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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1398

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Amos Lee
by George Graham

(Blue Note 97350 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/30/2005)

Every generation lays claim to its own music. That is, after all, how the art-form moves forward. So it is generally considered something of an anomaly when a young artist looks to a period before he was born as his principle source of inspiration. That seems to be happening with increasing frequency these days. And the best results usually occur when the young artist is inspired the by old music, rather than trying to copy it.

This week we have another worthy example. It's the debut national CD by singer-songwriter Amos Lee, which bears his name as its title.

Amos Lee is 27 years old and grew up in the Philadelphia-Cherry Hill, New Jersey area. It wasn't until college, at the University of South Carolina, which he entered in 1995, that he decided to take up the guitar in earnest, and soon began writing songs, drawing encouragement from a number of musical friends at college.

After graduation, Lee returned to Philadelphia and began teaching elementary school, but decided that he would like to make music his career. He took the plunge, quit teaching and took up odd jobs like waiting tables as he concentrated on writing and performing where he could, as well as making demo recordings. He was soon attracting attention first in Philadelphia and then among wider audience when he was invited to do opening slots for some well-known performers, such as Norah Jones.

Lee writes that his favorite period in music was 1970 to 1975, citing recordings such as John Prine's first LP, Bill Withers' Still Bill, Neil Young's Harvest, and James Taylor's One Man Dog all made about seven or eight years before Amos Lee was born. That list of albums helps to sum up the influences that go into Lee's easy-going original songs that run from folky to soulful, all performed in a tasteful, understated, largely acoustic instrumental setting. Lee definitely takes his cues from his favorite musical period for his vocal delivery, with a style that is a kind of blend of some of those artists. He does favor the soul side of things, with a relaxed, easy-going style that one can listen to all day, though sometimes he does try very hard to be the soulful singer, when playing the folkie might have been a bit better. But it's hardly grounds for complaint. Interestingly, despite the laid-back comfortable sound of the CD, Lee writes a lot of lyrics that are at least a little on the sad side, with lovers missing each other being a common theme.

Lee is joined by some excellent New York-based musicians, including guitarist Adam Levy, who worked with Norah Jones, bassist Lee Alexander, who srved as the CD's producer, plus keyboard man Devin Greenwood. Ms. Jones herself sits in on two tracks, one with piano and the other with keyboards and backing vocals.

At 36 minutes, the CD is a bit skimpy in length, but it does offer 11 songs, all originals by Lee, leading off with one of its highlights, Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight. The song considers the changing of life's circumstances, while Norah Jones is heard on the piano. <<>>

Lee shows his combination of James Taylor and Neil Young influence on Seen It All Before. Again, it's a very good piece of writing, sounding like a song that has been around for decades, while Lee and his band gets it all right. <<>>

Give It Up is an interesting track, being one Lee's most rhythmic songs, but performed without drums. The lyrics are also a bit more positive in mood though still seeming to be in the "unrequited love" category. <<>>

Amos Lee's blue-eyed soul is at its best on the song Arms of a Woman, whose premise is a man missing his significant other. The performance by Lee and the band is virtually perfection. <<>>

Given the CD's generally intimate sound, it is a bit of a surprise when a string section -- admittedly a small one -- is brought in for the song Soul Suckers, whose lyrics are appropriately introspective. It's another memorable track on a CD that has much to offer. <<>>

The other song featuring Norah Jones, this time on both keyboards and backing vocals, is called Colors and continues the laid-back mood of the CD, though for me it's not the best track the recording has to offer. <<>>

Amos Lee's folk side is perhaps best represented on the track called Bottom of the Barrel, with arguably the most optimistic lyrics on the whole album. There's some mandolin and stand-up bass giving the song a kind of back-porch quality. <<>>

On the other hand that is followed by Black River, a contemplative song whose lyrics have the quality of an old spiritual, seeking solace from sadness, though by means of the bottle. The song and the performance show a good deal of depth, with Amos Lee proving he is more than just a another young musical revivalist. <<>>

Amos Lee, by the artist of the same name, is an impressive recording by a performer who readily cites his influence from music from the period just before he was born, but it goes beyond only just trying to re-create the old styles. He is a talented songwriter with the ability to say a lot on few words, and an appealing vocalist whose relaxed sound easily moves between his influence by soul and folk. He is also joined by an outstanding band whose intimate, often sparse accompaniment further enhances the CD's tasteful, economical sound. It's a recording that starts out being easy to listen to, and then grows on even more with time.

Our sound quality grade is close to an "A." The sonic treatment is in keeping with, and enhances the understated atmosphere of the recording. The sound of Lee's vocals is a little inconsistent from one track to the next, but overall the sound is pleasing on a good stereo system, with at least a fair dynamic range.

Amos Lee's star seems to be rising with his CD on a major label, his touring with Norah Jones and then going on the road opening for Bob Dylan. So significant concert audiences may get to hear Amos Lee in that setting. His eponymous CD is definitely evidence of the work of an outstanding up-and-coming artist who knows how to draw on the past without letting it dominate his music.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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