Sam Amidon - "How Come That Blood" (I See the Sign)
Sam Amidon refers to the process of adapting the traditional Irish and Appalachian folk songs on his albums as “recomposing”. He keeps the vocals and melodies the same, but comes up with his own chords and rhythm. His new album, I See the Sign (like his previous, All is Well), also adds string and piano compositions from Nico Muhly onto the skeletal folk arrangements. Shahzad Ismaily’s percussion skilfully holds together the folk and classical arrangements (he also plays guitar on several songs, and contributes various instrumental odds and ends). Every song bears evidence of careful, meticulous updating, and while the players jettison most of the original arrangements, there’s great respect for the source material. (Even the one recent song, R. Kelly’s “Relief,” is adapted as an inspirational sing-along.)
Balancing his new arrangements with the original is not Amidon’s only challenge: There’s also the matter of giving listeners a way into the album, to keep it from being a distant, museum-quality piece of work. He pulls this off well; “You Better Mind,” a duet with Beth Orton, shows his pop sensibility, built on a repeating guitar line and a simple, memorable chorus. At other times, he and producer Valgeir Sigurđsson rely on intimate production work. The traditional “Climbing High Mountains” appears at first to contain little more than Amidon’s crystal clear vocals and guitar; the horn, string and piano are mixed in such a subtle fashion that it takes a while to appreciate the complexity of the song. And finally, he experiments with some more challenging structures. The title track, for instance, has a languid stop-start rhythm that actively resists falling into any kind of distinct, “pretty” melody. The closing “Red” also never quite finds a tempo, although the repetition of a single spiritual lyric (“Found my lost sheep”) makes it stirring in an eerie kind of way.
A final challenge may be simply figuring out how to pitch I See the Sign. Just as with All is Well (and Amidon’s 2007 album But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted), you can’t find a more urbane folk album than I See the Sign, or a more rustic classical album, or a more archival pop album. Quite simply, nobody else even attempts to do what Sam Amidon does – it’s too easy to confine traditional music to Smithsonian Folkways, or spare singer-songwriter affairs. It takes a unique kind of ambition to produce something like I See the Sign, but the wonder isn’t just that he does it, but that he does it so well.