Thursday, January 11, 2007

“Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” / Amos Lee

Sometimes it pays to take a blind chance. I bought the 2005 album Amos Lee after seeing an ad in The Oxford American’s excellent annual music issue; whatever that ad promised, it made me curious, and I was in the mood for something new. The minute I slid that CD into my stereo system and heard “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,” I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

Amos first got “discovered” opening for Norah Jones, and he’s been lucky enough to piggyback on her success. Like hers, his music straddles a lot of genres: folk, rock, gospel, blues, country, even funk and ragtime. And like Norah Jones, Amos Lee could be called middle-of-the-road. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, shoot me now.) His approach is sensitive but not confessional, uplifting but not overtly spiritual, politically liberal but not confrontational. But his music is also incredibly tuneful, rhythmic, and above all sincere – and that counts for a lot with me. The arrangements are tactful, low-key, with just a few musicians and no fancy studio effects. And then there’s Amos’s supple, mellow, earnest voice -- for that alone I could listen to this music for hours.

Yeah, there are some politics in “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” -- but who could argue with lines like, “But the people on the street / Out on buses or on feet / We all got the same blood flow.” Besides, this all-men-are-brothers philosophy totally rings true, coming from a multi-racial dude who grew up poor in a tough Philly neighborhood. I like to think that this track's loping rhythms and laid-back acoustic arrangement are the “keep it loose” half of the equation, while Amos’ glorious scat-like singing is the “keep it tight” half.

To me, this song is all about striking balance, learning how to find your equilibrium, whether it’s an uncomfortable encounter with the landlord or a hopeless affection for a girl who may not be faithful to him (“I’m in love with a girl who’s in love with the world / Though I can’t help but follow”). Whichever he’s facing, Amos reasons, he needs to learn to let go, not to pin his heart on false dreams – those “over the rainbow” illusions society sells us. Don’t expect him to rage against anything; that’s not Amos Lee’s style. He’ll just shimmy his voice over the rainbow for a wistful moment, then slide back down to earth.

Lyrics? Usually I’m drawn to clever lyrics, but Amos Lee tends to be more inarticulate and vague -- that’s the way people talk when they’re sincere, after all. Still, there are some subtle beauties if you listen carefully. I love the bridge, where the song completely hushes down to focus attention on Amos' nugget of wisdom. The first time around, pondering the lust for fame and fortune, he advises us, “Sometimes we forget what we got / Who we are, and who we are not”; but the second time around, just by changing a few pronouns, it becomes a statement about not trying to own the people you love: “Sometimes we forget who we got / Who they are, or who they are not.” His voice hovers so tenderly over these simple words, it goes straight to my heart. That’s the kind of gold worth finding.

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