But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted
am Amidon is part of Stylus faves Stars Like Fleas and the guy who sings and plays banjo and guitar on this album. Samamidon is the 'band' composed of him and multi-instrumentalist Thomas Bartlett who decided to make an album of nothing but old Appalachian standards (and, err, one Tears For Fears song). It was confusing at first.
Once you've got that sorted out, though, Samamidon's project rapidly begins to make sense. Sure, quasi-title track “Falsehearted Chicken” begins the record with old-timey banjo plucking, but as the ambient piano plinks and room tone arise in the background over Amidon's pleasingly naff tenor (never before has a vocalist made so much out of a resemblance to a more assertive Kermit the Frog) it becomes apparent that Samamidon aren't really about either updating or paying homage to these tracks. Amidon and Bartlett (bandmates in Doveman) don't perform any plastic surgery to these songs, even when the music is the kind of floating-in-space folk that makes clear their kinship to a band like Sweet Billy Pilgrim, but they clearly also aren't bound by some wrongheaded notion of 'respect' that would render any attempt to interact with their material sacrilegious. As for their cover of “Head Over Heels,” as Amidon himself says, “It’s an open question what constitutes 'traditional Appalachian songs.'”
Given how many more people have heard the original of that track than, say, “1842” or even “Another Man Done Gone,” it makes an instructive starting point for understanding Amidon and Bartlett's whimsical, successful alchemy here. Yes, “Head Over Heels” is pretty great in a very Tears For Fears, mid-80's overstuffed kind of way, but look at the video; they're having plenty of fun. Amidon's descending “don't take my heart, don't break my heart” is more affecting than anything in the original, for better or worse, even as his warble cracks on the verses. And yet there's a slightly mischievous air to the whole thing even as they suspend the song in midair with soft acoustic guitar and softly dopplering keyboard noise.
It's a difficult balance to strike, and Samamidon's consistent success at striking it is what makes But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted so good, whether on the drum-and-banjo rave up of “Rocky Island” or the incredibly downcast and introverted take on Mississippi John Hurt's “Louis Collins.” Amidon would record the vocal and main instrumental line at night, and wake to find Bartlett had surrounded them; the former's performance and the latter's superb grasp of atmosphere and tone interact to make something that sounds wholly original and fresh even as it evokes back to the heyday of these songs.
On the cover, drawn by Amidon, there's a sketchy orange desert landscape, and a blue four-footed chicken floating in midair. Like Samamidon's music, at first it seems goofy and slightly off-putting. The more you look at it, though, the more it becomes interesting, fitting, and even pretty. It's hard to tell if Samamidon could do half as well without such strong, already established material to pit their compositional wits against, but for now it's enough that they've made the most interesting folk album of 2007.