Sam Amidon
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Sam Amidon

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Nonesuch announces May's 'Bright Sunny South' LP

Well-loved independent folkie Sam Amidon will release his next album with the estimable Nonesuch Records, Brooklyn Vegan reports. According to the label's website, Bright Sunny South will be available May 14. The set was produced by Amidon with an assist from Thomas "Doveman" Bartlett (Iron & Wine, the National, Sharon Van Etten) and British engineer Jerry Boys (Buena Vista Social Club, R.E.M.). Jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler will appear, while Amidon plays banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, and piano.

The Vermont-via-London musician explained in a statement, "There was an atmospheric quality to my last two records; those albums are like a garden of sounds, but this one is more of a journey, a winding path. The band comes rushing in and then they disappear. It comes from more of a darker, internal space."

Speaking of key players moving in and out of the picture, the first taste of the record is "My Old Friend," a song about holding good memories close even if the person you made them with is no longer around. The music is beautifully bucolic, making good on the forthcoming album's name by bathing Americana instrumentation in light, loose atmosphere. It's all over so quickly that you might have to hit play twice. - SPIN


Sam's I See The Sign is Metacritic's #11 Best Album of 2010 - The American folk singer's third albums features reworkings of both traditional tunes and more contemporary songs by the likes of R. Kelly. - Metacritic


There is an air of butter-wouldn't-melt impishness about American folk singer Sam Amidon, something teasing that keeps you on your toes. He gives this impression partly because he has the curly mop and wide eyes of an overgrown five-year-old. But it is more than that: his whole performance is built on wrong-footing his audience, in ways that make us laugh, then shock us into rapt attention.

In honour of this jazz-club venue, he opens with a tribute to the artists who may have performed here before him, a deadpan pastiche of free-form jazz that skids into a comedy skit. Then, bang: he yelps the opening lines of I See the Sign, a traditional song to which he has given a haunted, ragged new setting. If he comes across here like Will Oldham in his spare, early Palace Brothers days, the shape is only temporary: the next song, How Come That Blood, is a raucous banjo thrash in the style of 1920s singer Dock Boggs. And the next, Rain and Snow, is a murder ballad made infinitely more disturbing and eerie by Amidon's unconventional phrasing, the blankness in his voice.

Very little of Amidon's material is "original": a folk singer in the traditional sense, what he does is craft old songs in new ways. His originality – which impresses throughout – lies in the choice of song, and how he treats them. Nursery rhymes, a love tune by Big Star, gnarled gospel, an R&B ballad by R Kelly: it is all equal to Amidon. Some are rendered strange, as he experiments with the speed or volume of his singing, or fragments his guitar work; some become communal contemplations of love or the burden of being. Either way, it is startling, moving stuff. - The Guardian


Listen to the opening song on 29-year-old singer Sam Amidon's recently released third album, "I See the Sign," and you'll be hard-pressed to identify it as folk music. Jazz drumming, flutters of orchestral strings, and mini-Moog outbursts move around Mr. Amidon's plaintive voice like commuters around dawdling tourists at rush hour. And yet, beneath the thoroughly modern surface of "How Come That Blood" lies a haunting murder ballad that traces its roots back to 1765.

On Friday and Saturday, the venerated Chelsea art institution the Kitchen will present "Home Alone Inside My Head: An Evening with Sam Amidon," a showcase combining the Brooklyn resident's banjo and guitar interpretations of old folk songs with a multimedia presentation featuring his hand-drawn animation and short videos as accompaniment.

The musician can claim a lineage to the music: His parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, have been active members in the Vermont folk scene since the 1970s, playing festivals and schools, helping to restore folk music to the state's education curriculum.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Amidon (along with his younger brother, Stefan) has played music all his life. "My first concert was before 400 school teachers when I was 6 years old," he said over the phone from Hamburg, Germany, where he had just performed. "But one thing my parents didn't do is tell my brother and I how to act on the stage. It looked quite odd, these two really happy parents and these two little boys that looked bored out of their minds. I loved playing and singing, but I had no idea how to behave onstage."

