You know, I'm not the chick you'd usually come to for a review of the nation's #1 best-selling album. 2011's been a little surprising in that respect, though. First there was the Decemberists' The King Is Dead (yeah, I'll get around to that eventually), and now here's this unassuming and utterly charming album from Amos Lee, Mission Bell.
Granted, it was noteworthy as one of the lowest-selling #1 albums in recent memory -- America's record companies are still going downhill faster than a soapbox derby racer. Nevertheless, nothing else sold better the last week of January, and that's a beacon of hope. Keep this up, America, and I'm going to have to retract all those nasty things I've said about mass market tastes.
Here's my review of the album on blogcritics (I'm still waiting for my one dissenting reader to come back and explain himself). Two weeks later, "Hello Again" is the track that keeps haunting me. That groovy samba rhythm isn't typical Amos Lee, but its mellow-yet-mournful mood sure is. There's always a faint depressive gloom hanging over his songs, which he smoothly sells as sensitive-guy emotionality. I do recognize the formula, but hey, it works for me.
If you're going to write a kiss-off song -- and this is definitely a kiss-off song ("You used to be so beautiful / But you lost it somewhere along the way") -- you've got two moods to choose from: vengeful anger or disappointed regret. Lee goes for the second one, jacking it up with a minor key and his most heartfelt plaintive vocals. That sigh of regret is a shrewd choice, because -- let's face it -- the kiss-off song really isn't always aimed at the girl he's breaking up with. Sometimes it's aimed at the next girl waiting in the wings: The Lady Listener, perhaps? I can't identify with his "you" (I've never hurt Amos Lee, have I?), but it's incredibly easy to slip myself into the scenario by contrast. And in this song, Amos sets himself up as an almost ideal potential boyfriend -- a guy who wants to be in love, but isn't carrying a torch for his ex.
Amos Lee's voice isn't just beautiful, it's beautiful in a particularly passionate way -- the soul half of his folk-soul dialectic. I find it really remarkable how he pulls this off without sounding sappy or cheesy. I'd never thought of him as the heir to Stevie Wonder before, but this song goes for emotional broke in the same sincere way that Stevie made his trademark. Kudos, Amos!
The thing that Mission Bell adds to the Amos Lee formula is more instrumental texture, and I love the extra shadings on this track -- the tango piano, the wind-down-the-canyon whistle of a theremin, the conquistador trumpet in the break. For a Philly guy, he's done a remarkable job here of capturing the mood of a spaghetti Western. Somehow he layers that Clint Eastwood identity, the strong-but-silent guy with a history, on top of his sensitive troubadour act -- and miraculously, it sticks.
I'm not going to pretend that this isn't fairly mainstream stuff; it's not as if Robyn Hitchcock or Jonathan Richman or Graham Parker suddenly blazed onto the charts. Still, there's real musicianship here, and a fair amount of integrity. At least I feel Amos Lee believes what he's singing, in a way that I never believe John Mayer does. To have that rewarded with a #1 record -- well, that's something.