O Death") is actually one of my top four songs on the record. Those soaring strings paired with Amidon's rich, cracking voice in the choruses is a real marvel.

Also, Ed, did my description of community art make sense to you?

More generally, what are some of the specific musical quirks that people enjoy or dislike on All is Well? What do people think of Nico Muhly's contributions?

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, your definition of community art makes total sense. I think you're right that Amidon fits into this tradition in the sense that folk music and traditional music have *always* been about songs that get passed around and elaborated upon by different singers. It's very different model than the current one where one singer owns a song and anyone else who does it is performing a cover. That's why I said that folk music usually isn't thought of in terms of "covers," because there's often not a true "original artist" to point to. Amidon's elaborations are very different in type and spirit than the changes made to a song by a more traditionalist singer, but they nevertheless belong to that same way of thinking about music.

To focus more specifically on some of this music, what I like most about the album is the depth and density of the production. There's a great deal of detail in these songs. I love how "Little Johnny Brown" (a clear highlight) opens with these hollow, scraping drum sounds in the background, very foreboding; later on there is a subtle piano tinkling that blends into the mix so well that it's almost subliminal, but adds a real liveliness and warmth to what's otherwise a typically melancholy tune. I love how much variety and invention there is in the arrangements. I take it from your descriptions that Muhly arranges the strings and horns while Valgeir offers up the electronics and processing?

Carson said...

I'm not sure it's so black and white, but yes, I think that's the gist of it. Muhly might do some of the electronic arranging too, judging by his propensity for this kind of experimentation on Mothertongue, and there might be other performers who bring their own suggestions (I know you mentioned one violinist you are a fan of - did you figure out which songs he participates in?).

In terms of sonic surprises, "Little Johnny Brown" and "Fall On My Knees" are probably the most exciting and creative in that respect. I particularly love the ending of "Fall On My Knees" where a violin drone takes over atop a deep bass progression. Suddenly Amidon is heard in the distance shouting the lyrics like a bratty schoolboy teasing another kid, which offers an unexpected and somewhat humorous take on the central character conflict occurring in the song (a man leaving his romantic partner and insisting there are "more pretty women like you, little girl", a condescending and immature move). I love the way these songs can take such drastic turns like these, moving from bouncy to dark and foreboding.

Where are all the other usual commenters?

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, I'm hoping there are still some fresh commenters to come.

Eyvind Kang is the violin/viola player who contributed to the album. He apparently plays viola on "Little Johnny Brown" and "Prodigal Son." I can't say I would've picked him out if I hadn't known (he's a pretty versatile musician in general) but I'm sure he adds to the varied textures on those 2 tracks. Kang is a collaborator of the avant-rock band Sun City Girls, and also one composer of a great album that I think must be a reference point for All Is Well: Orchestra Dim Bridges, a collaboration with Tucker Martine. It's an instrumental album that definitely reminds me a bit of Amidon's lush arrangements; considering that they picked such an obscure musician to collaborate with, I'd be surprised if Amidon and his other collaborators aren't aware of it and Kang's work with the Sun City Girls. SCG are another band who are all about appropriation and quotation; in their case, they update and rearrange traditional music from other cultures, particularly Indian and Asian musics.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Carson,

I'm going to take the evening to compose my thoughts. I just back from work a couple of hours ago, and I'm pretty tired. Like I said this morning, I loved this selection. So quick observations, and then I'll expand on these later tonight:

- I love the conversation that's going on here. I'll expand on this more later, but there's something eerie and complex lurking beneath seemingly simple surface of these songs.

- This reminds me of more popular indie artists like Sufjan Stevens who -- on occasion -- did low-key music like this with strings, banjos, and the like.

- "O Death" is my favorite track. It's damn haunting, and I can't get it out of my head.

- Speaking of another popular indie/folk artist, this album reminded me of early Bright Eyes stuff when he was at his best doing the same kind of old-t
timey , folky, stripped-down sound.

- This album got me interested in going back and listening to some of the early renditions of these songs.

More to come. Again, loved the album.

Carson said...

Ed, thanks for the info on Kang. I've heard of Sun City Girls but have never listened. Now I'll have to check out Orchestra Dim Bridges too. I'm building up a nice list here. And you're probably right that Amidon definitely is aware of these musicians and their backgrounds. He seems to have a varied knowledge of contemporary music in general; I mean, hell, Shahzad Ismaily plays on the record.

