Alana Amram and The Rough Gems - Snow Shadows: The Songs of Vince Martin
Record Label: Kingswood Records
Release Date: August 30, 2011
Every year in music sees a few completely overlooked gems, a handful of obscurities that never get more than a few glances from music critics or anyone but the most devoted fans, but that nonetheless, display the musical appeal and prowess befitting of much higher acclaim. Alana Amram and The Rough Gems were certainly a member of that party for the year 2011. The album in question, titled Snow Shadows: The Songs of Vince Martin, is an entrancing collection of timeless Americana tracks that will appeal to the fans of folk heroes like Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter, as well as more recent favorites like Brandi Carlile and Patty Griffin. The difference here, naturally, is that Snow Shadows is a technically a cover album. Collected in the vein of Springsteen's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (albeit for a much less legendary figure), Snow Shadows is a love letter to the music of Vince Martin, a singer who made a reasonable splash in the folk music scene from the late '50s through the '70s. Martin's biggest hit, the 1956 single "Cindy, Oh Cindy" (recorded with The Terriers) is nowhere to be found here though, and Amram aims instead to breathe new life into some of his more forgotten solo numbers.
The resulting collection is as well executed as it is gorgeous. The Rough Gems prove to be a compelling backing band, furnishing each arrangement with everything from acoustic guitars to harmonicas, from string sections to pedal steel. Amram and her partner in crime, Mark Sebastian (the two discovered Martin's music independently, and then came together to form the Snow Shadows project) go as far as to bring in a pair of musicians who actually played on the original Vince Martin albums, and that authenticity is noted throughout: these songs have a classic alt-country atmosphere to them that absolutely could have existed decades ago. The only modernization occurs through the record's warm and full-bodied production, which gives each instrument room to flourish and outfits Amram's voice with an appropriately haunting layer of reverb. Speaking of the voice, Amram sings with a classic country lilt, reminiscent, at different moments, of each of the artists mentioned above, June Carter Cash, and this year's acclaimed duo, First Aid Kit. Needless to say, it's a soothing instrument, and while I wish Snow Shadows gave her an opportunity to try something with a bit more rock or blues edge to it (these songs generally veer towards downbeat or mid-tempo territory), it's hard to fault her beautiful delivery. That said, the consistent similarity in tempo does wear thin during the album’s mid section, and that lag takes an otherwise solid album down a notch.
The best thing about Snow Shadows, though, is that it does just what a cover album should: it introduces its subject to a new generation, to a group likely unfamiliar with the original compositions displayed here. That gives Amram and The Rough Gems a good deal of freedom to make these songs their own, and after spending some time with Vince Martin's solo albums, I can safely say that Snow Shadows functions as both an artistic statement for its performer and a homage to its songwriter. The highlights, like the road-trip ready "If the Jasmine Don't Get You..." (complete with a slash-and-burn guitar solo near the song's climax), the sonic splendor of "Leaving Song," or the gorgeously dusky "Catch Me I'm Falling," could fit equally well on playlists among classic folk artists (think Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Simon & Garfunkel) or some of my modern favorites (Ryan Adams, Will Hoge, Fleet Foxes, etc). That dichotomy, between classic and new, timelessness and relevance, is a feather in Amram's cap, but it wouldn't work that way if Martin hadn't been such a gifted writer (his melodies are effortlessly gorgeous), or if The Rough Gems weren't so musically gifted themselves (Amram sounds flawless on the title track, while the band is a tour-de-force throughout). Martin even makes an appearance himself, singing the short and funny "Honest Joe" to carry the album out, and bringing it full circle in the process. The tribute Amram pays him here is heartfelt and true, an adoring evocation of an idol by a true music lover and a die hard fan. That kind of infectious spark is the mark of only the best cover albums, and despite a few flaws, Snow Shadows is certainly one that deserves some attention.