[11 October 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the trail of Norah Jones’ stardust, Amos Lee was signed to Blue Note Records. On Lee’s eponymous debut in 2005, producer Lee Alexander rendered Lee the male counterpart to Jones. The hushed tone of Amos Lee was quite appealing in parts but the production felt hesitant overall. Anyone who caught a performance by Lee in Spring 2005 witnessed a soulful and edgier personality than Amos Lee presupposed. At the time, PopMatters’ very own Matt Cibula assessed Lee’s future with these words: “Everything hinges on the next album, and whether or not he wants to really reach people” (27 May 2005). Well, the next album has quickly arrived and, with the keen ear of producer Barrie Maguire, Amos Lee reaches listeners with an assured, well-rounded set of introspective tunes.
Just under 40 minutes, Supply and Demand is a well-paced effort that improves on the elements that made Lee’s debut a noteworthy release among (primarily) the Starbucks set. A year on the road has transformed Lee’s voice into a grainy yet crystalline tenor. With its slightly Southern drawl, Lee’s voice is very well-suited to the material, most of which reflects on the uncertainty of love and fragility of relationships (i.e. life on the road.) On “Skipping Stones”, a short ditty threaded with gospel, Lee laments, “Now she’s left me for something more sure/ And I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” Particularly impressive is his phrasing on “Lovers will come/ Lovers will go.” The emotional depth of Lee’s voice saves the lyric from being cliché. Likewise, “Careless” presents a situation not unfamiliar to male singer-songwriters—a woman coming between two friends. Lee maps an authentic, passionate performance over his lyrics. “As you laid beside her/ I hope it felt good my friend”, Lee sings with a gentle spite. His emotion is viscerally communicated and without a friend or a lover, Lee is left with “The Wind”, an ode to the deafening silence of a loveless night. A slight echo on the vocal track makes lines like “A cold rain blows on my window/ A soft scent gone from my pillow” even colder and lonelier.
Not all the songs are ruminations about love gone wrong. Amos Lee is also concerned with larger human condition themes. The cover photo by Lucille Reyboz depicts Lee leaning against his guitar case, his gaze firmly fixed downward in space while people whisk by him in the background. Lee is still and focused amidst the chaos. This image suggests how Lee might conjure ideas for his lyrics: he observes the tiny details of human behavior around him and then channels these observations into rich, aurally redolent songs. The cover photo could even be a snapshot from “Night Train”: “Nobody looks you in the eye here/ Walkin’ round with clenched fists/ I been searchin’ for a simple place/ Don’t know if it exists.” Lee is able to reach the people because he is one of the people, canvassing the human condition and all its frailties.
Though the subject matter on Supply and Demand is similar in scope to Amos Lee, the musical arrangements are markedly more varied. “Shout Out Loud”, the first single from Supply and Demand, benefits from a charged backing unit, including Nate Skiles (guitar), Chris Joyner (organ), Jaron Olevsky (bass and piano), and Fred Berman (drums). Lee himself is palpably comfortable and confident on vocals and guitar. (It’s hard to fathom that this is the same singer who whispered “Black River” on his debut not more than a year ago.) Most impressive on “Shout Out Loud” is the way Lee harmonizes with his lead vocal in a higher register. “Southern Girl”, easily a follow-up single, also exhibits this technique to great effect and proves what a difference a year between albums and the input of a different producer makes.
It must be stated that Lee’s lamentations may not serve the needs of all listeners. There’s not an ounce of bombast on the album and the songs are wary of overproduction, which might underwhelm listeners who crave a jolt. This works in Lee’s favor, however, for he’ll inevitably expand his audience with each album and establish a long career as his songs and musical expression matures. In the meantime, unlike the woman Lee misses so much, the songs on Supply and Demand will comfort you on a cold, sleepless night.