Though his voice anchors each song, the arrangements and production take on new styles and colors that forgo the folk and roots leanings of the past.
It’s been 11 years since I first heard “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight” from Amos Lee’s Blue Note debut that bore his name as the title. It was nice downtempo slice of soulful, ’70s singer-songwriter groove. It just happened to be the right song at the right time, on the right label. Blue Note Records had already nurtured two artists who took elements of jazz and soul, and incorporated folk and Americana in varying permutations: Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones. You can see a continuum that in a way took Blue Note from being jazz-focused to one that could be considered an artist-centric imprint, such that Ryan Adams’ self-titled career-resurging album was issued by the label. In all his genre blind meanderings, 11 years ago Blue Note issuing a Ryan Adams album would seem ludicrous to most people familiar with the label, but they had the confidence in Amos Lee to be the bridge to a future no one would expect.
That’s a testament to Lee’s talent and consistency. Over those 11 years, he released five albums for Blue Note before leaving the label. Each album saw his songcraft dig deeper into the roots of the varying genres he blended, enriching the authenticity of the songs, their arrangements, and production. That kind of progression and evolution was important given Lee’s voice. The vibrato that colors his tenor gives it a natural soulfulness that makes anything artificial put up against it feel flimsy and disposable.
This growth was showcased exceptionally well on 2008’s Last Days at the Lodge, and then those expansive leaps into his influences were refined and sharpened to a specific focus for Mission Bell. The tension of the material replaced the easy swagger of past with all manner of yearning. At times a tinge of twang grew more prominent, and the appearances of Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson made his next album, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, the next logical step, embracing a fair amount of traditional country balladry and unadorned roots music. There are moments of Southern soul, but one song stood out as a wild card, and an impressive one at that: “High Water,” which may very well be the most modern-sounding track he’d recorded to that point. While the production of that song was modern, the song itself was a riveting bit of blues lament. The significance of that track and its modern flair is that it’s the only precedent we have for “Vaporize,” the lead single from the just-released Spirit, Lee’s debut for Island Republic Universal.
Spirit takes Lee’s distinctive voice and sets it against a variety of genre backdrops, which isn’t anything new—but the genres themselves are. Though his voice anchors each song, as it should, the arrangements and production take on new styles and colors that forgo the folk and roots leanings of the past. It’s fair to say that Spirit is to Amos Lee what most post-1979 releases were to your favorite ’70s singer-songwriters, an adventure in the studio with every resource available and an ear to new ideas. The results may be polarizing, but one thing that’s worth taking into account is that great artists find a way to bring alive studio material that may not flatter their previous work, doing so in such a way that makes it click for fans. It’s time to find out. | Willie E. Smith
Amos Lee tours the U.S. through November, with stops at The Pageant in St. Louis on 9/27, the Buell Theater in Denver on 11/4, and the Boulder Theater in Boulder on 11/5.
09.23 | Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, Atlanta
09.24 | Orpheum Theatre, Memphis
09.26 | Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville
09.27 | The Pageant, St. Louis
09.28 | Uptown Theater, Kansas City
10.26 | Old National Centre, Indianapolis
10.28 | Chicago Theatre, Chicago
10.29 | Riverside Theater, Milwaukee
10.30 | Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis
11.01 | Hoyt Sherman Place, Des Moines
11.02 | Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts, Salina KS
11.04 | Buell Theatre, Denver
11.05 | Boulder Theater, Boulder
11.07 | Eccles Theatre, Salt Lake City
11.09 | Spreckels Theatre, San Diego
11.11-12 | The Theatre at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles
11.14 | Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Santa Rosa
11.15 | Fox Theater, Oakland
11.17 | McDonald Theatre, Eugene OR
11.18 | Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland
11.19 | Paramount Theater, Seattle