There are guts here, real feeling.
Veteran singer, instrumentalist and songwriter Amy Helm spent years playing and recording with the band Ollabelle, creating the kind of folk/gospel/Americana music that blurred boundaries with sincerity and artfulness. During much of this time, Helm was also playing music with her dad, a drummer named Levon who was in a pretty good band back in the day. The Band, in fact. Helm arranged and played in her dad’s famous Midnight Rambles in the Hudson River Valley where she was raised.
It wasn’t until she entered her 40s that Helm began her proper “solo career” with Didn’t It Rain, on which her dad and several of the Midnight Ramble musicians made appearances. This Too Shall Light, then, is only her second album as a leader, yet it sounds like the culmination of a long career.
Produced by the veteran singer-songwriter Joe Henry, This Too Shall Light sits comfortably in both artists’ sweet spot. Henry’s production relies on a superb rhythm section (Jay Bellerose on drums, Doyle Bramhall’s guitar, Jennifer Condos on bass and Tyler Chester’s piano, organ and other keyboards) and a gospel-styled vocal choir. The result can be rocking or brooding, celebratory or tender. At the center of it all is Helm’s voice, which has ripened over time into a soulful instrument. A throaty alto that can sit at the center of a gospel a cappella performance (“Gloryland”) or carve out the melody of a jazz tune by Blossom Dearie (“Long Daddy Green”), Helm’s vocal talent is the diamond that Henry sets in various ways across a set of cover songs.
Helm pays tribute to her father in singing “The Stones I Throw,” a tune by Levon’s Band-mate, Robbie Robertson, from their days as The Hawks. Barely more than two minutes long, “Stones” is a gospel-rock tune made from sturdy harmonic bones that goes through key change on its way to making you feel fine. Most of the music here, however, is more ruminative or carefully pitched. For example, “River of Love” is built on a heartbeat groove from Bellerose and chiming piano, and the lyrics balance hope (“There’s a river of love that runs through all time“) and heartbreak (“There’s a river of tears that runs through our eyes“), recognizing that loss and pain co-exist with our highest human ambitions. The simplicity of the arrangement works both because the tune is so strong and because the performances don’t require frills.
Although Helm writes good songs, this is an album of other people’s music made her own by personality. “Freedom for the Stallion,” for example, is a solid Allen Toussaint song that Helm puts across with a casual attack around which the band winds humming B3 organ and blues guitar. “Mandolin Wind,” by contrast, is arranged as a country tune but you might be surprised to discover that it was written by Rod Stewart. Helm’s version is faithful to the original, but this band adds the gravity of soulful piano, organ swells and just a dash of gospel at the end of each verse. The Blossom Dearie/Dave Frishberg tune retains its clever melody and lyrics, but Henry and Helm have made it eerie and dimly lit by centering it on an offbeat organ sound.
Helm and Henry co-wrote “Heaven’s Holding Me,” however, the recording’s most tender track. You can hear the singer’s mandolin tinkle through the arrangement, and her voice – which can be a belter’s instrument at times – becomes delicate and see-through here, just enough to tell the story: “Hey, love, I hear you calling me/ Your song plays life’s mystery/ I sleep in your arms, floating like the dawn/ Heaven’s holding me.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is a tune by Henry alone, “Odetta,” which has a gut-bucket authenticity rooted in loose duet harmonies, a stacked chorus of vocal harmonies, and a slow-build arrangement that climaxes in syncopated march rhythms and a great cross-hatching of acoustic guitars and soul piano.
Two of the best tracks on This Too Shall Light are covers of songs by recent folk bands that have a bit in common with Ollabelle. The first and title track of the album was written by M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, and it is a positively catchy song that shifts between slippery blues grooving and gospel depth – but with a chorus so solid that the singers end the tune repeating it over just finger snaps. “Michigan” is an irresistible and melancholy meditation from The Milk Carton Kids, a portrait of the town of Pontiac “in the rear view now” as the narrator leaves home after a break-up. The arrangement is set up by a cool organ/guitar lick, then acoustic guitar, Wurlitzer piano and brushes against a snare drum are the bed for verses that are reluctant and bittersweet. Helm’s voice is a marvel, asking “What am I supposed to do now/ Without you, without you?” The original is delicate – Helm’s version is a cry all the more fragile for being stated with surging emotion.
It’s easy to dismiss this kind of Americana with a quick wave: it’s for older folks, it belongs on Austin City Limits or National Public Radio. And those things are true. But there are guts here, real feeling, the cry of a soulful voice and the grit of a great band. That songs also contain some great hooks and some moments of catchy triumph doesn’t hurt. So, then, here it is: your very very “serious” recording of songs that are also capable of lifting you off the ground.