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Amos Lee: Mission Bell
32-year-old American singer-songwriter Amos Lee can easily be pigeonholed into the folk genre, given his mellow acoustic sound and sweet voice. In fact, Lee’s sound is described best as a fusion of jazz, folk, soul, gospel and country. Debuting in 2005, Lee has recorded duets with Norah Jones and played alongside Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
Three albums later, Lee is back in 2011 with Mission Bell, a twelve-track album produced by Joey Burns of indie rock band Calexico and featuring Calexico, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Sam Beam, also known as Iron & Wine. The album feels more like a tribute to all of Lee’s diverse musical genres and influences, including Bill Withers and James Taylor.
Lee seems to be experminenting with different genres to see which fits best, shifting between gospel, soul and country. His mellow, acoustic songs talk about redemption, faith and romantic loss set against sweet and simple arrangements. His tracks would definitely fall into the easy-listening category; but that may also be a disadvantage: though it’s a pleasure to listen to, the album doesn’t come across as particularly memorable.
Lee channels Stevie Wonder on ‘Hello Again’, an easy, sing-along ballad with a smooth Latin groove and brass trumpets in the background. Then he shifts drastically to ‘Jesus,’ a heavy gospel song with handclaps, tambourines and a distorted harmonica that sets the scene for the gritty sound of the low electronic guitar. It’s a good song that strays so true to the gospel formula; you expect a church choir to break out at any time. Not only is Bill Withers’ influence heavily felt on this track; but his band member James Gadson is featured on guitar as if to confirm this tribute.
‘Out of The Cold’ takes a more sober route with an echoing sound complete with acoustic guitars, subtle rhythm and lyrics that barely scrape the surface of trauma and solitude – the song was apparently inspired by his visit to a military rehabilitation centre: ‘Twenty two years/ Still you feel so old/ It takes a lot of love/ Coming out of the cold’.
‘Violin’ is one of the strongest tracks on the album, showcasing his honey-like vocals with a melancholic melody and echoing background vocals by Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam.
On ‘Behind Me Now/ El Camino Reprise,’ Lee takes the first part of the song, echoing his vocals against an organ and acoustic guitars; making the song sound like the soundtrack to an empty desert road. Country legend Willie Nelson duets with Lee on the second part ‘El Camino Reprise’, his nasal voice providing the perfect sound to Lee's country song.
Mission Bell is a good acoustic album with some standout tracks; the kind that you’ll play in the background while reading a book or having a coffee. It’s essentially not as captivating as it should be, but the album will wash over you like a warm, pleasant wave.
Album opener ‘San Angeles’ will get feet moving and booties shaking, but the rest of the album is decidedly more post-rock oriented. The influences of Pink Floyd only really make a grand appearance on psychedelic tune ‘Lunar Drift’, with its spooky synths and echoing bass line.
‘The Eliminator’ takes the listener back to the eighties again, as the repetitive electronic beat that is used sounds a lot like the 8-bit sounds that were the backdrop for many early eighties video games. Imagine the aforementioned desert wasteland turning 8-bit coloured.
The eighties also dominate in the strummed intro to ‘Martin Rev’, evoking memories of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. You’d almost think the guys of Maserati had wished they were making music a few decades ago.