One of the best records of traditional Appalachian folk songs ever recorded, and that's probably damning it with faint praise.
One of the odder pleasures available to the critic is that of reading your old work in the face of late-blooming love; those albums where, due to the unfortunate realities of time, we turn in the review before we really get what the music means to us. Scattered among all the pieces I've written elsewhere are a handful of positive but (it seems now) curiously restrained pieces, strange in retrospect because in the weeks and months afterwards I'd find myself turning to the work in question more often than I would have thought. It's wonderful to have something new and bright smack you hard in the chest and change your world forever, but sometimes instead of that rush of love you kindle something more akin to a low-key friendship with the album, and by the time you notice you've been listening to practically nothing else for a few days the realisation is suffused with a pleasure no less real than the more emphatic kind.
I mention this in the context of Samamidon for two reasons: Their debut But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted is an excellent example of the phenomena, and in light of the 9 I'm giving his follow-up to it I want to make clear that I've been living with All Is Well for a significant time. The lexical confusion in that sentence is deliberate; Sam Amidon is the young man at least ostensibly responsible for the music on this disc, and Samamidon is the group that he leads and sings for. Last time Amidon was accompanied by his friend Thomas Bartlett (whose rather wonderful band Doveman Amidon also plays in) and this time Amidon decamped to Iceland to work with Bedroom Community and its founder, Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson. Whereas But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted is a charmingly deadpan, sparse work, this time Amidon is surrounded by the small but potent orchestra arranged by Nico Muhly (whose own resume is already rather ridiculous, and again features Björk).
Amidon thus far in his career has shown flawless taste in collaborators; both Bartlett and Muhly have had exquisitely tuned senses of how to surround his basic tracks with sounds and performances not just complimentary but relevatory. The horns, strings and piano on All Is Well don't drown out Amidon's guitar and banjo, and don't just play along to the melody -- they loom in and out of view, curl in the corners, provide a sense of space and movement to the music nearly unknown in any of Samamidon's contemporaries. The highlight of the album, and clearest example of what a stunning job Muhly and Amidon's other collaborators have done, is quasi-single "Saro" -- like everything else here, an adaptation of an old traditional folk song. Amidon reharmonized all of the songs he chose, and I can't track down any other version that comes close to the delicate power of Samamidon's version. It's a song about leaving someone behind, from an age where you couldn't just fly back or call or email them, and like most of his adaptations it's both historically distant and painfully relevant. The softly interlocking horns and lilting flute on the verse are gorgeous, the strings on the chorus lift the whole song up, and then when the horns come back...
I've had four or five months to try and figure out how to express what "Saro" sounds like in words, and I haven't come close. It's the apotheosis of All Is Well, but far from the only worthwhile moment. "Wild Bill Jones" (with Sam's brother Stefan on drums) highlights how strikingly Amidon's performance interacts with the subject matter of the traditional songs he's chosen. It's a murder ballad turned inside out; our narrator comes across Wild Bill Jones talking to the girl the narrator loves. He tells Wild Bill to leave her alone, Wild Bill refuses, and the narrator shoots the boy dead. "He rambled and he scrambled all along the ground / And he let out a dreadful moan / He looked in the face of his darling true love / Saying, 'Honey, you are left all alone'". Amidon's mournful tone even when speaking for the boastful, bloodthirsty gunslinger and the track's stately progression make grotesquely clear the meanness and pointlessness of the murder. This is strong stuff, and gorgeously wrought.
Given the trickster nature revealed by the shorts on his YouTube channel, I'm not sure what Amidon would make of the weight I would put on the emotional power of his performance of these songs, and I'm also surprised that All Is Well retains consistently such sober, clear-eyed power. Maybe that part of his personality comes out in the range of affect throughout: the children's clapping song "Little Johnny Brown" is turned into mood music for the world's most oblique alien abduction scene (complete with feedback squeaks), "Wedding Dress" with its horns parping past like telephone poles on the highway is the most exuberant song I've ever heard about sewing, and even those tired of it thanks to Oh Brother Where Art Thou should find a place in their heart for the trembling, heartsick version of "O Death" found here.
And that's not even getting into the note that "All Is Well" itself sends the album out on. A song about embracing death with joy, it's an endless escalation that ought to be disturbing and moving to materialists and believers in an afterlife alike. Wth just Amidon and Muhly's piano it's already beautiful, but as the horns and strings enter when Amidon repeats the title, it's almost unbearable. I can't imagine actually playing it at a funeral -- it's a little too on the nose, too devastating in its wonder. Samamidon has worked several different wonders with All Is Well -- giving these beautiful old songs new life, drastically transforming the music of Samamidon without losing any of the power of their debut, providing in 48 short minutes life, death, love, romance, murder, forgiveness, anguish, hope, loss and magic. I thought by now the album might have settled for me into 'just music' as so many loved albums do, but I still get chills when I listen to it. Amidon is still young; I await his next move with wonder and a little trepidation.