Merrie Amsterburg first came to my attention in 2000, with her fine sophomore effort Little Steps. Then she more or less vanished for six years, re-emerging only recently with Clementine and Other Stories, a collection of traditional American and Irish standards. It's hard not to think that Amsterburg has been dealing with writer's block, but thankfully her voice remains as strong as before, and her ability to put a good record together has only improved in the intervening years.
Most of Clementine and Other Stories consists of songs that Americans all know at least a verse or the chorus to -- "Down in the Valley" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," for example -- even if they can't identify where exactly they heard them. Amsterburg takes liberty with the arrangements, personalizing the songs with some harmony here, a few subtle chord changes there, and some instrumental breaks inserted in for good measure. The album sounds and feels much like Little Steps does, so any long-time fans of Amsterburg will relish the new music simply for that. However, she breathes so much life into material that had otherwise appeared hokey or hackneyed, that one listen to the album makes it obvious why these songs had permanently lodged themselves into the collective American subconscious in the first place. "Wayfaring Stranger" broods and simmers, providing an interesting contrast with a very different but equally good cover of the same song by Neko Case on her CD The Tigers Have Spoken. The gorgeously sparse "Shenandoah" puts the listener in a vast expanse along the wide Missouri in a way my high school glee club could only dream about, if creating the right mood to do the song justice ever even occurred to us. "Lakes of Ponchartrain" gets a surprisingly rocking but still very effective treatment from Amsterburg and her band.
As the album's title implies, though, the focal point of this CD is "Clementine." If you aren't already singing the chorus to this sad lament of a California miner who couldn't swim to his drowning love's rescue, you will be when you hear this. Amsterburg reaches back into the crevasses of our nation's history, and finds all the emotion and power that the song's original writer and singer meant to be there. The result is a song that once again is timeless.
Despite her lack of new material for six years and counting, Merrie Amsterburg has easily regained her position among the top performers in the folk-rock genre. Anybody wondering why some of America's most popular folk songs achieved their status will have a much greater understanding after hearing Clementine and Other Stories.