Amos Lee - Mission Bell
Amos Lee walks the borderline with his latest, with mixed results. While "Mission Bell" contains some great songs in his usual soulful vein, he mostly stretches out into an atmospheric, Tex-Mex influenced sound. That is not so much the problem as the rather thin lyrics and Lee's often overshadowing by a series of guests.
Inspired by a chance meeting with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, Lee recorded "Mission Bell" with him. The results are especially apparent on "El Camino" and "Out of the Cold," the latter a mournful atmospheric borderland dirge, ala recent period Dylan, and clearly smelling of Calexico. "Hello Again" is another light Tex-Mex tune, with a cool, smooth horn solo to keep it afloat.
Some songs find Lee in more familiar territory."Violin" is a haunting ballad with an understated but beautiful female chorus and features Iron & Wine's Sam Beam. "Learned a Lot" is a plaintive, piano-driven breakup song; soulful guitar solo; it is a mature love song in the best sense, with well-wishes for a lover and a relationship that didn't work out, but was good while it lasted. This kind of generosity in love songs is rare, and certainly the level of the writing leaps out when compared to other tracks: "Flower" is bathetic soul-lite; "Jesus" is equally tepid, a sort of Neville-esque plea that rings less like a real prayer and more like a request for a smoke to a stranger. The less said about the flaccid "Windows Are Rolled Down," the better.
There are three standout songs here that make Lee's risks worth it. "Stay With Me" (featuring Priscilla Ahn) has an insistent, ambient drone with soulful, reverb-echoing guitar solo, beautiful blend of his old and newer sonic palettes. "Clear Blue Eyes," which finds him trying to keep to the emotional pace of the brilliant Lucinda Williams, nevertheless is a moving and slowly smoking country-tinged ballad. The closer, "Behind Me Now / El Camino Reprise", is the strongest tune on the record. Lee's voice reaches a delicate but strong falsetto, as if moving forward with the lessons from the previous song-stories digested and ready to help with next steps. This is true soul, and it never hurts to have someone like Willie Nelson along to make sure the wisdom gained is realistic. Nelson's verses on the Reprise are genius, both somber and defiant.
Kudos to Amos Lee for expanding his musical horizons and for being willing to fail in public. Despite some missteps, "Mission Bell" shows flashes of the genius we have come to expect from Lee. While this time around his lyrics are, for the most part, not equal to the musical exploration, his innate sense of melody and vocal timing wrings plenty of emotion out of his words.
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