New Hype Alert... But Will It Pan Out?
Amos Lee is a young singer-songwriter with an adorable look and an adorable voice and some adorable songs. I’d love to jump on the bandwagon, but I don’t do that, and I’ve got some worries about his preference for soft over loud, but I’m about ready to book a place on the hypemobile. It all depends on what he does next.
This album is absolutely easy to listen to: Lee is a soul singer, but his songs are mostly more like AAA-format folk-rock, which makes for an interesting tension. He displays Otis Redding-like vocal skill on “Arms of a Woman”, but the backing track sounds a lot more like modern-day Eric Clapton covering “Everybody Hurts”. When he kicks it up a little, like on “Give It Up”, he shows a feel for understated funk. Sadly, though, that is the ONLY up-tempo track on the record. Everything else here is acoustic minimalism; several songs like “Black River” and “All My Friends” barely exist except for Lee’s whispered vocals.
The best word for this record might be lovely. “Soul Suckers” goes into Seal territory, strange chord changes with unexpected string swells, Lee vamping over the track with his lovely tenor, jumping into falsetto to nail lines like “Nothing is more powerful than beauty in a wicked world”. “Bottom of the Barrel” is CSNY-style country-folk, two perfect minutes of olde-tymey chiming mandolins and two-step fun. Lee’s love of country and rock and soul signifiers reminds me a lot of the way his labelmate Norah Jones does things, which s why it’s not surprising to hear her chiming in with background vocals on “Colors”.
But “Colors”, like a couple of other tracks here, doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything. Lee has a tendency to under-write, which is a good impulse in a young songwriter, but he also places too much trust in his voice to carry the day. The ambient-country tune “Love in the Lies” offers up some excellent lines (“I ain’t no wide-eyed rebel / But I ain’t no preacher’s son / Now I see the trouble / In all the lovin’ I’ve done”) but never bothers to tie it all together. Choosing ambiguity over substance is dangerous, and should only be employed sparingly—it makes grumpy-ass critics think that maybe you have nothing to say after all.
I love the way Lee approaches modern music like a salad bar, and how he only takes a couple of ingredients at a time. This system could lead him down the wrong path, though, into a world where he’s just way too comfortable, where he worries about how the road will feel before he starts to walk. Everything hinges on the next album, and whether or not he wants to really reach people.
For now, he’s made a 36-minute record that is just as adorable as can be. Let’s celebrate that, and dream of the future.