WRITTEN BY: John Peterson
Sam Amidon makes old music feel thoroughly modern. Being raised by folk-musician parents, Amidon has never been a stranger to the sounds and stories of folk music. He started his musical journey as a fiddle player, but has since picked up the banjo and the guitar, and continues to make a name for himself as a progressive folk artist. Rarely writing his own songs (2017’s The Following Mountain being his only album comprised of mostly original music), Amidon instead turns to music of the past. Well-known for taking traditional folk tunes and completely reimagining them, his latest self-titled album (released October 23rd on Nonesuch Records), sees a return to these roots.
On what Amidon considers his “fullest realization to date of his artistic vision,” he produces yet another album made up entirely of covers. Perhaps the label “cover” does a disservice to Amidon’s craft, however. Rather than delivering these songs as they would be traditionally performed, Amidon picks apart the elements that form their constitution, and pieces them together again to create a completely new image. Though his origins lie in the conventional music of a lost history of America, Amidon’s final product is anything but conventional. On Sam Amidon, the singer’s rustic croon is supported by banjos and guitars of course, but it is also surrounded by new age synths and sonic textures, an atmosphere that’s perhaps inimitable in the traditionally live setting of folk music.
Such a unique style shows an artist fascinated by the stories and melodies of a former generation, but also one that is forward thinking, recontextualizing works for a modern time. There’s a certain universal quality to folk tunes. They speak of an unfamiliar time period, yet their subjects remain relatable to this day. Loss, love, hardship. Many of these serious themes would be accompanied by uncompromisingly joyous instrumentation. Picture a campfire of musicians, yipping and strumming as they tell the sorry tale of a recently deceased boy. This is the same story that Amidon seeks to tell on “Reuben,” but its upbeat mood is tainted with the knowledge of a tragic event. The driving banjo and drums propel the track forward, but the solemn lyrical delivery of Amidon and the wispy saxophone of labelmate Sam Gendel provide emotional nuances left out of traditional folk music.
Along with Gendel, Sam Amidon is joined by a number of other longtime collaborators, including his wife, Beth Orton, and multi-instrumentalist, Shahzad Ismaily. These recordings, although thoroughly produced, maintain the excitement and improvisatory nature of live music. On the album’s second track, “Pretty Polly,” the only aspect that remains grounded is Amidon’s squeaky voice. Behind him, various guitars, woodwinds, and synths drift in and out of the picture. They converse, as musicians do, speaking when they have something to say and leaving room to listen when they do not. In a similar fashion to his last album (although less experimentally or successfully), Sam Amidon presents itself as intensely ambient, finding a groove or a feeling and sitting with it for the whole song. Many of the tracks exist in a constant limbo, comfortably ambling side to side rather than moving directly forward. The album is like a drumroll, leading the listener on a looping journey. Although sometimes this brush with infinity feels wholly serene and pure, it also craves a resolution, a conclusion or destination that is never truly offered.
Taking simple folk melodies and stories and repurposing them, Sam Amidon has found a strange niche in the music industry. His sound is uniquely torn between the communal legacy of traditional folk and the playful atmospheres of modern music. Songs like “Spanish Merchant’s Daughter” take on fantastical new meanings as they become recontextualized to a world unfamiliar to their bygone settings. Amidon’s quavering and strained voice belies his complete comfort in the music he creates. He asks the listener to sit with him as he tells a story, one that feels entirely removed from today’s physical reality, but nonetheless attached to the immutable emotions of life.