Singer songwriter Amos Lee has a pleasant and soulful voice. When he sings of the sweetness of life, you can feel his high. When he croons about the pain, the ache comes through clearly, even though in both cases Lee accomplishes this through subtle vocal intonations. It’s the aural equivalent of an arched eyebrow or the wiping of a single tear. The pleasures of Lee’s music can best be found through an appreciation of his singing.
Songwriters tend to set their material in three places: the past, through memory and reflection; the present, through observation of the world around them; and the future, using the power of the imagination. As a lyricist, Lee tends to combine the three approaches. However, that’s not really a good thing because as a consequence his songs seem to be placed in no place and time. The songs may have personal significance to the author, but what he means remains vague.
Consider these lyrics:
“I grew up in the dark streets
Where voices called
You don’t know your friends from your enemies
When will I be free”
So where do you think Lee is? The song is inexplicably named “Indonesia”. Maybe something archetypal happens here, but more likely Lee is mixing things up in his mind and giving an emotional impression of something strange and exotic. The words confuse rather than enlighten. That said, “Indonesia” is a good song despite its inherent nebulousness. The words work better as sounds. Lee’s voice resonates with the isolation of living in a cruel world where no one cares. The lyrics are just a front in which he can invest phrasings with feelings.
This motif of imprecision continues whether Lee’s singing about a person (“Loretta”) or people in general (“Tricksters, Hucksters, and Thieves”). Lee celebrates Loretta’s character, but his primary evidence is that if she has a spare dollar and one is in need, she will give the person a loan. So if Loretta has extra dough, with the emphasis on extra, she will help out. That’s worth praise? Lee has to offer more evidence. And what about those corrupt individuals? We are left with nameless politicians or con artists without any idea of what they really have done. Again, the merit of these tracks can be found in their general aura. The closer one listens, the less one hears.
Even the eloquently title track from which the album gets its name seems unearned. “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song” evokes a rich tradition of folk and country music. He’s backed by the glorious harmonizing voice of Patty Griffin and dobro maven Jerry Douglas. But the song goes nowhere. There is just not much to it.
This is Lee’s fifth studio album. The good news is that he continues to explore new styles. This disc, recorded in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce, is much more rootsy than the Lee who made adult alternative rock when he first started out. Lee still may be on the Blue Note label, but this is Americana more than jazz.
And there are times, when Lee seems to let go and say what’s on his mind without cloaking his thoughts in shrouded terms. The best example of this can be found when Lee sings, “And next time you go downtown to fuck that asshole / Do one last thing for me / Don’t park your car down on Charles Street” on the song entitled “Charles Street”. The specific details capture Lee’s sorrow. This is no dark street. This is Charles Street. One does not need to know the town or state it is in to know what causes Lee to hurt, but the focus on the avenue shows that so much depends on it, like that red wheelbarrow William Carlos Williams famously wrote about. Lee’s concentration on the minor reveals the depth of his discomfort.
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