Monday, February 21, 2011

Poignant Stoicism: Amos Lee's Mission Bell

If only everyone could articulate their heartaches and breakdowns like Amos Lee. Mission Bell, the fourth album from this former elementary school teacher, offers a polished blend of country, blues, folk, gospel and soul all wrapped up and presented with the upmost poignant stoicism. In this sombre memoir, Amos offers twelve introspective reviews of everyday life, loss and learning. He also confirms his diverse and prolific abilities to cascade musical genres.

Mission Bell’s lead off tracks, with the brooding “El Camino” and “Violin,” displays Lee’s talents in contemporary folk and country. “El Camino”yes, what would a country singer be without an automobile reference – radiates images of memory, moving on and spiritual cleansing. Lee revisits this tune, arguably the best one on the album, later with idol Willie Nelson. “Violin” visits the pain of living in the moment, surrounded by the pressures of the world while hoping for someone to pull you through. He admits that, “Lately I have been heading for a breakdown,” while watching a number of (all too common) heartbreaking scenes such as “lovers using words as ammunition.” All the while, the musician never loses his composure, or delivery, assuring the listener that Amos is never going to lose it himself. Lee continues to explore various sounds and styles through the haunted folk ballad Out in the Cold. He even explores his Bill Withers side as he belts out “Jesus,” and applies his bluegrass, gospel abilities with “Cup of Sorrow.”

Amos Lee
Born Ryan Anthony Massaro in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lee grew up in both the City of Brotherly Love and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In the mid-90s, the artist pursued a degree in English at the University of South Carolina. Between taking a position in a record store and receiving a guitar as a gift, Lee soon discovered his passion for music. Although he pursued a position back in Philadelphia as a teacher, his music career prevailed. Lee left his day job and dedicated his life to songwriting. He released his self-titled EP in 2003, which led to a record deal with Blue Notes and caught the attention of singer/songwriter Norah Jones. Lee was invited to open for Jones on her 2004 tour, which catapulted his career. Jones’s bassist, Lee Alexander, produced Lee’s full length studio album, things would never be the same.

Since his breakthrough, Lee experienced a crescendo of success. The single “Coloursfrom his debut album was played on television programs such as House, Grey’s Anatomy and Parenthood. His sophomore album, Supply and Demand, placed him on the Billboard 200 and on the Tonight Show in 2006. When his charming ditty “Sweet Pea” featured on an AT&T commercial, Lee joined the movement of folksy acoustic unknowns who broke into the mainstream after a having an adorable song featured in a major commercial. He also proved his breadth ability with the blue-eyed soul “Makin’ Love.” His talent did not go unnoticed by his peers. By his fourth album, Lee caught the eye of other musical talents like Lucinda Williams, Sam Beam (aka Iron Wine) and Willie Nelson, all lend of whom their vocals to tracks on his latest release.

Fans will appreciate how Mission Bell continues that trademark Amos Lee sound, but on a higher level, with more maturity, intimacy and wisdom. Given his simple and subdued instrumentals, plus his powerful, but controlled, rusty vocals, some may find the album bordering on too mellow. Seemingly it may sound like a calm body of water, but beneath its surface, there’s a lot going on. Attention needs to be paid to his song writing ability, one that’s inspired by life, restlessness and a dignified sorrow. 

 Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

No comments:

Post a Comment