Amy Helm Returns Delivers Rootsy/Family Themed ‘What the Flood Leaves Behind’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Amy Helm delivers her third solo album with What the Flood Leaves Behind from an eminently comfortable setting, a place where she’s played live shows many times, her father’s place, Levon Helm Studios (The Barn) in Woodstock, NY. Helm was raised here, spent time in L.A. and a considerable amount in NYC but now, with two young boys in tow, Woodstock is clearly her home. She lives close to The Barn, which she once referenced as a “temple of music.”  Made entirely with wood, this writer can attest to the unmatched warm sound quality in the building, having attended one of the famous Midnight Rambles, during the period where Levon was recovering from throat cancer treatments and had not yet resumed singing.

Having recorded her first solo album, Didn’t It Rain, mostly with colleagues in the NYC-Woodstock corridor, her 2018 This Too Shall Light was recorded in L.A. and produced by Joe Henry. This one is much more vibrant and jubilant in tone compared to the reflective, hymnal quality of its predecessor but like that one, begins with a tune written by M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, “Verse 23,” which he claims to have written specifically for her. Beginning gently, it has a verse from which the album title derives its name, and it directly speaks to her Ollabelle-like gospel roots with a series of narrative verses from the Psalm of David that climaxes in the chorus “What the flood leaves behind is what we’ve got to make.” It sets the tone for the album that speaks to stories of life struggles and triumphs. Helm wrote two tunes herself and others with co-writers including JT Nero (“Breathing’) and “Cotton and Cane” (Mary Gauthier. “Breathing,” with its pulsating beat and blaring horns, one of three singles, evokes a tent revival meeting rejoicing behind Helm’s rafter rattling voice. The church-like atmosphere continues with the organ introduction to “Cotton and Cane,” a reflective homage to those who raised her. They include not only Helm but singer-songwriter Libby Titus who was married to Donald Fagen (Steely Dan), her stepfather, and later to Dr. John. 

The album is produced by Josh Kaufman who seems to be the helm of so many projects these days. While Helm considers The Barn “the tuning fork” for the record, Kaufman contributes piano, guitar, and mandolin and surrounds Helm with an elite group of musicians all supporting her wonderful, expressive soprano vocals. Helm plays mandolin, piano, and drums with Phil Cook (keys, harmonica), Michael Libramento (bass, organ, percussion), Tony Mason (drums), Daniel Littleton (guitar), Stuart Bogie (saxophone), Jordan McLean (trumpet), and her son Lee Collins (congas).

 “Are We Running Out of Love,” another single, written by Swedish guitarist and songwriter Daniel is transformed into an urgent plea imbued with strumming guitars and piano, and a rush of background vocals. “Carry It Alone,” co-written with Erin simmers it down with Helm singing exquisitely over piano and organ, in a hymn-like way that resembles her last effort. She tends to be drawn to ‘water’ songs given the titles of the last two albums and offers the gospel shout-out “Wait for the Rain” (Helm, Elizabeth Ziman, Steve Salett) as organs swell and her voice reaches to the heavens, seemingly beyond the reach of many sopranos, soaring above what becomes a dense instrumental/choral backdrop. “Sweet Mama,” by Salett, the third single, has a somewhat swampy feel and features Phil Cook’s harmonica. The horns return for the joyous ‘Calling Me Home” while plucked mandolin begins the acoustic ballad “Terminal B,” the most stripped-down tune on the record. “Renegade Heart” (Elizabeth Ziman, MC Taylor) is a piano ballad revealing every beautiful nuance in Helm’s voice. 

Photo by Ebru Yildiz

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