On much of Philadelphia singer-songwriter Amos Lee’s past efforts, his soulful voice and understated guitar playing were obscured underneath layers of poppy instrumentation and high-polish production, making for songs pleasing to the ear, but not indicative of his potential as a musician. Recorded at Calexico’s studio in Arizona, Lee’s fourth record, Mission Bell, begins to make up for the grit Lee’s earlier records lacked.
Lee has a velvety-smooth, honey-infused voice that could be at home on a number of Top 40 tracks. When it’s paired with the sparse guitar and spooky harmonies “Out of the Cold” and the dirty guitar riffs of “Jesus” the contrast makes for thoughtful, complex songs that show off his talents as a vocalist. These moments where Lee lets things get a little raw are, by far, the most interesting on the record.
Mission Bell’s high points come in its first and last tracks, “El Camino” and “Behind Me Now/El Camino Reprise,” the latter of which features Willie Nelson. Instrumentation is spare on both tracks, leaving the focus on Lee’s subtly sung story of a man who knows he needs redemption and is setting out to find it on the open road. Each is reminiscent of songs of country’s outlaw past, and shows an earnest side to Lee that earlier efforts, pretty as they may have been, buried beneath polish and production. Another standout features Americana legend Lucinda Williams on slow-burner “Clear Blue Eyes.” Simple slide guitar serves as a backdrop for the pair’s heartfelt harmonies, and clocking in at just under three minutes, it leaves you wanting more.
Lee’s voice feels like coming in from the cold to find a hot toddy waiting, but on some of the more produced tracks like “Windows Are Rolled Down” and “Learned a Lot” it’s like someone forgot to spike the batch, and what’s left tastes good but just can’t get the job done like it should.
Mission Bell is hopefully a transition record for Lee, one that shows him at the crossroads of polished, packaged pop tunes and the grittier gut-wrenchers of artists like Nelson and Williams. To quote “El Camino,” well to all my friends that I’ve loved the most/you know I’m headed out to that other coast/gonna wash my soul, gonna get it clean/headed down the border road called the El Camino.” Lee’s clearly headed somewhere new. Let’s hope it’s to a place where the beautiful glimpses of possibility on this record become the full picture.