Vermont-born folk revivalist Sam Amidon first embarked on a career in 2001 with his Solo Fiddle album of traditional Irish instrumentals followed by the live multimedia performance Home Alone Inside My Head in 2003. In the 11 years following he’s gone on to release 4 studio album which lovingly traverse the nooks and crannies of the American folk tradition with a flair only someone with Amidon’s command of the genre could. One half of a folkie power couple (Amidon is married to acclaimed British singer-songwriter Beth Orton), Amidon must know the strength of having great musicians in his life and his latest album Lily-O sees him once again team up with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson (Björk, Damon Albarn, Feist) as well as drummer Chris Vatalaro, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and somewhat surprisingly, legendary avant-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.
Lily-O is a collection of traditional songs repurposed through the prism of Amidon’s own life experiences and with the ubiquity of pop-culture’s obsession with all things acoustic seemingly on the wane, it’s the artists like Sam Amidon (who have kept the folk legacy alive long before and will tend to it long after) who will survive. There are no stomping, Mumford-esque wail-along chants or Sheeran-y hooks to be found here. The audience members who are leaping off this bandwagon in droves might not know what to make of the ten songs on Lily-O. They sound kind of outdated, and that’s exactly the point.
The bouncy banjo that kicks off opener Walkin’ Boss (incidentally one of the first songs Amidon learned to play) nimbly plays around some intricately syncopated percussion and Frisell’s unmistakable interjections. With all the players on the record having some sort of background in improvisation, the looseness in the interplay is incredibly refreshing. Frisell absolutely shines again on Down The Line, which rocks a lot harder than a lot of folk-purists may be comfortable with, but is infinitely improved by doing so.
Frisell and Amidon have been collaborating on-and-off since 2011 and they make a truly natural, if a little oddball pair. There’s an underlying parallel between the honest, gravely rasp in Sam’s voice and the untethered experimentalism of Bill’s playing and this relationship is only bolstered by a rhythm section as sympathetic (yet still inspiringly inventive) as Ismaily and Vatalaro. Blue Mountains is possibly the most modern sounding thing on Lily-O with its trigger-tight drums juxtaposing the languid fiddle beautifully and the Appalachian hoedown Pat Do This, Pat Do That wouldn’t sound out of place on the legendary O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack were it not for Frisell and Sigurðsson’s uncanny knack for infusing electronic ambience with real instrumentation.
The nearly nine-minute title track takes some pretty tangential turns (some truly sublime, others a little tedious) and Groundhog Variations sees Frisell certainly take some liberties with the number of dissonant jazz notes permissible in a folk song. The dynamic arc of Won’t Turn Back is truly a thing of wonder and its jauntily improvised piano outro counterpoints the song’s gravitas with a wink and a smile.
The sense of restraint throughout the album is truly remarkable and exemplified by the hushed build of Maid Lamenting and textures with which Frisell imbues the aptly named and otherwise band-less Your Lone Journey. The record draws to a warm hearted close with the gorgeous bowed double-bass and what shall henceforth be called “Frisell-ectronic” ambience of Devotion.
Lily-O is truly a record unto itself in today’s climate. It seems fitting that it should find a home on the proudly off-kilter boutique label Nonesuch Records because it’s hard to imagine this kind of music resonating with the typical major-label demographic. That’s definitely for the best though as the audience Amidon deserves may not be massive, but that would hopefully suggest they’d take the time to dig a little deeper on a record like this and catch some of the subtly nuanced beauty below the surface.