Review Summary: Amos Lee's Mission Fell Short
At his best, Amos Lee perfects a blend of an irreproducible voice, full of robust soul, effortless sensuality and a tinge of folk. Think: Tracy Chapman meets Marvin Gaye with a little Sam Beam (of Iron and Wine) thrown in.
Unfortunately, on his new album Mission Bell, Amos Lee is often not at his best, and on most of the songs here he focuses on only one or two of the traits that make up his triforce of greatness, making for a rather predictable snooze. This is particularly upsetting, since Calexico had a hand in producing the album, and Amos was clearly trying for a bigger audience by recruiting the likes of Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams, but even with all the hands in the game, Amos dropped the ball with Bell.
Mission Bell (loosely) follows the story of a man seeking absolution and redemption and in the first song, “El Camino” he leaves the one he loves trying to find himself, in order to come back a better person. Lee uses this journey and purpose as a starting point for most of the songs on Mission Bell, but there’s not a truly identifiable story arc in the album and some of the songs seem to be tossed in because the sound rather than the story matched the rest, so definitely don’t consider this a concept album by any means. This album elucidates Lee’s difficulty creating albums that are cohesive, solid works rather than parts pieced together into a makeshift whole. In thinking about his body of work, one usually thinks of his best songs, rather than any standout album, because he really doesn’t have any, and Mission Bell is no different.
This album is being pretty well received, critics lauding Lee for his “maturing” and “fuller” sound, but sadly I believe by “fuller” they mean more commercial and marketable. The best thing about Lee’s music was his way of taking just a few notes on the guitar and throwing them sparingly into a song and making it both emotionally complex and satisfying aurally. He did this famously with “Colors” a few years back, and there is nothing close to that brilliance on this recording. This is mostly because his move toward a fuller sound is moving him toward a more conventional pop sound, where sparseness of instrumentation is banned. “Windows Are Rolled Down” is the decided album single…less because it’s so good and more because the rest of the album doesn’t give it much competition. Its Guitar 101 strumming pattern is disappointingly banal and repetitive, and the simplicity doesn’t achieve any greater meaning, other than to show that Amos is hungry for more attention from the want-to-be-indie-but-I’m-really-mainstream crowd. To this end, he made sure this song was just the right blend of sweeping dramatics and uncertain hope to be a backdrop to another Grey’s Anatomy season finale montage.
This album is without a doubt more religion or faith inspired than a lot of his previous work, with titles such as…well, “Jesus.” It is odd then that what is most missing from these lackluster tracks that bleed into one another is the overwhelming element of soul that he has displayed in the past. I would tell you the shortcomings or high-points of “Clear Blue Eyes” or “Stay With Me” but after 5 or 6 listens, I can still barely tell most of the songs apart.
Now, though there aren’t any stand-out golden tracks, there are certainly solid ones. Without a doubt, the beginning five or six songs are far better than the album’s latter half. Be forewarned, this may be partially due to personal preference, since the second part gets decidedly more country-western than folky and I’m for the most part not a fan of the genre. “Flower” thankfully finds the soul lost on most of its sister tracks and works because of it. “Violin” is one that really hits the mark with just enough melancholy, and never dips into the self-pitying. His vocal gymnastics are a little more standout and the relaxed melody makes for a contemplative mood rather than a boring one. “Stay With Me” is touching and passionate enough, but doesn’t hold a light to some of his previous recorded love songs, and so I toss it forward with a mere honorable mention. “Out of the Cold” comes close to being cool, but falls shy of being gritty and raw enough to believe the anguish Amos tells of.
Mission Bell isn’t anywhere near a disaster, but it’s also nowhere close to being a great album. Whatever it is Amos Lee went off in search of at the beginning of this album, he should have kept looking for it.