Amy Helm - This Too Shall Light - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Amy Helm - This Too Shall Light

by Mark Moody Rating:8 Release Date:2018-09-21
Amy Helm - This Too Shall Light
Amy Helm - This Too Shall Light

In spite of some remarkable albums of his own, Joe Henry is likely more known these days for his sympathetic production of a broad spectrum of primarily American country, R&B, folk, and soul artists over the past two decades.  Ranging from the more involved approach on Solomon Burke’s phenomenal Don’t Give Up On Me back in 2002 to the ultra spare production on Joan Baez’s potential swan song of this year, Henry brings out the best in his recording partners.  Working with both songwriters as well as the upper crust of interpreters like Bettye LaVette, here on Amy Helm’s sophomore album, This Too Shall Light, he crosses paths with Helm’s multiple talents.  Helm’s 2015 debut, Didn't It Rain, after three lights out collaborations with New York vocal ensemble Ollabelle, was marked by her soulful songwriting and showcased her ultimate weapon - the gift of a voice that could make angels quit the choir. 

Here with Henry at the controls, Helm takes on the role of interpreter of both classics and less obvious cuts.  Purportedly, Henry was the primary selector of these songs and in order to create spontaneity, Helm was given scant time to prepare for these recordings with few takes recorded in each instance.  In effect, Henry cut ten cards from the Americana tarot deck and spread them out for Helm to interpret.  And interpret she does.  With tracks taken from both the Major (Rod Stewart, Allen Toussaint) and Minor (The Milk Carton Kids, Henry himself) Arcana, Helm spells it out for the listener as convincingly as any expert level reader could.  

Starting with the title track composed specifically for her, MC Taylor and Josh Kaufman continue the “light from darkness” theme of Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger high water mark of last year’s Hallelujah Anyhow.  As becomes an underlying theme on the best tracks here, Helm emotionally connects with the underdog and Civil Rights era themes that likely have been no more important than they are today.  She later takes a sly swipe at Trump on Toussaint’s ‘Freedom For The Stallion’.  But first on ‘This Too Shall Light’, Helm grooves through the song with the same compulsion that Taylor showed on his album: that light will prevail over the current darkness.  

Though Helm’s roots point to her parent’s (Levon Helm and Libby Titus) New York and with the album cut in sunny California, the title track has a decidedly Southern greasiness to it that is upped even further on Henry’s ‘Odetta’ which follows.  It’s on ‘Odetta’ that Helm first lets her full-throated and soulful vocals soar.  The vividness of unwelcome chickens in her yard coupled with the obliqueness of Henry’s lyric are taken to a repeated climax of a prayer for Odetta to “come discover me”.  Similar to Helm’s own ‘Rescue Me’ from Didn’t It Rain, she finds the thread in the song that gives it layers of depth that Henry’s original only hinted at.

Maybe surprisingly given her long-reaching roots, Helm lays things totally bare on the most youthful of sources here.  Her full wring out of The Milk Carton Kids’ ‘Michigan’ is simply devastating.  Given five minutes to settle in, Helm elevates the personal to a civic concern.  Her command to “keep your hands where I can see ‘em” may relate to heartbreak, but her vocals take on a gravity that reaches further.  If she truly was not familiar with the song, she gives it a definitive read.  Next up, Toussaint’s track is glowingly understated, but the contrast of the forced “immigration” of the slave ships to today’s unwelcome tone from the top is not lost on those willing to pay attention.

As strong as the opening salvo is here, covering about anything from Rod Stewart’s peak period is probably impossible to top.  Helm’s cover of ‘Mandolin Wind’ is lovely, but not revelatory.  Likewise, though she has a childhood connection to the song, the jazzy ‘Long Daddy Green’ doesn’t really relate to anything else here.  

Fortunately, Helm has a bold recovery for the close.  Her energetic take on her father’s Levon & The Hawks’ ‘The Stones I Throw’ is right in her everyman wheelhouse.  Her own composition ‘Heaven’s Holding Me’ echoes the melody of John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’, but has a spiritual connection with her forebears shared with the glorious a capella closer of ‘Gloryland’.  Those tracks wrap a call to solidarity on T-Bone Burnett’s ‘River of Love’ that also showcases her talents in a tight-knit vocal group.

Helm’s catalog from Ollabelle through her two solo albums are well worth diving into and she shows herself worthy of an interpreter of Eva Cassidy caliber.  Several moments here took me to Cassidy’s take on ‘Oh, Had I A Golden Thread’ in either tone or spirit.  Being a voice for change never flames out and that’s where Helm connects the most here whether that be on a global or personal scale.  Given Helm’s prodigious talents, is it too much to ask for her to lock arms with the handful of Civil Rights era standard bearers like Mavis Staples and take us to the Promised Land?  Maybe we have taken a step back from that ideal, but Helm’s gift of a voice allows her a light burden to carry us forward.  This too shall light indeed.


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