Kevin, glad to see you liked the album so much! I'm looking forward to your expanded thoughts. I like to see the love for "O Death". As for the comparisons to Sufjan and Bright Eyes, I think they're useful merely as markers of the same ballpark Amidon is working within, but I do think his style is much different, not as confessional as either of them and certainly more committed to lush arrangements rather than wacky ones (Sufjan) or very simple country-folk ones (Bright Eyes). I do like both those artists, and as I mentioned in my write-up, Muhly's orchestrations often pull from the fluttery Sufjan tradition, but to me Amidon surpasses them at the moment as the most exciting talent in the broad universe of indie/folk.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Carson:
Allow me to ramble for a moment:
I agree that those musicians act as just markers, and I would actually liken Amidon’s folk stylings to someone like Willy Mason (another Omaha guy). It’s true that Amidon isn’t going for deep introspection like Bright Eyes or even like Sufjan has the capability to do when he places himself inside another person (like John Wayne Gacey), but I don’t think for a moment that it makes the album feel stilted or like it’s just some indie dude going through the motions and doing his renditions of public domain songs because it sounded like “a really cool idea.” This album is interesting on so many different levels, but I’m most struck by how much is going on here. And what’s even more amazing is how subtle it is upon first listens.
When I first played the album, I loved it because I love this kind of folk music (I had heard a few songs years back when a friend put a comp together for me, so I had an inkling that I would like it), but there was something else going on when I just let the album play and play: I was sucked in. There is something haunting about this album that I often would go three or four times through the album without realizing it. It’s simple and it’s defintley complex in its simplicity. Its simplicity lies in the fact that Amidon is taking traditional music (lyrics)and reworking them through his own lens. So, even though one could argue that this isn’t “original” music, I don’t think that argument holds much water because Amidon is actually doing something quite fascinating here (and Ed mentions this in his initial comment): He’s taking something already created (and public domain, no less) and making it sound new…he’s making it his own.
Add me to the listeners who wasn’t all that impressed with “Little Satchel,” but it’s a small complaint on an otherwise great album. Here’s where I align myself more with Ed, though (and I think that it’s becoming obvious that even though we all can appreciate each other’s music tastes, Ed and I seem to like/dislike the same things about music): I just can’t be moved by the entire album. It’s kind of my deal with a lot of folk/indie bands – I just don’t feel the sense of urgency, the sense that this is something important. It’s why with Sufjan, for example, I think I like his newest album, The Age of Adz, is the best thing he’s done because it’s the perfect mix of what made his past albums unique, but it also feels like it’s a work that truly excites the artists; they’re trying something new. I get that on some of Amidon’s album, the sense that he’s excited about re-working these public domain songs, I just don’t feel it on every song.

Kevin J. Olson said...

PART TWO:

I guess what I mean by that is this: music doesn’t have to be upbeat or loud or musical to be exciting (I find “O Death” to be one of the most haunting and exciting songs I’ve heard in a while…I keep coming back to it; I can’t get it out of my head), it’s just the same reason why I can’t get into the new Fleet Foxes album, or why I can’t get past two tracks on Bon Iver album…it’s subjective, so, like Ed states, it’s kind of hard to explain in great detail, but I just don’t feel it. Again, that isn’t to say that I don’t love the album, I’m just not sure that I share your enthusiasm (which of course isn’t a requisite for any of these conversation, I know that) for the entire album here.

I do love your comment about how it sounds like Amidon's voice is ventriloquizing the old Appalachian musicians. I thought that, too. Also, I am in agreement with you about the way someone's voice sounds like. I don't think any of us here care about what a singer's voice sounds like, and yes, sometimes low-key has way more of an effect than belting it out and being uber showy (screaming does not always equate to genuine emotion).

It’s damn interesting though, and a few songs (you guys have mentioned most of them) have really stuck with me throughout this last month. I’m interested in checking out some of Amidon’s other stuff, and even if I don’t share your enthusiasm for the album as a whole, I think this was a huge success because it has gotten me to further seek out Amidon’s work. Great pick, Carson.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Sorry for the messed up format on the first part of that comment. Stupid Microsoft Word.

wondersinthedark said...

Nice interesting pick, accompanied by an impassioned essay. Great work. I'm a little late to the discussion, but thankfully see it's still going strong.

