Sam Amidon, ‘Lily-O’ – Album Review
It'd be too easy to classify Sam Amidon's latest record, 'Lily-O,' as just folk. Yes, he reimagines traditional folk tunes from years ago and puts his own complex, personal touch on them -- but he does so in such a way that significantly distinguishes them from the originals.
Trying to file 'Lily-O' away in one single category does it and its creator a great disservice. Amidon's discerning and staggering vocals are built on top of an ever-changing musical foundation -- one that harkens memories of Woody Guthrie-era folk, modern-day bluegrass and staggering instrumental rock and roll.
'Lily-O' opens with 'Walkin’ Boss,' an established folk song that far exceeds Amidon’s time spent on this earth. Perhaps one of the most famous recordings of ‘Walkin’ Boss’ is from Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley from the early ‘60s. With the banjo at center-stage, the song is upbeat and a clear indication of Amidon’s musical skill, as well as his appreciation for and understanding of the folk greats.
The sound of the track, however, is not necessarily typical of the entire album. Directly following the bluegrass of ‘Walkin’ Boss’ comes the brooding melodies of ‘Down the Line,’ which finds Amidon reimagining more Doc Watson lyrics, this time from the original ‘Georgie Buck.’ With scaling electric guitars and crashing percussion, ‘Down the Line’ magically ebbs and flows for five minutes -- a stark contrast to that of the album opener.
The young musician's crowning achievement on ‘Lily-O’ comes in the nearly nine-minute long title-track, expertly placed in the middle of the album’s sequencing. It’s a heartbreaking song that was featured in ‘The Oxford Book of Ballads’ in 1910 under the name ‘The Cruel Brother.’ Over the course of more than 100 years, the song has seen many different variations -- but Amidon’s is quite certainly the most ruminative. From his fervent and sorrowful vocals to the constantly expanding music of guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Shahzad Ismaly and drummer Chris Vatalaro, ‘Lily-O’ escalates about halfway in and then finds Amidon and company beautifully bringing it back to an otherworldly conclusion.
Those dreamlike sounds created on ‘Lily-O’ no doubt stem from the unique recording process. Spending four days in a studio in Reykjavik, Iceland with his band, Amidon knocked out these folk interpretations with, essentially, no overdubs, doing it live.
The rest of the record finds equally enchanting songs to that of the title-track, like 'Blue Mountains' and the despondent 'Your Lone Journey,' as well as more playful songs like 'Pat Do This, Pat Do That' and our personal favorite, 'Groundhog Variations.' But while each song stands firmly on its own, the experience of 'Lily O' should be had in an uninterrupted period of 47 minutes, consuming the record front to back.
'Lily-O' is a hard album to describe; on the surface, fans get gorgeous folk, bluegrass and Americana arrangements -- but the true meaning of the music lies much deeper. It's found in the complex bedrock created by the band, with Amidon firmly at the helm.