This is only Amy Helm’s second solo album and if you’ve been to her rocking, infectious live shows it may surprise you. Helm is essentially restrained throughout This Too Shall Light, choosing a subtler, but still passionate approach with an intense focus on caressing rather than belting every note she sings and then wrapping those in the lush harmonies of her backup singers. It’s an approach that she often used in her acclaimed folk/soul/gospel band Ollabelle, so in that sense, it’s not totally new for her and it makes for a quiet, deeply reflective and ultimately uplifting listen.
You’ll likely recognize her surname even if you’re not familiar with Amy. She is, after all, the daughter of the late Band drummer/mandolinist/iconic vocalist Levon Helm and the daughter of singer/songwriter Libby Titus. Before founding Ollabelle, Amy sang in her dad’s blues band, Levon & the Barn Burners, as a teenager and later in The Midnight Ramble Band. She’s been a background vocalist on countless albums from Steely Dan to William Bell and Rosanne Cash. She co-produced Levon’s last few solo albums. She often tours with an ever-revolving lineup of stellar players as Amy Helm and The Handsome Strangers.
Although she is a songwriter, she takes credit as a co-writer on only one of these ten tunes, instead choosing both familiar and lesser-known covers. She left her friendly confines of Woodstock, NY to record in Los Angeles with Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Joe Henry and a mostly unfamiliar group of backing musicians. She recorded in a tight four-day window, with musicians directed not to overthink the songs and Helm herself having hardly performed any of them prior to the recording. Consequently, there are some improvisations, but mostly it’s a spirit of focused collaboration to build the kind of organic sound that Helm has long embraced. There are no overdubs with each track done in only a few takes.
These songs range from Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” to Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” and the Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan.” The opening title track was written by Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor and Josh Kaufman. It’s an ideal tone-setter for the album. Maybe it’s another way of capturing the old saying, “This too shall pass.” She follows with “Odetta,” a tune about one of her major inspirers, the late Odetta, written by Joe Henry. She renders the Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” in lovely fashion with her chorus line “ What am I supposed to do now” just ringing majestically throughout.
Helm plays with a small ensemble that includes Doyle Bramhall II on tasteful guitar, Jennifer Condos on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums and Tyler Chester on keys. The harmony vocalists, who are essential to this rounded glorious sound are Allison Russell, JT Nero and Adam Minkoff with Bramhall II also n “Gloryland.”
Amy pays tribute to her dad with a rare, early tune that she’s been performing live this past summer. “The Stones I Throw” was penned by Robbie Robertson and released in 1965 by Levon and the Hawks. Chester’s church-like organ really adds to the upbeat gospel feel here, a clear album standout. The closing traditional hymnal “Gloryland” is done a-cappela and is one that was passed to her by Levon who often included it in his live sets.
Other album standouts include “Mandolin Wind,” which first appeared on Raod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story album, sung her magnificently by Helm and imbued with Bramhall’s stinging slide guitar. She reminds us that civil rights and protest song don’t have to be delivered angrily as she gives a torchy contemporary interpretation to Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion.” “Heaven’s Holding Me” was penned by Helm, Henry and two other writers (Paul Olsen, Theodore Pecchio) and is achingly beautiful as Chester plays sparse, gorgeous piano and Minkoff adds nice touches on his acoustic guitar. The stripped-down sound, complete with Bellerose’s incessant beat, frames T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love,” another nod to overcoming struggle as Helm finds that special balance between vulnerability and conviction in her vocal.
This is an album of music as a healing force, badly needed in these times. Its beauty lies in its understated, nuanced, loose but immensely well-crafted approach.