It's quite serendipitous that you'd choose this album right now as I'm also reading Greil Marcus' 'The Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes' (retitled 'The Old, Weird America' when published on paperback) which is quite brilliant and recommended for this discussion (I am however of the opinion that saying a book is by Marcus and brilliant is overly redundant– the man is just a genius). While this genre's genealogy wasn't unbeknownst by me, it's also not one I openly embrace or am that interested in— I'm an American with strong bouts of Anglophilia so 'roots folk Americana' isn't on my list of regular listens.

So with that I approached with trepidation, or perhaps that's too strong a feeling, maybe apathy would be a better adjective. So it was to my surprise that I found the album enjoyable enough, and felt rewarded with the experience knowing that it wasn't one I would have had on my own.

Overall I think the album is rather typical of what I feel folk to be, easy on the ears peaceful, serene (even if lyrically it is quite opposite). It's agitprop folk that I generally like, the more raucous the better in my opinion, so I have reservations there, but I'm surprised how well I think the 'prettier' songs do work (or rather how much I like them). I recall feeling initial listens where slightly bland (not to say it's a bland record), and thoroughly enjoying the almost emotional explosion that the album middle 'Wedding Dress' delivers. It's a great reading of the song, his vocal nonchalance can't be hidden here, one imagines the melancholy veneer being lifted during its recording complete with smiles during the outtakes (!).

I happen to like 'Little Johnny Brown' best, it's almost menacing compared to the rest of the album, certainly its opening hints at something. I love the subtly of what's bubbling underneath that one. As others have noted, and you do in the essay, the production touches are great, it's a great headphone record in the same way those great Nick Drake records are, or slightly more recently the first few (specifically the debut) Lilac Time records. I'd love Amidon to tackle their 'Love Becomes a Savage' actually.

wondersinthedark said...

btw, 'wondersinthedark' is me, Jamie. I couldn't post any other way.

Carson said...

Kevin, very interesting comments! Here I was thinking you were as enamored with the record as I was, but then you pull a fast one and say it didn't have the visceral effect on you the whole way through, haha! Maybe the sense of urgency you describe is missing a bit - Amidon's not screaming at you or discussing anything directly contemporary - but I think the themes here are still of universal and timely significance. It's funny that you find The Age of Adz to be Sufjan's best work, because I find it to be near his weakest. Something about the stylistic shift seems too self-conscious, too forced, and as a result his lyrics don't feel as genuine as they do on something like Illinois, where he's using all these random historical figures as a vessel through which to talk about himself. Great stuff.

Anyway, if you're seeking out more Amidon albums, I'd go right for I See the Sign, his 2010 follow-up to All is Well (ridiculous promo video here). It's a similar story (covers of old songs), but Amidon definitely changes things up a bit. It's not as dark and brooding, and the structures are much looser and have less instant appeal. But what I like about it is how Amidon really pushes the envelope. It's pretty clear from the first track, this weird, shifty murder ballad full of staggered electronics. There's even and R. Kelly cover on that one.

Jamie, thanks for coming to the discussion. No worries about being late! That Greil Marcus book sounds like a good read. It's nice that I was able to choose an album that went firmly with your current mood. Political folk is something I have a somewhat mixed relationship towards. Dylan's stuff is obviously piercing, but I find a lot of the other music to be overly inflammatory and the music seems to take a backseat to the politics. (Which artists do you like most?) I guess "pretty folk" is more my speed. I love Tallest Man on Earth, who writes in a similarly surreal fashion as Bob Dylan but mostly about relationships, people, and landscapes.

Finally someone comes out an praises "Wedding Dress", although someone might have earlier in the conversation. It's really giddy, which is quite a contrast from the rest of the album, but I really dig how the whole song is one chord, and the arrangements just bounce around it and make it lively. That's a very hard thing to do as a songwriter.

wondersinthedark said...

Yeah I guess I should have been more specific about 'agitprop' folk, as someone like Pete Seeger would fit in there and I just flat out don't like his stuff. I suppose a Billy Bragg would be more where my tastes lay, or Richard Thompson if he's considered. I think Jonathan Richman is some sort of folk troubadour too, and I adore him, especially his post 1995 (or so) records when many have left him.

