Though only her second solo album, the recently released This Too Shall Light, bears the hallmark that has run throughout her musical career, namely her capacity for collaboration. Applying to other musicians of course, but this skill extends to producers and across musical styles. Such partnerships defined the ‘Midnight Rambles’ started by her father, the revered founder member of The Band, Levon Helm, at his barn/studio in Woodstock, NY. Wide groups of musicians would join the Helms in making glorious music at these sessions.
With one exception This Too Shall Light is a collection of interpretations. To call these merely “covers” would do the record no justice at all. With ease Helm circulates Americana, country, blues and gospel around the fulcrum of producer Joe Henry. Not only did Henry have a hand in choosing the songs but he was responsible for the album’s fresh, almost live, feel. He did this by taking Helm from Woodstock to his LA studio where they completed recording in an amazingly short four days. Unsurprisingly, this permitted only a couple of takes for each track. Their careful teamwork was crucial in every respect; obviously in the songs themselves but also the musicians, especially guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and keys player, Taylor Chester. The speed of recording wasn’t down to finding time in busy schedules but because Henry was adamant that to create such a fresh sound Helm shouldn’t become too familiar with the material. Spontaneity was key, don’t overthink.
Now to the songs. What stands out is just how perfectly most fit with both Helm’s own approach and beliefs. Compared to her first album released three years ago this has a much more gospel. Already so well suited to the style, Helm sings with a gospel choir that magnifies the effect. Helm’s sense of sticking up for the underdog and oppressed must have influenced the choice of songs too. Perhaps the most striking aspect is the sheer range of sources. Drawing on Levon/The Band certainly didn’t come as a surprise but who would have predicted Rod Stewart?
The result is a resounding success overall. A couple fall slightly short of target but these are comfortably eclipsed by those that just blow you away.
The title track is an ideal opener. Written by MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger and Josh Kaufman, its sultry richness eases the listener into the project. Collaboration is all around here as Kaufman had taken Taylor to Levon’s barn where the trio cut some tracks. This one made sufficient impression on Amy to name the entire album.
Some big names appear. Allen Toussaint’s ‘Freedom For The Stallion’ pulls no punches. “Big ship’s a-sailing, slaves all chained and bound/ Heading for a brand new land some cat said he upped and found/ Lord, have mercy, what you gonna do about the people who are praying to you?” Helm’s beseeching voice perfectly matches the power of such a stark question.
Sir Rod Stewart seems an unlikely source here. Helm shows ’Mandolin Wind’ doesn’t have to be rasped but to this reviewer’s mind the song is as much about Ronnie Lane and there’s no mandolin in this version. Perhaps that’s splitting hairs as Helm does sing it beautifully.
T Bone Burnett’s ‘River of Love’ is much more fertile soil. This is a real gem that encapsulates Henry’s recording aims. It feels live as Chester plays a piano that runs and eddies around the stream of Helm’s singing while a gentle beat propels the overall flow.
Henry and Helm don’t just root around established names. ‘Michigan’ comes from relative newcomers The Milk Carton Kids. Helm brings a soulful element to its sparseness that compounds the emotion. This feeling of loneliness returns in ‘Heaven’s Holding Me’, her own composition written with Henry.
Amy Helm’s work with her father is so much a part of her life but just how to mark that must have been excruciatingly hard. However, she said that there are two that particularly honour Levon. ‘The Stones I Throw’ was written by Robbie Robertson in 1965 for Levon and the Hawks when they were part of Ronnie Hawkins’s backing band. Everything about the song; arrangement, keys and above all Helm’s easy rolling singing give a taste of what The Band were to bring. The final track, ‘Gloryland’ typically closed the Midnight Rambles. Passed from father to daughter there could be no finer ending. After that cappella you know that through the prism of this excellent recording Amy Helm has given you a perfect view back through some wonderful music. Looking ahead we must hope that she does not leave her third album too long.