OK, so maybe Sam Amidon deals in the old, filling his records with worked-over versions of traditional folk songs. But what makes him so compelling is that the results are hardly as antiquated as the source material may be. Along with help from his pals — mainly people like composer Nico Muhly and Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett — Amidon mines an old America and twists it up into something new and awfully strange. You know, like America now.
He also rarely repeats himself. So where his last album, All Is Well, brilliantly smudged every song in a ghostly haze, I See the Sign (as the title implies) has a sharp clarity to it. Opening track “How Come That Blood” shows that shift right up front. Amidon uses faint elements like brushed drums and muted banjo to work up a tense paranoia behind the confessional murder ballad. And just to remind us he’s not stuck in the past, the song unravels in a cluster of electronic blips, the organic sounds giving in to overpowering ones and zeroes.
Even some of the quietest numbers here sound more straightforward, though Amidon’s curled voice still wanders softly through them. “Way Go Lily” has an unsettling quiet for a song with lines like “gotta rule with a shotgun sometimes.” And “Cold and Snow,” another murder ballad (once popularized by the Grateful Dead), may be the most threadbare track here, but Amidon cuts the track with a clear voice rather than melting into it. These songs are nice counterpoints to the more tense momonts on the record, like the full-throated demand of “You Better Mind,” which Beth Orton sings brilliantly along with Amidon.
Of course, none of these songs are quite as strange as “Relief.” In an album full of traditional songs, this one is a reworking of an unreleased R. Kelly track. And it is perhaps the best moment on the record. Muhly whips up lilting strings over unassuming banjo riffs, and Amidon sings the lyrics — which are as foolish in places as they are hopeful — with honest feeling. There’s nothing winking about this take, and perhaps that’s what works for Amidon. He’s a strange guy, with some strange ideas in his songs, but he’s playing it straight all the way.
Whether he’s pulling from the Alan Lomax catalog or Tears for Fears or R. Kelly, Amidon’s objective is the same: to make a weirdly excellent song. His song. And while I See the Sign might not quite measure up to the staggering All Is Well, this is still a hell of an album. One that, like the songs that populate it, could resonate for a good long while.