Hearing Aide: Amy Helm ‘This Too Shall Light’

Amy Helm’s album This Too Shall Light comes out Friday, September 21 on Yep Roc Records. Produced by Grammy-award winning producer Joe Henry, this 10-track album delivers on illuminating a whole different side of Helm’s already unique songwriting style. Helm left the comfort of her home in Woodstock, NY to record in Los Angeles at Union Recording Studios over a span of just four days. Along with a cast of stellar musicians and collaborators, Helm was able to pull together a collection of original songs and some covers to create a sonically vibrant album, guided by her rich vocal reflections, on the cyclic essence of life. While her past work was a bit more raw production wise, this album makes great use of stacked gospel harmonies while maintaining the fidelity of the instrumentals. Each song offers a steady build, but each also occupies a different level on the dynamic spectrum keeping the motion of the songs interesting.

Something that stands out when the album is looked at as a whole is the organic feel of each recording. While the production is not pristine, it effectively acts as a nod to the authentic nature of the music, as well as the authenticity of Helm herself. She and her band went into the studio for four days without having really rehearsed the songs, giving the performances a feeling similar to that of Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. This experimentation, and the overall leap out of the comfort zone, payed off big for Helm in a genre mixture where authenticity breeds emotion. One song that stuck out was her original piece, “Odetta.” It sums up a lot of what the album is about musically; the loose interplay between the guitar and piano along with a percussive sync between the bass and subtle drum line give the song a steady pulse and interesting variety of melodic lines. Stacked on this are wonderfully produced and performed gospel harmonies. Helm’s pristine transitions from full-voiced resonance to her elegant lead voice are stunning. Her dynamic range is huge, and she’s able to emote the lyrics by the difference in her tonality. From her note attack to how she slowly fades out her lines, her control is apparent.

Helm was able to carve out a fresh sound on a few covers, and offered a couple tribute songs to her father, Levon Helm (The Band). One of these tributes, a cover of the hymn “Gloryland,” showcased just how well these featured vocalists (Allison Russel, JT Nero, Adam Minkoff, and Doyle Bramhall II) can lock in with Helm and each other to create bright and vivid harmonies which sound like one big voice singing together. From the album’s beginning to end, the harmonies shine through the mix of just about every song and give them a characteristic gospel taste. Whereas the instruments tend to keep it on the loose side, these harmonies are air-tight without being overproduced – they were mixed in stereo to great effect. While the album doesn’t feature too much original material, Helm is able to make the covers interesting in a manner different than the originals. Specifically, in “Freedom for the Stallion” (Allen Toussaint’), Helm’s cover is steeped in gospel influence, and her vocals give the song new character, as she breathes a different perspective into the strong set of lyrics. She and the band are able to do this effectively throughout the album. It would be great to see more original work, but this is understandable since the timeline was so short, and that shortened timeline was a gamble that ultimately paid off. Overall, both the covers and original compositions that are on this album are wonderful and show signs of things to come as Amy Helm continues to build her discography.

Key Tracks: Odetta, Gloryland, Freedom for the Stallion