A transition for Amos Lee

Singer-songwriter wanders between '70s-influenced soul and folk-pop on his latest effort

July 10, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun pop music critic

From the start, it hasn't been clear where Amos Lee fits in. Is he country, pop, folk, jazz or soul? Like similar artists before him, namely Bill Withers and Terry Callier, Lee melds elements of each style in his music. And in the process, he has garnered critical acclaim. Shortly after the release of his 2005 self-titled debut, Lee crisscrossed the country as the opening act for Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard, establishing a solid fan base among folk and rock fans along the way.

But on his latest album, Last Days at the Lodge, his third release on Blue Note Records, the artist seems to be at a style crossroads. This time, he straddles the fence between just two approaches: '70s-influenced soul and folk-pop. But, true to form, he doesn't neatly settle in either one.

"This album - it's more about transition personally as well as politically," says Lee, who headlines Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Wednesday night. "The songs show that."

Of his three albums, Last Days, which was released two weeks ago, feels the most tentative. Throughout the course of the 11 songs, Lee vacillates between yearning (and very convincing) soul ballads and well-meaning (but mostly forgettable) folk-blues numbers.

The acoustic soul sound, which was far more subtle on his previous albums, is punched up on Last Days, mostly via Lee's full, seductive vocals. The aching ballad "Won't Let Me Go," a highlight on the album, is a prime example. On the cut, the artist evokes Al Green circa 1973.

"The songs that I wrote this time called for more of that sound," says Lee, who last week was at a tour stop in New York City. "The musicians helped tremendously to establish that feel."

Produced by Don Was, perhaps best known for his work with Was (Not Was), Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones and others, Last Days boasts an impressive list of seasoned studio vets. Keyboardist Spooner Oldham, who played on Aretha Franklin's legendary Atlantic sessions in the late '60s, offers warm, economical lines. Other musicians on the sessions (most notably bassist Pino Palladino and drummer James Gadson) also provide understated but rock-solid support.

Lee's songs are assured and forthright as they mostly center on romantic love ("Won't Let Me Go" and "Baby I Want You") and spiritual perseverance ("Kid" and "Better Days").

But the musical direction feels uncertain. Throughout the album, it seems Lee is aesthetically confused. Although his folkish efforts are pleasant, they don't feel as urgent or as rich as the precious few soul offerings on the new album.

"Like I said, this album is more of a transition," says Lee, 29. "I'm hoping to get deeper into the songwriting - listening to myself and other musicians."

While recording Last Days, the Philly-based singer-musician was on a steady diet of overlooked vintage soul albums, including Al Green's The Belle Album, Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall and Snooks Eaglin's New Orleans Street Singer. The intimacy and lyrical sincerity of those recordings heavily influenced the new album.

In a disposable pop age where most young major-label artists are hurriedly stuffed into rigid marketing niches, Lee says he's grateful for the chance to wander musically to find what feels right.

"Sometimes, you're not sure if you're helping the world making music," says the former elementary school teacher. "But I really like my new job. I hope I'm reaching with it. The music is always honest."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Amos Lee at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, at 6:30 and 9:30 Wednesday night. Tickets are $25. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadtavern.com.

ONLINE

Hear clips from Last Days at the Lodge at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

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