As a critic, I should be frustrated by Amos Lee’s new album, Mission Bell. For one thing, there’s no high-concept theme to wax eloquent about. Even worse, his finely calibrated folk-soul sound hasn’t materially changed, beyond picking up a few country accents from collaborators like Calexico, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda Williams. So, what’s a writer to blather on about?
As a blogger, however, I have the freedom to be a fan too — and in this case, the fan wins out. I’ve been hooked on Amos Lee ever since his 2005 self-titled debut album, seduced by his mellifluous voice and sensitive lyrics. His next two records, Supply and Demand (2006) and Last Days at the Lodge (2008), only confirmed that trademark sound. There’s a temptation to play the high-and-mighty reviewer and lambast the guy for staying in his comfort zone. But it’s my comfort zone too, and let’s be honest: I’m delighted that Lee hasn’t ditched it for the sake of novelty.
Comfort zone doesn’t mean a limited range, mind you. Mixing the acoustic approach of folk music with the gospel-tinged passion of soul gives an artist plenty of room to operate, especially when his moves are as deft as Amos Lee’s. He can pull out a country waltz on “Windows Rolled Down” and “Clear Blue Eyes,” do some classic Philly call-and-response on “Flower,” shamble through the old-timey softshoe of “Cup of Sorrow,” then go all Stevie Wonder for the soulful tango “Hello Again.” Ever the moving target, he can inject social commentary on songs like “Violin,” “Out of the Cold,” or “Behind Me Now,” explore love and loss on songs like “Stay” and “Learned a Lot,” or raise a heartfelt spiritual cry on “Jesus” or “Cup of Sorrow.”
If anything, Mission Bell just drives deeper into Lee’s characteristic groove. With Calexico’s Joey Burns in the producer’s chair, each track is interpreted with its own sonic texture. Dig, for example, the opening track “El Camino,” which finds local color with splashes of Spanish guitar and mariachi horns, while a susurration of drums creates the sense of highway driving. On track two — yet another driving song, “Windows Rolled Down” — a repeated guitar strum mimics a humming engine, which swells into a triumphant wall of sound as the car windows open for the chorus. A clutter of backing vocals evokes the urban cacophony of “Violin” (for some reason I think of Simon & Garfunkel’s haunting “The Only Living Boy in New York”), while brooding reverb and plangent dobro commiserate with the fallen heroes of “Out of the Cold” and “Behind Me Now.”
Of course, chances are you won’t even notice this denser production value – it never overwhelms the yearning melodies, never intrudes on Lee’s incredibly supple, soulful voice. They’re all about serving the emotions of each song, and emotions are the key to Amos Lee’s melancholy troubadour persona. Which, I’ll admit, may not be for everybody.
I’ll also admit that wordsmithing isn’t Lee’s strong point: he falls back too often on the poetic shorthand of dark nights, unknown coasts, distant shores, and open roads. (How often does he need to describe the various floors he paces?)
But that’s the nitpicking critic talking. The fan will answer that the experience of listening to Mission Bell has nothing to do with parsing lyrics. It’s about swinging around the curves of “Windows Rolled Down,” swaying in the breeze of “Flower,” or diving through shimmering memory in “Hello Again.” It’s heart music, not head music, and Amos Lee – to this fan’s great relief — once again proves himself a master of the genre.