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Amy Helm sought what she calls a “circular sound” for her new album. It’s a well-rounded one, one marked by streaks of Americana, country, blues, and gospel, and the kinds of four-part harmonies that can burst open a melody and close the loop of an octave. And sentimentally, it’s a sound that represents the feeling of community.
This Too Shall Light, released September 21, 2018 on Yep Roc Records, comprises 10 songs produced by Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Joe Henry. Helm left her home and comfort zone of Woodstock, NY, choosing to record in Los Angeles within the confines of just a four-day window. The musicians were directed not to overthink the songs, and Helm herself barely performed any of the selections while leading up to the recording. As a result, the sessions forced fast musical trust among the collaborators and yielded the vibrant instrumental improvisations heard throughout This Too Shall Light.
Although a profound songwriter herself, Helm and Henry jointly arranged a diverse collection of songs for the record, which range from Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” to Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” and even the Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan.” The title track in particular, written by Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor and Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, Bob Weir, Craig Finn), is a brilliant summation of the record’s sound and spirit. Seemingly a play on the old adage that “This too shall pass,” Helm’s voice veers from commanding to supplicating within a single soulful verse, as she manipulates that message so that light leads through out even the darkest of times.
A lifelong musician and music-lover, Helm’s parents —The Band’s legendary drummer and singer Levon Helm and singer/songwriter Libby Titus — guided her training and influences. She later became a founding member of the alt-country collective Ollabelle and served as a backing musician in her father’s Midnight Ramble Band. And on This Too Shall Light, Helm says that two songs in particular pay homage to Levon — “The Stones I Throw,” a song he released in 1965 with Levon and the Hawks, and the closing traditional number, an a cappella version of the hymnal “Gloryland,” which was passed from father to daughter. While This Too Shall Light is only Helm’s second album under her own name, it serves as a comprehensive portrait covering her life’s journeys and recoveries; They’re the stories that, no matter where they take her, seem to end and begin in the same place like a circle.
New England-based multi-instrumentalist Mark Erelli wears many hats--singer, songwriter, sideman, producer--but approaches each of these varied roles with a belief in the transformative power of paying attention. Bearing witness to small details and fleeting moments is what dignifies our everyday stories, rendering the mundane profound. This principle governs Erelli’s approach to his craft, and is uniquely evident on his latest release, Mixtape, which features revelatory reinterpretations of songs by the Grateful Dead, Neko Case, Roy Orbison and others.
Erelli’s two decade career highlights include 11 solo albums, stints accompanying Josh Ritter, Paula Cole and Anais Mitchell, and a pair of records he produced for GRAMMY-winning songwriter Lori McKenna. Ever since Billboard magazine heralded the “simple, atmospheric grace” of his Signature Sounds debut, Erelli’s belief in the sacredness of an examined life has driven him between the ostensible extremes of lullabies and murder ballads, western swing and protest anthems. It has propelled him from the hallowed stages of the Newport Folk Festival, Grand Ole Opry and Royal Albert Hall, and beckoned him back home, to better nurture his 16-year marriage and be a father to his two young boys.
Whether he’s holding a pen or a Telecaster, Erelli’s music welcomes even the casual listener, but those who choose to dig more deeply are richly rewarded. Perhaps that is what Folk Alley hears in Erelli’s songs, when it encourages people to “listen close; there's sure to be something in there to break your heart a split second before it leads you straight to grace.”
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