Amy Helm possesses all the inner direction, motivation and independence of her father, Levon, the drummer and vocalist for The Band. As evidence of those inherent character traits, she projects her personality with no traces of self-consciousness not only in her collaborationsSisters of the Strawberry Moon's Solstice (New West Records, 2019), produced by the North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson but also her solo projects like What The Flood Leaves Behind. Her third effort to date is an elegant mix of folk, gospel, country and rock that transcends glib categorization like 'Americana.'
There is no shortage of artists (fortunately) who made good use of their time in the 2020 quarantine, but based on the opening song here, this woman would seem to be one who had the rare gift of seeing beyond the immediate circumstances. The solemnity of producer Josh Kaufman's gospel-oriented grand piano gives way to choppy percussion and group vocals on "Breathing," a metaphor for the process of reopening if there was one, especially as the horns (Stuart Bogie on tenor saxophone and Jordan McLean on trumpet) enter to both broaden the scope of the arrangement and bolster the high spirits of the performance.
In addition to playing some of the same multiple instruments here as Helm herself (mandolin, piano, drums), the aforementioned keyboardist handles some additional ones (harmonium, percussion) that complement the musicianship of one Phil Cook, who made such exemplary contributions as songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist to Oliver Wood's Always Smilin' (Honey Jar Records, 2021). One of a cadre of accompanists who contour their talent(s) to songs such as "Are We Running Out of Love," this versatile individual becomes fully integrated into a unit bonded through the recording at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York.
Their collective persona exhibits the same taste and elegance as Helm. Understandably then, her distinctions do not bespeak an insular attitude: just as the latter-named tune written by Daniel Norgren speaks indirectly but nonetheless pointedly to a culture divided upon itself, the main artist co-composed "Carry It Alone:" it stands as a practical sign of the indispensable collaborative efforts in play (a subtext of the prior composition). Indeed, the whole of this roughly thirty-five minutes of earthy, soulful music reflects both the general symbolic imagery of the cover photo and the specificity of the lyrics printed inside the sleeves of the package.
In keeping with the adage about the tone of being set at the top, Amy Helm's dignified voice and style of vocal phrasing and delivery carry attributes of resilience and perseverance. As such, her singing never gets lost in the mix of the most dense arrangements here; for instance, just as she retains her prominence as the undisputed focal point of "Sweet Mama," appearing at the very center of the electric guitar, horns and harmony vocals, so she commands the simpler likes of "Terminal B."
With its tacit reference to travel, that last track supplies a dramatic introduction to "Renegade Heart," the somber likes of which echo the very outset of these ten cuts. This album's penultimate selection, however, becomes an ode to stability before it's over, just like this record of Amy Helm's.
Verse 23; Breathing; Cotton And The Cane; Are We Running Out of Love?; Carry It Alone; Wait for the Rain; Sweet Mama; Calling Home; Terminal B; Renegade Heart.