[23 June 2008]
After three years of being celebrated in the press as the male Norah Jones, it was obviously time for Philadelphia’s Amos Lee to spread his soulful wings and gently soar. And that’s just what the singer/songwriter does on his third studio album in as many years. With heavyweights like Muscle Shoals’ veteran keyboard player Spooner Oldham (think Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” or Aretha Franklin at her mid-‘60s height) and James Gadson, formerly with the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, on drums, providing some funky grist to the mill, Last Days at the Lodge builds upon the folksy, sweet soul sophistication of Lee’s previous outings. The intimate story-songs that made up the performer’s laid-back, self-titled debut in 2005 and 2006’s Supply and Demand, several of which have appeared on some of our favorite TV shows, are still in evidence (see the lush “Won’t Let Me Go” and wistful “It Started to Rain”). This time, though, his heartfelt tales of melancholy introspection, cheating women, and jealous lovers have been lightly gilded with broadstroke orchestral flourishes, shrapnel-sharp guitar, and R&B grooves.
The fuller sound could be a by-product of hiring Don Was, founding member of Detroit’s left-field funksters Was (Not Was) and prolific producer, to helm. However, it’s more likely the result of all that time on the road spent steadily honing his craft as a support act for several big names. Because, let’s face it, when you perform in front of audiences who are already anticipating the moment Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, or Bob Dylan tune up, you better bring something more to the table than the stripped-down backing track to the previous evening’s epsiode of E.R. or the disappointingly short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—never mind that your first two albums have sold in excess of half a million copies.
Therefore, when the former elementary school teacher implores on the hook-laden, country-soul opener “Listen” to do just that, it’s eyes forward and ears pricked because Lee has powerful tales to tell. The lead-off track is a stark warning—whether of life on the road, or the exploitation of the poor, with lines like “Listen, you can hear them hounds / A callin’ off in the distance” floating over piping organ and fluid guitar as the singer pleads on the chorus “You can hear the angels fallin’”, you just know there’s trouble aplenty.
But there’s a veritable crop of literate story-songs to choose from on the 11 original cuts whose lyrics are far easier to comprehend, although no less troubling. Take your pick from the weathered, shuffling country-blues of “Truth”, a tale of brutal revenge and incarceration, or the smooth, funky wah-wah groove on “Jails and Bombs”, a Motown-flavored piece of social commentary that has Lee’s high-flying falsetto taking it to the church.
Nevertheless, there is one song which truly stands out from the pack. “Street Corner Preacher” is a powerful piece of finger-picked country-R&B that realistically describes a reformed jailbird who is “Back in the neighbourhood / Working for the saviour” only to rediscover the same “child soldiers” dodging bullets and sirens between the burnt-out inner city buildings. Sadly, it appears not much has changed in America since the release of Marvin Gaye’s classic song-cycle of urban and social degeneration, What’s Going On, in 1971.