It wasn't long before Mr. Amidon began bucking against his parents. "They did old banjo songs, which to me was the really dorky side of folk. What was really cool to me was Irish fiddle." He relocated to New York to play free jazz and learn guitar so that he might become a session guitarist. Along the way, he played shows with childhood friend Thomas Bartlett (who records as Doveman) and art-rock collective Stars Like Fleas, and befriended Nico Muhly, the neo-classical composer and indie-rock arranger.

Then a funny trend overtook young, urbane Gothamites. "People were listening to these old field recordings of folk music," Mr. Amidon said. "It was surreal to me, as that was the nerdy stuff from my childhood. I was so embarrassed by that music. I came to New York to get away from folk, but I realized that's what I could bring to the table."

Rather than struggle to write his own songs, he found that he had a gift for adapting folk tunes and reconfiguring them. Mr. Amidon has worked closely with Messrs. Muhly and Bartlett, as well as Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, who has recorded artists ranging from American folk singer Will Oldham to Icelandic pop diva Björk. Mr. Muhly, who has arranged orchestrations for chamber-oriented pop acts like Antony and the Johnsons and Grizzly Bear, finds Mr. Amidon's singing to be particularly distinct.

"Sam's voice and delivery are amazing for reasons that are not really describable," Mr. Muhly said. "It's deadpan and comes from a variety of very American places, but resists classification. It's New England meets Appalachia meets country meets singer-songwriter."

Mr. Amidon concedes that his knowledge of folk music is not encyclopedic. He draws many of his songs from the works of Appalachian banjo player Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs and from Bessie Jones, who was discovered by folklorist Alan Lomax in the late 1950s on Georgia's Sea Islands. A particular favorite is Jones's album for children, "Put Your Hand On Your Hip, and Let Your Backbone Slip," and on "I See the Sign," Mr. Amidon tackles Jones's "Johanna the Row-di." Another live staple is a version of Jones's "Little Johnny Brown."

"It's a singing game like 'Ring Around the Rosies,'" he said of the song. "But take it out of context and the words have quite dark and creepy undertones: 'Lay your comfort down,' 'Lope like a buzzard.' There's imagery in there that you wouldn't notice it if you're just remembering it as a child."

Both onstage and on record, he revels in the weirdness inherent in these songs. "You're hearing something that hasn't really been created by only one person," he said. "You don't really know the meaning and it has a certain mystery to it because of that."

Despite Mr. Amidon's repertoire of centuries-old songs, though, - The Wall Street Journal


Sam Amidon’s singing doesn’t beat a straight path to you. It’s got some feeling, but it also seems weedy on purpose, second-guessed and underplayed. You might be unsure where he’s coming from. He’s a young folk singer — whatever that means these days, right? In this case here’s exactly what it means: Mr. Amidon was born in 1981 and raised in Vermont by parents who are group-singing leaders and storytellers. Rare for someone his age, he knows where a lot of old folk songs come from, what they can accomplish and how they might be revised.

But he must also know how earnest they can seem, so the raw core of his voice remains hidden among the tangle of musical languages on his new record, “I See the Sign.” This is an album whose repertory tells one story and its arrangements another. It includes a children’s singing game (“Way Go Lily”), a Georgia Sea Island song (“You Better Mind”) and the traditional Appalachian “Rain and Snow,” the rendering of whose title suggests that Mr. Amidon favors the version recorded by the banjoist Obray Ramsey in 1963 over one called “Cold Rain and Snow” and recorded by the Grateful Dead in 1967. And, also, um, “Relief,” by the R&B singer R. Kelly.

Playing guitar or banjo as he sings, he transforms all of them, changing their colors and loading them with trapdoors. He slows them down and rewrites their harmonies, making curious, arty, quiet pop in his own mood — ornery, sensitive, distant. “I See the Sign” is a seriously intelligent record, but never cute or overbearing; its Icelandic producer, Valgeir Sigurdsson, has left it dry and full of space, so that you hear the seams.

