On Lily-O, as with much of Sam Amidon‘s catalog, songs are sourced from traditional folk tunes. These are songs passed down through generations, and Amidon looks at them with great scrutiny. His versions are not nostalgic or stuck in time, but vividly reimagined.
The title track tells the story of a girl being stabbed on her wedding day, finding herself forced to write her will — doling out her bloody clothes and lifelong pain and suffering to family members. It starts a cappella and builds up slowly, adding a sweetly plucked, straightforward acoustic guitar melody, then subtle layers of guitar noodling. Eventually the acoustic guitar gives way to a distorted squeal and the initially gentle refrain of “Oh, Lily-O” turns into a vocal cord-straining yelp.
The Vermont-born Amidon is not doing anything deliberately freaky like Devendra Banhart, nor is he forcing a down-home aesthetic like the Mumfords or Lumineers. His approach is more as an auteur. Amidon is doing to folk what Arthur Russell did to disco and dance music: The components are taken context-free and mixed around. He can recognize the patterns of bluegrass or jazz or indie rock without being bound to them. The result is compelling and can appeal to longtime fans of the genre or to the more avant-garde listener.
There’s the picking-and-stomping of “Walkin’ Boss” and “Pat Do This, Pat Do That.” But there are also very un-folky distorted guitar lines and offbeat percussion flourishes. While Amidon’s previous albums have featured lush orchestral accompaniment, Lily-O is stripped down. It is the product of a semi-improvised recording session with bassist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Chris Vatalaro and renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. The four started with Amidon’s basic song structures and created swirling textures around him.
Although the history these songs carry around is not central to Amidon’s versions, he inserts some of his own. “Walkin’ Boss” was one of the first songs he ever learned to play on banjo. And Frisell has been a key musical inspiration ever since a teenage Amidon saw him on a New York City visit. They have had collaborative live performances since 2011.
Lily-O‘s folk and jazz sides are not compartmentalized or turned on and off at will; Amidon doesn’t work in that type of binary. The distance between the two worlds plays as much a part as either side does individually. Amidon has figured out how to travel between both worlds and we are able to live vicariously through him.