Review Summary: Solid third album from the acclaimed Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter.
In a lot of ways, Amos Lee is a lucky man. Should he have had actually found the success that his marvelous debut album, 2005's Amos Lee
, deserved, then he'd probably now be all but washed up, with a legion of fans deserting him after the disappointing Supply and Demand
and every major media outlet viewing him as a has-been not worth devoting any serious coverage to. As it is, he remains something of a fringe concern - too clean-cut and accessible for the underground, not yet famous enough to be genuinely mainstream. And yet, he's signed to Blue Note, he's appeared in Rolling Stone, he's been invited on tour by Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, and this very album made the top 30 on the Billboard 200 album chart, an improvement of 90 or so places over the course of two albums. And all this with an album for which there was no major hype, no major expectation, and as of yet, no backlash.
Not that this means Lee is in a comfort zone. In fact, his tendency to drift in and out of his comfort zone is the feature that defines Last Days at the Lodge
. "Listen" announces straight away that this album will introduce new ideas and sounds, and for the length of that track at least, it feels as if this will rival his debut. "Listen" is simply a great song, but it's a false dawn; not only does it suggest that this album will be entirely different from the sound Lee established on his first two albums, but it also suggests that the new direction will be a rousing success. Neither is true.
Largely, this album can be divided in two - the songs that sound like Amos Lee
and Supply and Demand
, and the songs that don't. "Listen", "Truth", "Street Corner Preacher", "Kid", and "Ease Back" are the latter, while "Baby I Want You", "What's Been Going On", "It Started To Rain", "Jails and Bombs" (previously the B-side to "Colors"), and "Better Days" are the former. And once you get a handle on this album, you'll probably be able to pick out which is which even if you've never heard his first two albums, because the second of those two lists form the backbone of a solid, consistent album which the songs from the first list occasionally disrupt. "Truth" is the first culprit, its slightly uncertain and unconvincing performance during the verses a sure indicator of the comfort zone scenario I mentioned earlier. The southern-fried feel of "Street Corner Preacher" is similarly ineffective as far as the album as a whole goes. The Dylan impersonation on "Ease Back" fares a little better, though this is largely because of "Kid", the one song on the album that offers a bridge of sorts between the two styles.
Yet, it remains difficult to carp when faced with an album that contains no bad songs, and at least two that demand instant repeat listens. Aside from "Listen", "Won't Let Me Go" and "What's Been Going On" are shining examples of the kind of intimate feel and widescreen melodicism Amos Lee thrives in. There's a reason why his music has been used to soundtrack emotional montages on epsiodes of House, Grey's Anatomy, AND E.R. - songs like this are it. It's also nice to "Jails and Bombs" finally instated as an album track rather than a B-side, because it always deserved better than that.
Last Days at the Lodge
feels like Amos Lee has, quite consciously, followed the general rules for making a great album, or at least a critically acclaimed one. It doesn't alienate previous fans, it doesn't stick too close to the formula, the mood rises and falls at appropriate points without going all over the map, and so on. The problem is that you'll never create anything truly special by sticking to the rules, and we know by now that Amos Lee is capable of being special. Still, not everything you ever listen to or create needs to be special, and 'very good' will certainly suffice for now - certainly when you consider that the last time an unknown soul singer crafted a debut album as good as Amos Lee
, he followed it up with Neither Fish Nor Flesh
. As long as Lee stays on the straight and narrow, and keeps writing pop songs as beautiful as "What's Been Going On" and as arresting as "Listen", he's got time to become the star he should already be.