The songs pass through clouds of animated, rigorous arrangements of strings, woodwind and brass, written by the composer Nico Muhly; Beth Orton, strong-voiced and raw-toned, sings backing harmony; Shahzad Ismaily plays drums thoughtfully and sparingly, improvising just a little bit. It’s theoretical and handsome music, and it makes good sense of its curious point of view. BEN RATLIFF - The New York Times


Sam Amidon's idea of recomposition-- of excavating Appalachian folksongs; rearranging, repurposing, and creating a dissociation that feels uniquely contemporary-- isn't exactly unprecedented. Musicians-- like A.P. Carter, who scrambled up and down Clinch Mountain in the late 1920s, collecting local songs for the Carter Family's repertoire-- have been reinventing folk songs since before we knew to call them folk songs. That's part of what folk music is, and does. What separates Amidon from the scrum of revivalists and archivists is how modern these renditions are. I See the Sign, Amidon's third folk LP, doesn't contain any original tracks, but his interpretations are so singular that it stops mattering how (or if) these songs existed before-- all that matters is how they exist now.
Amidon grew up singing folk music in Brattleboro, Vermont; his parents were members of the Word of Mouth chorus, a community choir which performed sacred harp hymns in the 1970s. Culturally, folk music is inextricably linked to the south (and Appalachia in particular), but rural Vermont has birthed its fair share of traditional strummers (pick up Margaret MacArthur's Folksongs of Vermont for an impeccable primer). Amidon inhabits these songs comfortably, with an ease that belies a childhood spent with a fiddle in one hand and a banjo in the other.
Much of I See the Sign's success can be chalked up to its arrangements, which are fractured and frequently off-kilter; Amidon and his cabal of collaborators-- Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Shahzad Ismaily-- have been merging chamber music with indie rock for awhile now (see also: Sufjan Stevens, Thomas Bartlett, Owen Pallett, Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National), and their touch is nuanced and, on occasion, delightfully odd. Bits of percussion, distorted bursts of Moog, and hits of celesta pop up and recede, snapping into place like puzzle pieces. The arrangements are never bombastic (unlike what happens when, say, a pop artist gets paired with a philharmonic)-- instead, they're violent (the stabbing bass and scuttling percussion of opener "Here Come That Blood") or stiff and lonely (the restrained electric guitar and puffs of strings on "I See the Sign"). On "You Better Mind", Amidon, harmonizing with Beth Orton, gets backup from threatening squeals of strings: "You've got to give an account of the judgment, you better mind," they caution. Their voices are grave, concerned.
As a vocalist, Amidon is preternaturally calm, and his flat repetition of certain couplets ("Found my lost sheep," "Loose horse in the valley") feels mesmeric and mantra-like. He's poised, but never cold, and I See the Sign can play like a gospel record, with all the attendant modes and lessons. These are songs to live by (or in), and these iterations-- despite their sophistication, despite his stoicism-- never feel like museum pieces or anything less than functional.
The only non-traditional track here is a cover of R. Kelly's "Relief". On paper, the choice feels a little like a trap (R. Kelly fills an odd role for overeducated indie rockers), or at least a posture-- and while it could be didactic or a lame grasp at irony, Amidon's rendition is stunning. "What a relief to know that/ The war is over," he and Orton sing, their voices earnest and tough, rising over the album's thickest, most optimistic swells. When Amidon finds an affirmation of faith-- "What a relief to know that/ There's an angel in the sky," he sings, grateful-- it's hard not to feel that liberation deep down in your gut. - Pitchfork


Earlier this week, Sam Amidon coyly Tweeted, "Got some news for y'all", which turned out to be that the folk singer and frequent Nico Muhly collaborator was signing to Nonesuch. "My Old Friend," the first single from the forthcoming Bright Sunny South (out May 14) followed swiftly after the announcement, and it's a pristine "Thank you for the days" tune. The mix is sun-warmed with acoustic guitar, capo'd high to give it a twinkling quality, edged by small cirrus clouds of electric lead. Amidon's distinctively burring voice and oddly elongated phrasing has always given his music a faint hint of otherworldliness; it's not one he plays up here, but it is still present, and it is the fingerprint on his glowing, affectionate music. - Pitchfork


Discography

Solo Fiddle (self release, 2001)
But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted (Plug Research, 2007)
All Is Well (Bedroom Community, 2008)
I See The Sign (Bedroom Community, 2010)
Bright Sunny South (Nonesuch, 2013)

