Amos Lee: Mission Bell

The soulful folkie singer-songwriter teams up with Calexico to create folkie-soul singer-songwriter album that sounds a whole lot like other work in this well-worn style.

Amos Lee

Mission Bell

Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2011-01-25
UK Release Date: 2011-01-24

Mission Bell is the fourth collection from Amos Lee, a singer-songwriter from Philadelphia who can boast a charming voice and an easy-n-mellow style. When he debuted in 2005 on Blue Note Records with an eponymous disc featuring, essentially, Norah Jones’s band, listeners may have expected music with jazzy lilt as well as a coffeehouse-ready acoustic sound. But Lee’s strengths are, in fact, way more mainstream than those of Jones. Though his last collection (produced by Don Was) featured a few tracks with some genuine soul snap, Lee is mostly a contemporary King of Mellow.

If I may not quote Woody Allen: I don’t respond well to mellow. If I get too mellow, I ripen and then rot.

Amos Lee is very, very mellow on Mission Bell. Not that the songs here, produced by Joey Burns of the band Calexico, are not beautiful to hear. They hum with lovely acoustic textures -- the guitars and organ of Calexico, in fact -- that simmer beneath Lee’s graceful vocal sound. It’s a class job all the way -- real grown-up music, music your mother could love, every hair in place. Which is the dilemma.

The opener (and closer), “El Camino”, is a gentle folk-pop song about facing the California-Mexico border, heading home, with the most delicate acoustic guitar picking and piano minimalism you can imagine. A smidgen of horns color the bridge for a subtle south-of-the-border effect. Drums cut out for the first half of the last verse, because Burns knows what he’s doing. And Lee is compelling as a singer.

It’s lovely, but it’s formula-lovely. And this is underscored by the fact that the tune’s closing reprise features a guest named Willie Nelson, who kicks Lee’s butt all the way down the borderline. The arrangement is cut back to just acoustic guitar and harmonica, with the guitar now playing actual blue notes. This second version fixes what seems so mellow and mushy about the opener -- and about too much of the rest of Mission Bell. The problem with “mellow” is not that it’s quiet, but that it’s soothing, tapioca, bland and obvious.

Yes, these are harsh words for such a nice record. And it is nice. I dig the mid-tempo groove of “Flower”, with a crisp snare back-beat throughout, a soulful call-and-response chorus, and very tasty organ swells just where they are needed. This is a catchy tune. “My heart is a flower/That will bloom every hour/I believe in the power/of love”. So maybe the lyrics are a little sappy. But does it have a drumless breakdown on the last verse for dramatic effect? Yes it does. Almost exactly like on “El Camino”? Yup.

Here is something different: Lee dueting with the great Lucinda Williams on “Clear Blue Eyes”. But, man, is it ever a dull song. It’s a dirge with no real chorus, with Lee lamenting that someone has done something terrible to someone else. But what? Why? The little taste of harmonizing on the repeated first verse provides slim relief from the massive waste of opportunity here.

“Cup of Sorrow” has the medium-tempo trot of a good country song, a nice change of pace (Lucinda, maybe you should have asked to sing on this one?). Lee sounds great doing this kind of song, and the arrangement again exploits a great organ sound and some gospel-tinged backing voices. But, right on cue after the instrumental section, there it is: the breakdown verse with no drums, back into the last chorus with a tag. It’s way too much like driving down a suburban street and realizing that every house on the block looks exactly the same.

What’s good here? I like the tune “Jesus”, which has a cool texture: some vibes setting up the groove, covered by low guitars with a dirty tone, then hand claps as the vocals enter. It’s a bit of a groove tune, with tambourine entering on the second verse, haunting deep harmony vocals, an ominous Wurlitzer piano that buzzes deep in the sound, and even distorted harmonica. As a melody, it’s thin, but the groove is a slow, grinding thing, and the dissonance keeps it from being too “nice”. It ain’t mellow. “Hello Again” has a different sound too: Lee going to his Stevie Wonder bag for the melody and vocal approach and Burns putting in a light Latin groove as underpinning. “Windows Are Rolled Down” has an inspiring lift as it moves along, the most heavily produced track here, but interesting nonetheless.

The trap with a talent like Amos Lee is that, as a singer-songwriter, he may be only special before the hyphen. The songs on Mission Bell are pleasant but well short of memorable. The melodies are generic, passable, same-sounding. And though this isn’t pop music aimed at The Charts, are we churlish or shallow if we hope for a hook, a riff that snags the ear, a chorus that rises up out of the verse and breaks through into some kind of musical sunshine? Might not the lyrics bug us a little or make us want more or remind us of a particular day in our childhood? These things don’t happen. While Lee is often compared to Stevie Wonder or James Taylor or Bill Withers, there isn’t a single song on Mission Bell that anyone would ever, ever, ever mistake for the artistry of those wonderful singers ... and songwriters.

Fans of Lee -- of his soulful and stylish singing, at least -- may find Mission Bell to be a passable placeholder until a better collection of songs and a more inventive set of arrangements are assembled. But the truth is that Amos Lee’s music does feel assembled at this point. His formula is reliable, but kind of snooze-worthy.

If Norah Jones was a kind of model or mentor for him early on, then perhaps Lee needs to follow her lead and get a little weird, make a rock album, make some crazy sounds. But for now, Amos Lee seems like he’s biding time, cashing in on a few well-known guest stars (also here: Priscilla Ahn, Pieta Brown, Sam Beam, and drummer James Gadson), and nursing along his case of deep mellow.

To these ears at least, Lee has ripened and started to rot.





'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.