And now that I think about it more, the only folk music that gets semiregular airtime on my stereo is English pastoral stuff (like the Drake and Lilac Time I've already mentioned), which isn't really political all that much but those artists are just savage. I suppose Amidon can be but I'd need to hear him tackle originals.

And yeah, you should seek out and read the Marcus, I think you'd like it a great deal.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, it's great to hear Jonathan Richman mentioned, a name you don't hear too often except in (rightful) praise of the first Modern Lovers album. I love his solo discs, including all the later stuff. He's been remarkably consistent, even in the face of increasing disinterest. Never would have thought of him in this context because he seems so far removed from any folk tradition despite his stripped-down acoustic-guitar-and-voice style. He's just off in his own private world, quietly doing his thing.

wondersinthedark said...

Yeah, I agree he doesn't seem like a folk artist, but after 'Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild' that seems like the easiest classification without getting into all those masturbatory 'lo-fi indy pop' et cetera classifications.

Ed (or anyone else) are you a fan of Lilac Time? I just keep feeling them while listening to Amidon's more dreamy moments (like 'Wedding Dress' and 'Sugar Baby'), and I think they are one of the most underrated pop acts of all time.

Carson said...

Jamie, perhaps you're thinking of "Lost Girl In The Midnight Sun", which has a similar shuffle beat and arrangement as "Wedding Dress". I remember giving Lilac Time a listen a while back and not being that impressed, largely because I find the singer's suave British singing voice to be kind of grating, far from savage too. But maybe I'll have to give them another listen. I haven't heard of Richman, but the love from you and Ed makes me want to check him out too.

While we're on the topic of folk artists reminiscent of Amidon and vice versa, I must say I'm surprised I haven't heard anyone bring up Leonard Cohen. I think Cohen's voice sounds nearly as disaffected as Amidon's when dealing with intense and emotional material, especially on those early bedroom recordings, which I really like. Cohen's also perched somewhere between political and personal.

wondersinthedark said...

Oh yeah I meant 'savage' in reference to Lilac Time in relation to lyrical content, as none of the folk we are talking about is really 'savage' musically or viscerally. They (Lilac Time) come across quite chamber pop and suave but that first one especially is quite a dark and savage record. Different strokes for different folks sure, but it's quite great and (I'd say easily) darker then something like All is Well. It's strange to hear his voice described as 'grating', maybe it's too lush or smooth for your tastes, but grating implies something rough or unpleasant, something Nick Duffy just is not.

Leonard Cohen is a good reference point and one reason I now view Richman as a folkie. He covered Cohen's 'Here It Is' on the album I reference earlier (Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__rPoAP0N04

Ed Howard said...

Leonard Cohen, I must admit, makes my argument against Amidon a bit difficult - since, yes, he has a similarly flat vocal style and yet I really love his music. For whatever reason, he just connects with me in a way that Amidon doesn't (at least on this album). I can only say that I hear more emotion and intensity in his voice than in Amidon's, a forcefulness and inner passion that seems to shine through the low-key exterior. Amidon sometimes seems disinterested and distant in a way that I don't really hear in Cohen, who sometimes seem ironically detached or purposefully flat, but never emotionless.

I haven't heard Lilac Time, but now I'm gonna check them out.

Richman is a genius IMO, Carson. He was the frontman of the Modern Lovers, whose only album is a rock classic, something like a more upbeat Velvet Underground. Then Richman dissolved the band and set off on a long career as a folk-ish solo artist. The album Jamie mentions, Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild, is probably the most relevant to this discussion, but he's been churning out great, very similar albums for decades now.

wondersinthedark said...

Ed I have to think, because I feel this way too, that you feel this split in relation to Cohen because Cohen is singing songs he's written. If the subject matter is dark he can sing them as nonchalant as possible but as a listener you understand the power still as it's a feeling or emotion he's had at least once (that 'at least once' being the time he wrote it down obviously). Whereas when dealing with covers as Amidon is, it's a tough line to approach as unemotional or placid could just as easily be read as 'artist as automaton'. It's tough, and I think this album can be read either way and be correct in both readings.

Carson said...

Jamie, what I meant by grating is that his extremely pleasant voice actually became unpleasant to me. But like I said, that was a snap judgment when I first heard them, so I'll have to go back to it.

