“He’s Taken My Feet” is an old song, a hymn that has been sung in churches for 100 years, celebrating one of the humblest moments of the New Testament, when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. It’s a homespun melody, ringed in by melancholy but buoyed by the hope of resurrection. Its simplicity, humility and certainty are as foreign to our age as hoop skirts and mutton chops, but when Sam Amidon strips it down, as he does in its ghostly opening, it seems perfectly modern. It is streamlined and unfussy, but like a Bauhaus building, rather than a Shaker box. Later on, a lovely trumpet solo (that’s Kenny Wheeler, a free jazz titan, who has played with Derek Bailey and Anthony Braxton) shades the tune further towards the modern day, and, near the track’s end, it twists suddenly into drum-pounding, guitar-distorting, improvisatory mayhem. It’s the kind of track that you could really only do if you were Sam Amidon, raised on the folk and shape-note-singing customs of rural Vermont and educated as a young man in the post-modern anti-traditions of free jazz.
Bright Sunny South is Amidon’s fourth full-length album, a return, according to the artist, to the simplicity of his debut But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted. Simplicity, though, is a relative term. Amidon is working again with post-classical composer Doveman to make spare but often surprising choices about instruments and accompaniments. The work may well be less intricately chopped, spliced and cross-hatched than 2011’s <i>I See the Sign</i>, but it is also pretty far from a traditional folk album.
For one thing, consider the covers. Amidon turns Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off” melancholy and spectral, its phrases framed by minor piano chords. There’s a desolate plain-ness to Amidon’s delivery, a gravitas that weights even phrases about Calgon with scriptural meaning. Or “My Old Friend” by the country star Tim McGraw, here shedding layers like a boy peeling clothes off for a dip in a lake, every discarded layer an occasion for lightness and joy. Amidon makes chart topping hits sound like folk songs, and folk songs like indie rock experiments, and everything sound pure, natural, clean and heartbreaking.
I love the feel of this album, the warmth and clarity of its arrangements, the way that instruments well up in surprising ways around Amidon’s wavery resonances. I love the raspy ornery-ness of “As I Roved Out,” the ragged bluesy howl of the singing, the straight-up drumming, the way that Amidon asks “What is it, banjo?” and the banjo answers in flurries and eddies of notes. I love the way “I Wish I Wish” layers cool, beautiful jazz tones over a plaintive country song, and the way that Kenny Wheeler’s trumpet gives voice to memory, loss and contemplation in, perhaps, the loveliest instrumental touch on an album full of them. This is a subtle album, one that feels sparse at first but opens up to reveal sudden patches of lushness. It is not one thing (folk) or the other (post-rock, post-classical experiment) or even, really a blend of the two, but rather something fresh and idiosyncratic and worth exploring.
DOWNLOAD: “I Wish I Wish” “He’s Taken My Feet”