Shawn Brown’s The Screaming Life: Stop Selling Amos Lee Short

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(Photos by Geoff Tischman)

Fuck music critics.

Fuck them back into their teenage rooms so they can surround themselves with rare Smiths vinyl E.P.’s and Elvis Costello rarities. Apparently it’s too much to ask for the supposedly learned music press to shower appropriate levels of rocket juice over a truly great artist without covering him in the collective goo of his musical influences. Its hard to see Amos Lee these days without needing a Vespa-sized snow shovel to rescue him from all the sticky that comes with being a uniquely gifted singer and songwriter.

Another quick note to the greater, greater music press: go back to high school and relearn adjectives, adverbs, and the occasional noun. Amos Lee deserves better.

Philadelphia’s Amos Lee has released three records (2005’s Amos Lee, 2006’s Supply and Demand, and 2008’s Last Days at the Lodge) to varying degrees of critical and commercial success. He’s been named one of Rolling Stone’s To 10 Artists to Watch and toured with Dylan, Haggard, Paul Simon and Elvis Costello. Very quietly, Lee has become one of this generation’s most interesting and celebrated songwriters. He just hasn’t seemed to shake all the constant comparisons. Scarcely to be found anywhere is an article written about Lee that doesn’t grossly exaggerate his connection to Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and James Taylor. It’s just not fair or accurate to distill this former grade school teacher down to what his record collection might look like; his accomplishments are all his own.

Recently Lee released Mission Bell, his fourth album for EMI/Blue Note. While his other records are full of simple, soulful, blue-eyed, acoustic gems, set against his truly remarkable voice, this is a much different animal. This time, Lee’s sound is downright huge. Produced by Calexico genius Joey Burns, this is Lee’s most fully realized, emotional album to date. While maintaining his traditional eclectic tastes in songwriting, the expansive sound sets apart these tracks with their scope. That being said, Mission Bell is a giant step for Amos Lee. He brings along with him a downright impressive list of co-conspirators including Seam Beam (Iron & Wine), Priscilla Ahn, Pieta Brown, James Gadsom, and both Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. Recorded with Joey Burns and the rest of Calexico, this is a dramatic album, filled with a very different texture than his previous work.

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Lee’s pristine vocals have never been recorded the way they are on this record. He includes all the ache of his past work in tracks like “Stay” and “Out In The Cold,” while both “Windows Are Rolled Down” and “Flower” are up-tempo and razor clean. However, “Violin” may be the best representation of his growth as a recording artist. He got a good dose of vibe from Sam Beam on this song, but his songwriting, as always, is uniquely his own. It’s a heartbreaking track about chasing a full life and asking for a little help from a higher power. Lee typically uses lots of gospel overtones in his music. Sometimes it can be on-the-nose, but in this case, it’s utter perfection. It’s a haunting piece of work and it will break your heart: “Oh god why have you been hangin’ out in that old violin/While I’ve been waiting for you to pull me through?”

Last month, Amos Lee took the stage to the roar of a sold-out San Francisco Fillmore crowd. They sang and cheered and cried right along with him. He had the look of a confident performer; one who has just about achieved what he’s been chasing his whole career. His larger band aids him in expressing his songs with all the soul and hope they can muster.

He had fun. too. He smiled and joked and sang. Even if at times onstage, he seems unsure or bemused as to what has been happening to him, the teacher from Philly is always brilliant and composed, letting his voice soar over the top of thousands of fans singing right along with him. In this instance, he was levitating.

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The long and short of it is simple: Amos Lee is a truly remarkable artist. Although all types of artists have clearly influenced him, he is doing his own thing (regardless of the goo). He’s recorded a truly incredible record and is in possession of one of clearest and unique voices (both as a writer and singer) in music today. He doesn’t need comparisons; he’s fully formed, while allowing for change. Keep the names of past greats as far away from him as possible. It taints his greatness and keeps you from seeing him for the artist he is.

Willie Nelson recently put down his joint to speak about Lee saying, “Great songwriters don’t come around that often. Amos is an exceptional artist, a true storyteller, unique to his generation.” While Lucinda Williams gushed, “Amos Lee knows how to use his voice to tell a story with a hint of mystery.”

Mission Bell is filled with that type of mystery. Equally beautiful and crushing, it’s the sound of an artist who knows exactly what he’s singing about and who he’s singing to.