Ed, I too think that Cohen has an inner passion and forcefulness springing through his vocal flatness; difference is, I think that's exactly what Amidon has too. And I don't think that passion and emotionality can only come through original songs, Jamie. Amidon has great care and sincerity when dealing with these stories. Is there ever a moment, for either of you, when you think Amidon does manage to convey some of the Cohen-esque power through his voice?

Thanks for continuing to comment, everyone!

Troy Olson said...

First off, Carson asked several comments ago about Nico Muhly's contributions. I have to admit that without his compositions I don't see the album being nearly as engaging for me, as it was those qualities that he provided which first pulled me in to these songs. Perhaps thats a concession to what Jamie, Jake, and Ed have brought up. Their's no doubt that Amdion's voice has a droning quality and perhaps left to its own devices the album wouldn't have nearly the haunting aura that the combo of Muhly's production and Amidon's voice together provide.

I'm mostly lost with the folk singer discussion that Jamie, Ed, and Carson have embarked on in the last few comments (as I stated in my first comment, my connection with true folk music is quite limited and even after listening to some of the suggestion they have made). But the wealth of knowledge of music between the three of you is incredible -- I can read your conversations on the matter forever even when I'm constantly having to go to wikipedia and youtube to find out more.

Since Kevin and Carson brought it up earlier, in regards to Sufjan Stevens: I'll say that though I love listening to Age of Adz, mostly due to enjoying the audacious and drastic stylistic experiemnts he made, self-consciousness be damned ("Impossible Soul" has been getting a lot of plays during my workdays recently). But I have to agree with Carson on the fact that it's nowhere as focused or authentic as his prior albums. But that messiness is part of its charrm to me, a likely one-off to change things up before he likely goes back to another Illinois style album.

wondersinthedark said...

"And I don't think that passion and emotionality can only come through original songs, Jamie."

Certainly not, Carson. But that's not what I'm saying. Perhaps I was confusing so I'l attempt to restate it: On the topic of singing without emotion, of which Cohen and now Amidon have been put out there as comparable stylists, I'm saying that when one singer (Cohen) is singing in the style with lyrics that he's written (that are dark, alienating or confrontational) you start to understand that the detached monotone perhaps comes from what these experiences (that are present in the lyrics) have done to the singer. It's a monotone from a person perhaps numbed to his surroundings and sensations. Now, when the monotone style is coming from a person doing a cover it's an incredibly dangerous fine line. One person can read it as sincere, another could just as easily read it as not. But either way the performer (Amidon) is leaving his art up to the sensibilities of the listener, which perhaps he's completely fine with as it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Adding into the discussion is that a covers record isn't now a one off thing for Amidon, since he's now done another. Granted I haven't heard I See the Sign but the thought of a supposed serious artist now also doing R. Kelly covers starts to make me believe it could all be an ironic hipster joke.

wondersinthedark said...

(continued)
Discussing covers of American traditional recordings, the conversation can lead back to Dylan and his basement tapes with the Band. They're so vital and important because the choices they're making in song selection to sit alongside the originals they're writing about and for a troubled time (late 60's America). Perhaps if Amidon wrote searing, contemplative odes alongside 'O Death' it would add a wallop of understanding to his austere (and pretty great) conclusion to his version of that song. Again, consider the Richman 'Here It Is' cover, a self-loathing line like 'here is your cardboard and piss', and his reading of it, means more when you consider his originals it sits along like 'Refuse to Suffer' (a heartbreaking, yet optimistic ode to depression without medication), and 'As My Mother Lay Dying' (which beautifully follows 'Here It Is' on the record).

It's also worth considering the ages and life experiences of cover artists. Johnny Cash's cover of Trent Reznor's 'Hurt' stands out in this regard. It's a track that's virtually impossible to cover as it's so personal to Reznor and comes from a very specific place, but Cash's well publicized life experiences do add something to his reading. Amidon is just turned 30, perhaps that is coloring my opinion. Granted, he could have these experiences but I don't know as I haven't heard an original from him so I'd need you (Carson) to speak on these matters.

Carson said...

Troy, I think it's true that the album would only be half what it is without Muhly's collaborations (probably something more like But That Chicken Proved Falsehearted), which is not to say that Amidon is helpless on his own, but that I think both artists' creative abilities are ignited when by each other.

