The son of Vermont traditional music luminaries, Sam Amidon is a born and bred folkie. To judge from how natural-like he plays and sings, Amidon might well have literally grown up with a banjo on his knee and folk ballads on his lips. That his accent is less Green Mountain than Appalachian should only trouble you if you’re also troubled when violinists who grow up in Shaker Heights or Seoul play Mozart in the authentic old Viennese spirit. In other words, you shouldn’t be troubled at all.
I first came across Sam Amidon not in a folk setting, but in Nico Muhly’s “The Only Tune,” an electr0-acoustic fantasy on a folk ballad in which a miller makes a fiddle out of the remains of a young woman drowned by her sister. In Muhly’s piece, Amidon plays a role similar to that of the balladeers in such works as Benjamin Britten & W.H. Auden’s operetta “Paul Bunyan” (hear a selection here) and in Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins” (hear a selection here). Check it out
The closest thing on Sam Amidon’s excellent new album “Lily-O” is the title song, another tragic tale of sibling murder. Here, however, the inexorable tread of the song’s meter, coupled with the constantly shifting colors and harmonies of the accompaniment (after the a cappella opening) remind me not of Muhly, but of the remarkable folksong transformations of the Australian-American pianist-composer Percy Grainger. Compare, for instance, Amidon’s “Lily-O” with one of Grainger’s most powerful folk-based works, “Shallow Brown”:
A dyed-in-the-wool folkie friend of mine once disparaged such Grainger works as “emasculations” of their source material. I wonder whether, if she hears this one in a new light, she might reconsider? But I digress.
Back to Sam Amidon, whose fourth album, and second for Nonesuch Records (the NPR of labels), is a treat for folk fundamentalists, snooty sophisticates (basically the same people in different dress), and the rest of us who respond to good music of any provenance. Whether singing tunes of woe, work or worship, Amidon retains the affectless tone of traditional balladeers, a tone which would itself threaten to become an affectation if it didn’t sound so, well, unaffected.
Recorded in Reykjavik, like his first two albums (isn’t every cool album recorded in Iceland nowadays?), “Lily-O” is Amidon’s most intimate: Just a quartet, with some instrumental doubling. Of course, when your quartet contains Bill Frisell, he of the amazing technicolor dream-guitar, there’s no need for more than four. Frisell’s panoply of twangs, bends, buzzes, beeps, harmonics and what-have-you provides shape-shifting underscoring, while the rhythmic support of bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Chris Vatalaro are spot-on. “Lily-O” may not bowl you over the first time, but I bet it will grow on you and improve with each hearing.
For instant gratification (is there any other kind?), you can order a CD or download (FLAC please!) directly from Nonesuch here. And to preview on Spotify: