Amos Lee Mission Bell
Signed by Blue Note in 2004, Amos Lee looked like a sure bet: With his flawlessly soulful vocals scratching through a melting pot of easygoing roots music, a little publicity and marketing seemed certain to make him a radio favorite. But after three albums failed to deliver that success, Blue Note has pulled out all the stops for Mission Bell. Backed by Calexico with its frontman as his producer, Lee is also joined by a parade of high-profile guest stars to widen his appeal: Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams help establish the Philadelphia native’s country bona fides, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine woos the indie-rock crowd, while Priscilla Ahn and Pieta Brown should draw adult-alternative airplay. Calexico’s influence is most prominent, as most tracks—whether marked by R&B, gospel, blues, jazz, or Americana—have a distinctly Western foundation, sparse and lonely as the endless desert that band so strikingly captures. It’s a new feel and direction for Lee, and not an unrewarding one, but it’s his collaboration with Beam on “Violin” that captures a sound at which Lee truly excels. Softly relaxed, emotional, and haunting, the song stretches his earthy vocals over drifting pedal-steel, an aching acoustic thump, and Beam’s echoed chanting. The song’s effectiveness suggests it’s time for Lee to stop sampling styles to see what sticks, and just stick with one that works.