Re Sufjan: Really? You think he'll go back to another Illinois? I enjoy that wishful thinking, but having seen him live after Age of Adz it seems he's fully entered the rabbit hole, meaning that from here on out he'll be experimenting more and more and going further away from that beautiful, florid Americana that made him his name.

Carson said...

Jamie, Amidon doesn't do originals, at least not so far in his career. That's sort of his shtick, so I guess if a listener doesn't like it he won't be redeeming himself with originals anytime soon. He's had 5 or 6 releases now and they've all been renditions of various classic folk songs (one album is made up of Irish fiddle). But this whole cover/original issue is sort of what I meant to get at in my opening paragraph. I don't see Amidon's covering nature as a negative trait. It's something that is very authentic to his personality having grown up in Vermont alongside folk-singing parents. From what I understand, there was always a sense of storytelling and music sharing among his family. I don't think the relatively young age matters; Amidon has grown up with this way of making music.

I can see how a cover of an R. Kelly song might lead one to believe it's all an ironic hipster joke, and I had that feeling when I first heard that he did it too. But there's a great sincerity to Amidon's version, and he sings the optimistic lyrics just as if they're any one of the other Appalachian folk songs on the record.

wondersinthedark said...

Again, I also don't think doing covers, remakes, or reinterpretations is a negative thing. I didn't think I'd given that impression. But reading your initial quotes that open this essay (from Godard and Jarmusch) there is essentially the gist of what I'm saying. In the case of a Jarmusch or a Godard they riff on things while creating wholly new worlds to sit alongside. Jarmusch's GHOST DOG is a great example of this, as it's clearly indebted to Melville's LE SAMOURAI, but it's creating new as much as it takes.

Now knowing that Amidon has yet to do an original song, I do understand he's looking to exist within a certain American roots music tradition. Which is fine, guess it's not my bag. Interesting also that this thread and essay are all working to compare him to artists that worked with originals. Perhaps we should seek to discuss this album (and his career) within the realm of reinterpretations, as that's almost a genre in and of itself.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Not to get the conversation too far away from Amidon, but I remember reading something where Sufjan basically said that the "State" projects was the experiment, and that The Age Adz was what he always wanted to do. He basically said he was never planning on doing an album for every state and that that idea doesn't really interest him at all. Now, he could just be quirky (which wouldn't be the first time), but judging by what you say, Carson, about his live performances and how he's gone down the rabbit hole...I wouldn't expect anything like his previous albums again.

I agree that's what made his name, but I like that he's pushing himself to try something new. Michigan and Illinois and Seven Swans all have great-to-brilliant moments...but nothing that jars me like The Age of Adz. By the way, did you hear is EP prior to Adz called All Delighted People? The opening song (something like 12 minutes, maybe more) is some of the most haunting music he's composed.

Anyway...back to the topic at hand...

Carson said...

Jamie, I apologize if I've seemed hectoring in the past few comments (that wasn't the intention). It's just that I got the impression that you thought Amidon wasn't suited to be truly judged as a musician until he moved to original songwriting. Thanks for clarifying, and thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Although if we were to get into reinterpretation artists in music, I think Amidon would still reign supreme, because I haven't heard many who possess the same skill and uniqueness in deconstruction as him.

Kevin, I have heard All Delighted People and I agree that the title track is simply astounding. In fact, that whole EP is superior to the full-length in my opinion.

Troy Olson said...

Okay, Kevin and Carson have rightfully sussed me on my comment :) It's what I get for speaking out of pure conjecture...

I hadn't heard the EP yet (I'm always months behind on listening to new stuff), but I'm giving it a listen right now.

Tyler said...

hi! this is a great discussion and All is Well is one of my favorite albums, absolutely. I just wanted to add some things concerning Amidon's voice, and the way he sings.

there's this really nice interview with Nico Muhly you all should read, in The Believer. you can find it here: http://believermag.com/issues/200810/?read=interview_muhly

I'm gonna use this little excerpt to illustrate a point about Amidon. Muhly is describing the kind of film music he's asked to do:

NM: An approach that is more about texture—music that doesn’t do as much work. Look at Star Wars, which completely favors the score, which is genius. The score is doing a lot of work. It’s like Wagner. It’s like a yak carrying people. Whereas if you think of something like No Country for Old Men, which was completely silent—hello, best movie ever in the history of ever—well, that’s a film that doesn’t depend on the score to do the heavy lifting. I like to think of it as a character and less like this crazy emotional dictator.

