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Chris Lee: Cool Rock

Jason MacNeil

Chris Lee

Cool Rock

Label: Misra
US Release Date: 2003-06-03
UK Release Date: Available as import

Chris Lee will be doing a slew of shows in August before doing a residency stay at New York's Living Room each Sunday in September. But given how the critics have hailed this album, Lee may be one singer-songwriter that could end up breaking through with a small pinch of luck or a few lucky breaks. Along the lines of other musical Big Apple talents, Lee shows off his melodic Ryan Adams-meets-John Mayer pop smarts on the opening track, "Cossacks of Love", an uplifting pop rock song that reeks of radio-friendly hooks. Helped out by Jeremy Wilms, who acts as a multi-instrumentalist, Lee comes off just a tad like a soulful Paul Westerberg.

"Sail On" has a slightly funkier feeling to it, with its vibraphones and subtle '70s bass lines. It might be considered a bit lightweight and too-closely resembling '70s light pop, but Lee has enough oomph to keep it contemporary with a nice and fluid chorus. The bridge only reconfirms that era of sound before moving back to today. "(I Was a Teenage) Symphony to God" -- which should not be confused with the Velvet Crush album of a slightly similar title -- is a jazz-pop track that isn't quite as sharp as it could be. Lee relies just a bit too much on the music to drive this song along, especially with the horns giving the impression of sounding better than it is. Fans of Steely Dan might find some comfort in this effort. "The devil's choir is in my head / Sinks me deeper into my bed", Lee sings.

The early and perhaps biggest high point comes along with the dusty and atmospheric "Lately I Want You", a gorgeous yet sparse ballad that moves at a lovely pace. Bringing to mind Elvis Costello's "I Want You", but without the overt obsession and desperation, Lee sings about letting go but quietly second-guessing his actions. The tune shows Lee's better side. The track has a certain country hue embedded deep within. Songs like this one show the mettle of an artist, and Lee aces the test. "Bronx Science (Julie Ann)" is more of a tight dreamy pop song that is an instant toe-tapper if not deep in thought. Again this has a certain early Costello feel to it, with the Attractions-like flare on the supporting music during the chorus. It also ends at the right moment, clocking just less than three minutes.

One song which seems weak, or, given the strength of the previous tune, not nearly as good is "Understand (I'm Your Man)". It's the sort of song which should have movie credits rolling as it plays, having that certain romantic yet clichéd style to it. This is a song that a soulful singer like Remy Shand would drop onto tape at the drop of a hat, but for Lee it sounds much too forced. "Say It Ain't Soul" is another high moment on this album, as Lee doesn't give off a polished and prepackaged soul sound. "I'm just a man who sings what I know", Lee proclaims over acoustic guitar strumming and quiet electric guitar. Lee comes across like a soulful Ron Sexsmith on his latest album, Cobblestone Runway. If there is one slight drawback, he tends to drag the conclusion out a bit longer than needed with more acoustic guitars.

Moving seamlessly into the concluding song, "Nobody Cares for Me", Lee sounds as if he's continuing the previous song with an eerily similar format and sound. But he is able to get the tune over the quality bar. It's an interesting and fitting end that proves Chris Lee is in this gamut for the long haul.

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