Listening to Amy Helm’s This Too Shall Light is less like playing a new album than it is a journey to the center of your soul. This is a meditative fest of both traditional and modern day spiritual songs.
Helm takes you to transcendent moments built from a lifetime of singing. She has been toiling for several decades as a background vocalist, member of the roots band Olabelle and co–producer of her late father Levon Helm’s comeback album Dirt Farmer (and subsequent albums and touring bands.) Even against the backdrop of her compelling debut album, it’s still hard to forget her stunning performance at his memorial concert.
Now on the follow-up to her debut three years ago, Helm is joined with producer Joe Henry who peppers the record with an array of sounds and arrangements built around Helm’s powerful, emotive voice communicating words of inner strife and personal redemption.
The title track “This Too Shall Light,” written by MC Taylor and Josh Kaufman, is a mid-life road map set to song. It begins with a distorted guitar and drum track and quickly dissolves into a cascade of soulful sounds. “The Stones I Throw” written by her father’s former bandmate Robbie Robertson, is born out of church tradition, each song evoking the vibe of the Seventies and conjuring singers before her like the late Valerie Carter and Laura Nyro.
Helm’s lineage is best summed up in “Odetta,” a song written by Joe Henry, channeling the spiritual energy of the great singer and activist in a poetic plea of self empowerment. Helm covers Allen Toussaint’s “Free The Stallion,” timeless tales of strife in slave days that resonate in current times. When you hear Helm sing about the past, it’s hard not to think of the present “They’ve got men building fences to keep other men out,”
Helm perfectly nails the melancholy of the Milk Carton Kids “Michigan.” And singing virtually solo during “Long Daddy Green,” you might imagine Helm standing center stage on Broadway during “Long Daddy Green,”
Helm has writing credits on just two songs and we hope that she does more. For all of her talents, there’s that longing for the moments to define her self-identity in a largely set of covers. (And as much as I love Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind,” it’s hard when the original is so ingrained. You can get lost in covers.) But perhaps that occurred in the title track and in “Odetta.” If not there then certainly in the album’s final track, the traditional “Gloryland” she adapted with her father. It’s a stunning arrangement, an acapella gospel choir and a thundering summation of a record that gets down to your soul.
This Too Shall Light also features Allison Russell and JT Nero – Harmony Vocals; Adam Minkoff (Acoustic Guitar); Doyle Bramhall II (Guitar / Harmony Vocals); Jennifer Condos (Bass); Jay Bellerose (Drums); and Tyler Chester (Keys)
This Too Shall Light is available on Yep Roc Records. Visit her at amyhelm.com