BLVR: But isn’t there something nice, almost democratic, about making music that is obvious—that everyone can join together in?

NM: Yes. Theoretically. But I think that doesn’t actually apply to most movie music. Movie music is this trickle-down thing of someone telling you what the emotional content of a moment is.

BLVR: Helping everyone in the theater to feel it—

NM: —to feel the same thing, which for me is not democratic. Democratic is a nudge and then ignoring it. Democratic is a poke and then saying, “You know what? I would have liked if you had cried when she was diagnosed with cancer, but you don’t have to.” That to me is democratic. Whereas not democratic is this insanely manipulative thing where you’re being told what to feel. “You’re happy—it’s the Great Leader’s birthday!” And you’re like, “I guess so.…” For me the best kind of film music is liturgical music. Liturgical music is essentially a million scores for the same film.

ok, back to me now. so I think that Amidon's singing voice works in exactly that way: it's an instrument, and it's a character, rather than a force that tells YOU, the listener, what you should be feeling. if Amidon sang "passionately" (word I kept seeing come up) then the album simply wouldn't be making the same emotional statements, wouldn't achieve the same emotional balance. and you might not think that Amidon's music or All is Well in particular achieves that kind of balance, but certainly "singing more passionately" is not the scale-tipping answer you're looking for. I think you'd have to start over from the ground up.

also, I think it REALLY helps to think of Amidon's voice as about texture and as an instrument. Amidon himself grew up mostly listening to instrumental music and identifying, if that's the right word, as an instrumentalist - playing Irish fiddle tunes, in contradance bands, listening to jazz. the dude started singing in his twenties after he'd already mastered the fiddle (listen to his solo fiddle album Fiddle Tunes; if you listen carefully you'll start to notice similarities between the way he phrases a folk song and his fiddling style).

and listening to old-time music doesn't hurt, either; Amidon definitely learned a lot from listening to field recordings and old-time country singers, who often sang kind of flat and unaffected, too. and at a certain point I think you either like that or you don't.

anyway, I hope this is insightful. I've been listening to Amidon's music since I first heard "Saro" in late 2008 and I've listened to everything I could find; I can assure you, his art definitely rewards commitment...

Carson said...

Thanks for weighing in, Tyler. I definitely agree with that sentiment expressed in that Muhly interview applying to Amidon's voice. That's partly what I was getting at when I gestured to Bresson in my essay, whose work is filled with emotional complexity that's definitely not readily visible on the surface.

Ed Howard said...

Just following up on one band we discussed in this convo: I've given a listen to the first, self-titled Lilac Time album now, and I quite like it, but it's obviously very different from what Amidon's up to here. They're much more low-key indie-pop with touches of folk. Some songs remind me of R.E.M. from the same period or earlier in the 80s, which is high praise but marks them out as a much more traditional and straightforward concern than Amidon's deconstructive tendencies.

Jamie's earlier point about lyrical "savagery" is especially obvious on "Rockland," which is musically as amiable as the rest of the album (with some interesting production touches, though) but is seething with political rage if you listen to the lyrics. Lyrically, it reminds me of some of Dylan's angriest early folk songs, but there's a disconnect between the pleasant music and the confrontational words that isn't there with Dylan, whose voice always boiled over with anger on such seminal protest folk-rockers as "Masters of War." In that respect, I do see a connection to Amidon, who in a very different way also maintains some aloofness and distance from what he's singing about.

Carson said...

Thanks for the follow-up, Ed. Lilac Time is one group I haven't gotten to since the conversation, but I did get into David Thomas Broughton's body of work a bit. I first heard The Complete Guide to Insufficiency and was a put off somewhat by the out-of-tune guitar, but I've actually grown to really enjoy that album. "Execution" and "Unmarked Grave" are pretty spectacular, and it was his distinctive vocal delivery that drew me to it in the first place. Outbreeding is the only other album that I've dug into, but I'm still making my way through it (first time through "Apologies" is a clear standout for me). I must say I don't see a huge connection between him and Amidon though other than a relatively superficial genre similarity. They definitely have different sensibilities in their arrangement styles; Broughton, at least on the later stuff, certainly reaches for a wider array of instruments, which isn't quite as pleasing to me. And as much as I find his voice to be fascinating and singular, it doesn't move me as much as Amidon's yet.