Music

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
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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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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