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.
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.