FOR HIS CURRENT TOUR, New York-by-way-of-Vermont musician Sam Amidon is making the most of public transit. "I'm going to do it by train and plane and buses. So I don't have a whole lot with me, but I have my guitar and my banjo," he says. Considering the tour takes him from Quebec to Los Angeles, it's remarkable that he's doing it without a car. "It actually was cheaper, believe it or not. You would think that America doesn't have any trains anymore, but it has a few left."
His new album, I See the Sign, picks up where his previous effort, 2007's All Is Well, left off. Like that album, Sign is a collection of folk songs given startlingly inventive new arrangements, resulting in a skewed, contemporary chamber-folk album that feels like a breath of fresh air. It's among the year's most stunningly gorgeous recordings, highlighted by the languidly jazzy title track, the Nick Drake-like "Way Go Lily," the sparkling orchestral ornamentations of "Pretty Fair Damsel," and a thoughtful, delicate version of R. Kelly's "Relief"—the only modern song on a record of otherwise traditional songs.
Like All Is Well, the record was recorded in Iceland with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson and orchestral arranger Nico Muhly. "It was a few more folk songs recorded near volcanoes; that is the constant," says Amidon. "Everything is totally, pristinely clean there. You feel like you're on this moon landing area. The air is clean and everything is quiet." Like its recording location, I See the Sign has both a clarity and an otherworldly luminescence that lends the album a very fresh, unusual sound, despite the timelessness of the material.
Raised by a pair of avid folk music fans, Amidon sees the radical reworking of these traditional songs as simply part of the chain of folk music, where songs are handed down and retooled. He doesn't feel the need to have his records be staid, by-the-book interpretations. "I think something that keeps me from doing that is that I play a lot of straight-ahead folk music socially—just not as a profession at this point. If I'm going to go play some old-time music I'll go play some fiddle tunes with my friends. I love all kinds of different styles, so there's no reason to limit it."