The music world is replete with cross-genre cover songs and, as with most songs, some will work well, and most others will fall firmly flat. It’s even become a rather common practice in mainstream hip hop to cull from popular ’70’s and ’80’s rock or pop ballads. Typically this will involve a sample and a re-purposing of the original chorus for the new song’s hook (take Jay-Z’s recent “Young Forever,” a lousy song but a good example nonetheless).
And a number of acts have also covered hip hop songs. But whereas the hip hop artist keeps only the chorus and adds their own lyrics, the alternative artist will typically strip away all but the lyrics. This is where the hipster’s old reliable friend ‘irony’ comes into play. A track like Dynamite Hack‘s cover of Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-Tha-Hood” transposes the raw lyrics of ghetto life by singing them softly over a few gentle guitar chords.
Here’s the problem: This is not a musical reinterpretation. They are not adding any of their own thoughts or ideas. This is not a commentary on the rapidly widening disconnect between white suburbia and inner-city slum life. It’s a comedy track. A joke. A shitty one at that; and one that straddles the line between cooky “hey-let’s-cover-a-rap-song” shenanigans and subversive racial insensitivity via a white rock band downplaying the plight of impoverished inner-city blacks by parodying a song which depicts said poverty.
Now clearly that wasn’t what Dynamite Hack was going for, they were just having a laugh and probably never expected the song to be a hit (and I realize that was a rather massive digression and certainly a round about way of opening a review for a folk album). But it’s a good example of the possible pitfalls facing Sam Amidon. His new album, I See the Sign, is composed primarily of covers of traditional folk songs, but also contains a number of soul and spiritual songs, and even an R. Kelly cover.
This is a dangerous thing, rarely is a cross-genre cover greeted in earnest– even if it isn’t meant as a comic reinterpretation (remember Alien Ant Farm’s take on “Smooth Criminal?”). But far from a silly remake, “Relief,” is an album highlight. Amidon takes to the song with the same genuine affection and respect that he brings to all his songs– not with tongue in cheek, but hat in hand. He reshapes it expertly, transforming R. Kelly’s bouncy, optimistic R&B into quiet, yet baroque, folk complete with banjo pickings, piano twinkles, fiddle twangs, cello swathes, just-audible horns, and flighty flute lilts– all accompanying Amidon’s smooth voice singing a slightly-modified version of Kelly’s original– removing a few verses (and allusions to God), and creating his own reverie on life and death and God by adding his own lyrics:
“I’m a long time traveling away from home,
I’m a long time traveling here below,
I’m a long time traveling to lay this body down.”
It’s a gorgeously crafted, and beautifully melancholic, take on the original, and certainly one of the year’s best songs.
The remainder of the album can never quite reach the same lofty heights, but comes close on a number of occasions. Opener “How Come That Blood,” with an equally elaborate arrangement and traditional Americana lyrics, is reminiscent of Bill Callahan’s recent work. And on “Way Go, Lily,” another marvelous cross-genre re-imagining (this time of a Spiritual), Amidon affects Nick Drake to a remarkable, and downright arresting, degree.
Far from making light of the songs he covers on I See the Sign, Amidon plays them with reverential aplomb– breathing new life into old standards and making each his own with the kind of dignity and love that few cover songs are afforded. Let’s just hope he fights the urge to try his hand at “Bump N’ Grind.”
I See The Sign is out now via Bedroom Community. Buy it here. Or produce a three-act play with a cast of hamsters.