Amos Lee’s mix of soulful nuances
with folk and Americana
can be warming as a tumbler of hot, spiked cider. “Colors,” from his debut, is
still in rotation in this household – nothing wrong with a contemporary
troubadour echoing James Taylor and Bill Withers, along with being something of
a thinking (wo)man’s John Mayer.
Anticipation of Lee’s
fourth album, Mission Bell, has been
heightened by the involvement of Calexico (Joey Burns also produces), Lucinda
Williams, Willie Nelson, Sam Beam, and other luminaries. While there may be
more tones and textures, and some bird’s-eye-view expansion, to these ears the
new album isn’t more than a stone’s throw or so from Lee’s ’08 release, Last Days at the Lodge. Rhythms are often contemplative. There
are some tweaks and embellishments to Lee’s increasingly backwoodsy ambience, but
listeners who want more of his engaging, sincere-feeling vibe should be sated
by this offering.
One of the more successful
marriages of Lee’s intimacy with the voices and influences of his playmates is
in “El Camino,” which would nestle as well next to Willie Nelson’s work as a bowl
of yams with a fresh-from-the-oven roast. And if the tune seems familiar, the
English major’s lyrics add flavor to what could seem an overly facile vista.
“Flower” instantly brings The Commodores’ “Easy” to mind. But the lyrics (“My heart is a flower/that
blooms every hour”) ring with the pastoral simplicity of 18th century
poet John Clare, or Shakespeare, when so inclined. Lee’s soulful, somewhat-less-thick
(than Aaron Neville’s) delivery is the hook.
Whether or not it sounds
like something(s) we’ve heard before, “Windows are Rolled Down,” which
contracts and expands with pedal steel drawls and the little petals of piano
familiar to Calexico fans, would easily fit an early-morning exodus. The brief
electric guitar growl at the beginning of “Violin” would startle if it weren’t
so quiet and so quick to recede. Energy picks up with the gospel-tinged,
backing-vocal-fringed “Cup of Sorrow.” And it may go without saying that Willie
Nelson’s participation on the finale, “Behind Me Now/El Camino” shows just how
riveting “mellow” can be.
It’s even more bracing
when the rosy haze is punctured by the passionate cries of “Jesus” and the more
aggressive R&B coloring “Hello Again.” Lee’s showcased at his most
confident – indeed, present — on relatively bare-bones formats like this. On
“Stay with Me,” Lee’s poignancy cuts through, and dances nicely with a
well-chosen sonic panorama. That’s something that hasn’t changed: at his most naked,
or when carefully dressed, Lee’s most absorbing.
DOWNLOAD: “El Camino,” Hello Again,” “Windows are Rolled Down,” “Stay with Me” MARY LEARY