By putting out LPs comprised of reworked traditional pieces, Sam Amidon casts himself as a folk artist in one of the truest senses of the term: receiving songs from elder generations, and organically adapting them through performance to the point at which the concept of ownership not only dissolves, but doesn’t even matter. His earlier collections may have ranged in tone – from the sparseness of earlier records, to the breezier, full blooded optimism of his recent I See The Sign – but have all essentially settled as reasonably straight pitched interpretations of the source material, with excellent results.
Bright Sunny South complicates the picture a bit, but without compromising either the quality of the material, nor the authenticity of Amidon's folk credentials. With this record, he strips back the arrangements in comparison to the showier flourishes of his preceding LP, and in employing texture more sparingly, he permits himself to create interesting dissonance between tone and content. Passages of Bright Sunny South are deceptively disorientating in execution, even as Amidon lulls us into relaxation through the ease of his delivery.
Let’s take the most ostensibly jarring facet of this LP: the inclusion of a Mariah Carey cover. And it’s not even one of her languid, silky ballads which might most easily translate to whispered acoustica. It’s the softly pumping, up-tempo R&B Emancipation of Mimi cut ‘Shake It Off’. Here, retitled as ‘Shake U Off’, the piece takes on a far more downtrodden tone, with sadness weighting its tempo to a near stop, turning the song into a vignette of its former self at a perfectly rounded one and a half minutes. Such is the confident and unapologetic ownership of the material that it might pass as Amidon’s own, while still being wholly identifiable the instant the recognition clicks. This is a masterful stroke of folk performance.
Elsewhere, the incongruities and eyebrow arches are a little subtler, more often taking the form of understated ironies between delivery and content. Take the well-known ‘Bright Sunny South’ which gives the album its name, casting the LP in the glow of an implied happy-go-lucky demeanour and positive outlook. From the top of the record, however, Amidon makes no fuss about gently undercutting this sort of expectation, with the journey set out in the lyrics painted atop a dour arrangement of gloomy heel dragging. Conversely, lines like “oh I wish to the Lord / that I’d never been born” get the treatment of throaty gusto, sung over plucky banjo and jaunty rhythms. And again, such is the naturalism of the delivery that these moments play out as slow reveals.
Throughout the record, there’s an underlying tension between what Amidon is singing and the means of his delivery – a melancholic feeling allowed to take root in the spaces between the thin arrangements, only rarely bubbling over into the textural anxiety displayed in the backend of ‘He’s Taken My Feet’. The result is his most emotionally and tonally complex LP to date. With Bright Sunny South, Amidon has taken a huge step forward as a folk artist, creating arrangements which preserve his musicianship, while deepening the maturity of his interpretive skills.
7Russell Warfield's Score