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.)