Release Date: May 14, 2013
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Neo-Traditional Folk
During every long journey there are moments of looking back, of breathing in the vast traveled landscape as an inspiration to tighten the straps and press onward. After shaping a singular career out of evocative assemblages from a trove of songbooks—plucking everything from Irish reels to shape-note hymns to Top 40 pop—Sam Amidon uses Bright Sunny South as an opportunity to sit with a talented core of players and contemplate the distance he’s covered. This homeward glance might seem a redundancy, given how fully roots and genealogies of song already inform Amidon’s craft, but Bright Sunny South continues Amidon’s commitment to turn passed-down traditions into a progressive, knowing form of music.
For someone whose young life was built upon the values of folklore, Sam Amidon hasn’t exclusively conformed to its earthy traditions. Which doesn’t in any way relate with his compositional output – all of Amidon’s records begin with the faint, desolate strings of an acoustic guitar, and his affinity for Appalachian song forms is the thread that binds all of his full-length pursuits. But there’s always a welcoming distance that lets his songs take diverging paths, handled with a sense of openness and vulnerability.
Over recent years Sam Amidon has discreetly established himself as a distinctive voice in modern folk music, releasing albums that infuse newness and freshness into the genre. His music shows him to be a respecting and informed admirer of the genre’s traditions without ever being overly deferential. Bright Sunny South is his debut for Nonesuch and its contents reinforce these points.
Modern folksinger Sam Amidon's sound is an eternally open-hearted one, with optimism coming through in even the most desperate of his tunes. With Bright Sunny South, Amidon continues his trend of reworking and rearranging mostly traditional folk tunes, translating their rustic tones into a richly orchestrated, indie, chamber pop language and in a way, extending their journey of being passed down through the generations. The songs are lovely to begin with, masterfully selected from an endless canon of obscure mountain ballads and country hymns, but Amidon's pristine arrangements are the voice of the album, often brimming with unexpected shifts and subtleties.
Sam Amidon is a folk singer, multi-instrumentalist and reworker and arranger of songs, whose intriguing new album mixes sparse, no-nonsense treatments of traditional material with unexpected jazz themes and experiment. Now based in London, he was brought up in Vermont, where his parents were noted singers of shape-note hymns; 36 years ago they were part of a group who recorded Weeping Mary for the same label this album is on, and it reappears here with his deadpan vocals matched against a quirky, edgy wash of sound. Another hymn, He's Taken My Feet, starts with Amidon's delicate guitar work, but the mood is transformed first by a drifting solo from jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and then by an extraordinary cacophony of noise.
For Sam Amidon, there is no difference between an old rural folk ballad and a new urban radio jam. On his new album, Bright Sunny South, he covers both Mariah Carey and Tim McGraw, who join the illustrious ranks of Dock Boggs, children's folk singer Ella Jenkins, R. Kelly, Tears for Fears, and Katrina and the Waves in his catalogue of covers. He brings the sentiments from each song into his own weird world-- some Appalachian mountain holler, essentially removed from time.
The albums that stick with you, and I mean really stick with you, the one’s that become woven into the fabric of your very existence are often some of the most unassuming. More often that not, they enter your life under some magical circumstance, soundtracking it for months at a time and leaving an indelible mark on your memories. It is usually without warning they will seep into your consciousness evoking such strong emotional connections to a time, a place or a person that they can often be hard to return to.
Sam Amidon’s strength lies in his interpretive imagination, typically revisiting traditional roots and folk music but occasionally digging up, say, an R. Kelly nugget. His reinventions have ranged from spare and stripped-down to more complex and fuller, as developed on 2010’s I See the Sign. His latest work, Bright Sunny South, ostensibly works as a return to a simpler sound, but it’s simpler only through the lens of a greater maturity, with Amidon’s ability to stay out of a song’s way as well as to shove his way into something more exploratory being a major asset.
By putting out LPs comprised of reworked traditional pieces, Sam Amidon casts himself as a folk artist in one of the truest senses of the term: receiving songs from elder generations, and organically adapting them through performance to the point at which the concept of ownership not only dissolves, but doesn’t even matter. His earlier collections may have ranged in tone – from the sparseness of earlier records, to the breezier, full blooded optimism of his recent I See The Sign – but have all essentially settled as reasonably straight pitched interpretations of the source material, with excellent results. Bright Sunny South complicates the picture a bit, but without compromising either the quality of the material, nor the authenticity of Amidon's folk credentials.
Sam AmidonBright Sunny South(Nonesuch)Rating: 3 out of 5 stars Being born and raised in Vermont but now living in London (with wife Beth Orton) gives Sam Amidon a unique perspective on the (mostly) traditional, acoustic folk of both continents. His fourth album in six years follows the blueprint of the previous ones by drastically rearranging a few pop songs and making them seem like the centuries old music that dominates his catalog. Mariah Carey’s “Shake it Off” and Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” get the nod this time.
As a child growing up in Vermont, Sam Amidon used to listen in as his parents and their friends partook in the American tradition of shape-note singing: a centuries-old form of music involving neighbors gathering to harmonize folksongs sans accompaniment. Now 31, Amidon frequently recalls hearing these first songs he ever knew, and in doing so re-imagines them into formations so wildly different that they’re sometimes unrecognizable. On his seventh LP, Bright Sunny South, Amidon scores again by taking these traditionals – with a couple modern covers thrown in – and stripping them of their inherent familiarity in favor of melodies and arrangements that match the complexity of his long relationships with them.
Clever re-inventor, overly ambitious re-animator, whiz-bang music folklorist, fusty archivist —call him what you'd like. Sam Amidon's approach to music-making — disassembling and then reconstructing antiquated sacred songs, secular ballads, and folk tunes, along with the occasional modern-day chart-topper — leaves the 31-year-old singer/songwriter with more than his share of fixed labels, even while his finished product eschews them all together. I mean, what do you call a cover of Mariah Carey's sprightly 'Shake It Off' that's been stripped of its lacquer finish, and then doused in tar and grit? Progressive bubblegum folk? It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
‘Bright Sunny South’ opens with a statement of intent. A downcast adieu to family, its subject’s search for independence is imperative: “I must be going, for here I cannot stand / I’m going in defence of our own native land.” As an opener, it’s certainly apt - Amidon recently having left the comfort of Reykjavik-based label Bedroom Community to find a new home at Nonesuch - the very same label that released his parents’ music (they sang as part of the Word Of Mouth Chorus) almost forty years ago. It’s no wonder that he’s searching for autonomy now.But we can’t take these words too literally - they’re not the singer’s own, after all.