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Sam Amidon - All Is Well

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Artist: Sam Amidon

Album: All Is Well

Label: Bedroom Community

Review date: Feb. 4, 2008

Fans of gospel, bluegrass and folk music standards will be familiar with most of the material on Sam Amidon’s All Is Well. “Saro,” the album’s probable first single, is a variation on the traditional “Pretty Saro,” a song that Doc Watson, among others, has recorded. Likewise with other songs: Pentangle recorded a version of “Wedding Dress,” Ralph Stanley once recorded “O Death,” and Dock Boggs recorded both “Prodigal Son” and “Wild Bill Jones.” Perhaps the most obscure track on the album is “Little Johnny Brown,” which isn’t a traditional song at all but rather a chant that accompanies a children’s game.

Amidon’s primary audience, however, won’t be too familiar with these traditional forms of folk music. Let’s be honest – most of the people picking up All Is Well will be indie rock fans (like this writer), and for them the album will be something of a revelation. Amidon took a collection of traditional songs, wrote new arrangements and – with the help of producer Valgeir Sigurðsson – turned them into a bedroom rock classic.

Amidon is originally from Vermont, and his familiarity with these traditional songs is probably due to the fact that both of his parents were folk musicians. His ability to make them relevant to devoted readers of music blogs is probably due to the fact that he’s previously worked with Brooklyn folk outfits Doveman and Stars Like Fleas. Amidon’s first record, last year’s impressive But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, was a similar collection of traditional folk songs, although it more explicitly juxtaposed the old and the new by placing the likes of “Roll on John” right next to a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.”

That album was also a much more spartan affair, recorded at home with a single accompanist. While All Is Well doesn’t have the orchestral credits of a Sufjan Stevens record, Sigurðsson does help flesh out the arrangements; he adds strings and horns to “Saro,” and the electronics and bass on “Fall On My Knees” transform that age-worn staple into a brooding, dramatic break-up tune. Sigurðsson also gets the most he can out of Amidon’s voice, just as he did with Will Oldham on The Letting Go; while Amidon’s voice was quiet and occasionally drowned out by his guitar on But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, on All Is Well his voice is always up front in the mix. And while that voice isn’t the most powerful instrument on the record, Amidon’s vocals are generally well suited to the material – he has enough range to carry the tune, but doesn’t add anything ostentatious.

All Is Well is likely to get a lot of attention and praise, all of it deserved. Ultimately, what makes Sam Amidon’s work so worthwhile is that it has a very real and very noticeable connection to traditional music forms, but it acknowledges history without buckling under its weight. Everything on All Is Well sounds as though it could have been written this year. The songs are lively – not museum pieces – and will capture your attention whether you’re familiar with Smithsonian Folkways or not.

By Tom Zimpleman

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