Sam Amidon knows how to juice the drama out of a folk song. His version of the old murder ballad "Lily-O" — from which his new album, Lily-O, gets its name — begins with a solo voice, but by the time the story reaches its bloody climax, the music has swelled with jangling drones and a roar of electric guitar.
That roar of guitar comes from the great Bill Frisell, who joins Amidon's trio for this set of 10 songs. Frisell is a perfect foil for Amidon. Both artists love American folk music — Amidon grew up in a folk-music family in Vermont — but with a sense of adventure, not reverence. Amidon describes his repertoire as "recomposed folk songs." "Blue Mountain," for example, is a collage: a melody from one song, words from another, and a guitar riff he'd kept on the shelf for years, waiting for its moment.
Amidon and his musicians recorded these songs during four days in a studio in Iceland, and you can tell they were enjoying themselves. Every little unexpected twist shimmers with casual originality. Amidon's voice is relaxed and silky, even when he growls like an old-timer, as in the banjo song "Walking Boss."
In spite of subject matter that's often dark, the music on Lily-O somehow feels deeply reassuring. Amidon is not exactly a folk revivalist, nor has he any interest in writing songs himself. But his highly personal approach opens a window on the American past and lets us feel it like nothing else around.
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