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Bio

Bright Sunny South, Sam Amidon’s Nonesuch debut is, he admits, “a lonesome record.” Despite its often elegiac, solitary feel, this is a work borne out of friendship and intensive collaboration, recorded in London with a small coterie of virtuosic multi-instrumental players: Thomas Bartlett, Shahzad Ismaily, and Chris Vatalaro. The folk songs, shape-note hymns, and country ballads that Amidon performs deal on the surface with the darkest, most fundamental of issues—the specter of death, the looming clouds of war, unquenchable longing, unrequited love. Yet there is beauty and comfort in these time-tested words and well-worn melodies and in Amidon’s simple, emotionally direct delivery of these songs, as captured here on tape by the legendary English recording engineer Jerry Boys. Like a glimpse of early sunlight peeking over a darkened mountain, they offer a kind of respite, a sense of life’s troubles shared. They also provide a patchwork portrait of Amidon himself, with each of these tunes representing a facet of the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s own history, his memories, his travels, and his discoveries.

The Vermont-born and raised, London-based Amidon’s particular gift is not to compose new songs, but to rework and repurpose traditional melodies into a striking new form that makes them feel very much his own. He delivers these songs in a hauntingly plainspoken voice, one that encompasses sadness and stoicism, vulnerability and wisdom. As Pitchfork has said, “his interpretations are so singular that it stops mattering how (or if) they existed before.” His approach to developing his repertoire has a lot in common with the appropriation techniques of visual artists who re-contextualize a familiar image, especially in the way he is able to introduce jazz-oriented and avant-garde elements into his arrangements or disrupt them with a startling burst of noise or dissonance. But it’s equally akin to quilt-making, taking swatches of someone else’s melodies and words and stitching them together with his own guitar or banjo riffs and embroidering them with fiddle, piano, trumpet, or clarinet.

Amidon expresses a broad view of what constitutes a folk tradition: Bright Sunny South features a re-arrangement of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” (from The Emancipation of Mimi) and a surprisingly poignant take on Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” (from Live Like You Were Dying, an album, Amidon notes, that ponders in a surprisingly frank manner the same life-and-death concerns as some of these century-old numbers he has revived). Those were songs that Amidon and his boyhood chum and longtime musical foil Thomas Bartlett listened to obsessively when they were on tour together, so they’re firmly stuck in his head, inextricably mixed in with the personal catalog of old-time tunes he carries inside him. And speaking of songs with a deep personal resonance, Amidon also includes a version of “Weeping Mary,” a shape-note hymn his parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, had recorded with the Vermont-based Word of Mouth Chorus for Nonesuch Records on the pioneering 1977 disc Rivers of Delight: American Folk Hymns From the Sacred Harp Tradition.

Bright Sunny South is Amidon’s fourth disc in six years and is close in spirit, he feels, to his spare 2007 debut effort, the homemade But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, in which he and fledgling producer Bartlett, recording under the group name samamidon, learned as they rolled tape: “It was very much a process of discovery for the both of us. At that point, the final take was the one where I was able to get all the way through without messing the guitar part up.” He recorded two subsequent albums with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson for the Iceland-based Bedroom Community label, All Is Well and I See the Sign, in which fellow New England native and frequent collaborator Nico Muhly contributed adventurous orchestral arrangements that artfully counterbalanced Amidon’s stark delivery. (On 2010’s I See the Sign, Amidon’s spouse Beth Orton sang with him on several tracks.)

As Amidon reflects, Bright Sunny South “went a little bit back to that interior space, the solitude of the songs of Falsehearted. There was an atmospheric quality to the last two records on Bedroom Community; the albums are like this garden of sounds. But this one is more of a journey, a winding path. The band comes rushing in and then they disappear. It comes from more of a darker, internal space.”

He sought out Jerry Boys, whose lengthy resume includes classic work in the 1970s recording English folk legends Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Sandy Denny, and Steeleye Span. Explains Amidon, “I love especially those albums with Martin Carthy. And then in the ’90s, Jerry started doing world music stuff, like Buena Vista Social Club. More importantly for me, he did the Ali Farke Touré/Toumani Diabaté duet records. Those are so beautiful. I listened to all of that. I loved that sense of documentation, the unadorned quality. E