Sam Amidon’s new record Lily-O was recorded with frequent collaborators Shahzad Ismaily (bass) and Chris Vatalaro (drums) in just four days at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik under the watchful eye of producer Valgeir Sigurðsson (with whom Sam has worked on two previous albums). The sessions also featured Bill Frisell, one of the leading jazz guitarists in music today. The result is a very ‘live’ sound (overdubs were kept to a minimum) which retains Sam’s trademark banjo and fingerstyle guitar playing and introspective vocal style while adding a clarity and sense of space to the proceedings which allows Bill Frisell’s contributions to shine through.
Of the opening Walkin’ Boss, Sam recalls that not only was it one of the first songs he learned on the banjo, it was also the first tune this lineup recorded in Iceland. Hustled along by Shahzad Ismaily’s pulsing bass, Bill Frisell adds some well-placed fuzz guitar while Chris Vatalaro’s snare/kick drum rhythm keeps it all on track. Down The Line eases up a little in tempo if not intensity; Chris’ percussion is still very much to the fore while Bill’s confident explorations make the most of the available space without swamping Sam’s vocals.
Blue Mountains is a traditional song given a modern arrangement; the musical tension between Sam’s plaintive fiddle and Bill’s chiming, treated guitar make it one of the record’s highlights. It’s followed by Pat Do This, Pat Do That which balances a very rootsy-sounding banjo against Shahzad’s Moog synth and Chris’ flutes (“and his piano moment”, according to the sleeve notes) to come up with something quite unique.
The lengthy title track Lily-O covers a lot of ground. Opening with Sam’s a capella singing, Bill’s treated guitar easing in after a minute or so before Sam’s acoustic guitar and Shahzad’s understated bass join in. Some delicate, twinkling synths float around Bill’s quietly cascading guitar and Chris’ ever-inventive drumming as the piece builds to a swirling climax in a manner that reminds me, curiously, of some of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s earlier collaborations before quietly ebbing away to leave just Sam’s voice over a repeating electronic guitar loop.
Groundhog Variations offers a passing nod to the short instrumental Groundhog from last year’s Bright Sunny South album (FRUK review here), although the longer form of this piece gives Shahzad’s walking bass a chance to shine behind the multiple guitars and synthesised blowing winds, while Chris shows considerable maturity and restraint in being able to sit this one out.
A more indie/folk feel permeates the anthemic Won’t Turn Back. Very much Sam’s showcase as a singer and guitar player, it makes an interesting counterpart to some of the more experimental pieces on display here. A short piano interlude introduces Maid Lamenting before leading into an unusual arrangement which sits at the boundaries of jazz and folk to good effect.
The much-missed Rosa Lee Watson originally penned Your Long Journey, which first saw the light of day on the classic The Watson Family album (Smithsonian Folkways, 1963), and this version by Sam and his collaborators manages to keep the mournful feel of the original while updating this well-known song with sensitivity and grace. Opening as a solo piece with just guitar and voice, it makes the band’s appearance at the halfway mark all the more effective. The simplicity of the arrangement serves the song well and it’s rapidly becoming my favourite track on the album.
Devotion, the closing track, is an arrangement of an early nineteenth century tune by Alexander Johnson to a lyric written by Isaac Watts in 1719 and the combination of this historic material with such a spontaneous-feeling musical style makes a satisfying and entirely appropriate finish to a record which isn’t afraid to draw on the musical roots of its contributors while, at the same time, remaining thoroughly contemporary in outlook. An enjoyable, fascinating and very accessible listen.
Review by: Helen Gregory