SAM AMIDON – “Lily-O” (Nonesuch CD)
The final track on “Lily-O,” a hauntingly beautiful new album by the folk singer Sam Amidon, begins in resonant quiet, with the droning overtones of what sounds like a Tibetan singing bowl. Soon, you’re aware of an electric guitar blended into the mix, followed by a more clearly articulated acoustic guitar part, in lilting cadence.
Mr. Amidon’s calm, self-contained voice arrives a minute into the song — “Devotion,” an Appalachian shape-note hymn composed in 1818, based on poetry written in England a century earlier. The lyrics welcome death as a doorway, turning in earnest toward eternity, and Mr. Amidon sings them evenly, building each new phrase upon the last.
“Lily-O” is the second of Mr. Amidon’s albums released by Nonesuch, and like its predecessor “Bright Sunny South,” it consists mainly of reframed traditional songs. Mr. Amidon again plays banjo, fiddle and guitar, all with plain-spoken grace; his rhythm partners are the bassist Shahzad Ismaily and the drummer Chris Vatalaro. Mr. Amidon’s singing is unforced but sturdy, and possibly playing with your notions of guilelessness.
Whatever has happened to bring American folk song back into style, it rests on some ideal of rough-hewed authenticity. So it’s a meaningful subversion that Mr. Amidon works with the producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, who recorded the album in his studio in Iceland, and the guitarist Bill Frisell, whose vision of Americana runs heartfelt but not hidebound.
The album could easily have been credited as an Amidon-Frisell collaboration, rather than a solo album, for all of its silvery sheen and echoing filigree. But Mr. Amidon owns the liberties taken with these songs: the title track, which begins a cappella and ends in a semiabstract swirl; “Blue Mountains,” with its brittle rhythm programming; “Walkin’ Boss,” with its clatter-boom beat and pedal delay. His version of “Groundhog,” a frisky tune associated with Doc Watson, turns ruminative, almost sinister.
But another song from the Watson repertory, the elegy “Your Long Journey,” brings out the album’s most moving performance. Mr. Amidon sings in a muted voice, trusting the lyrics to make their own impression. The song arrives near the album’s close, so its heavenward glance doubles as a seamless transition.
NATE CHINEN, Oct 2014