Tuesday, July 26, 2005

First Impressions: Amos Lee

Last November, Norah Jones and her dynamite band played a show right here in Knoxville, and I took my girlfriend to see it as a way of celebrating her birthday. We arrived at the show a bit late, but were just in time to catch the last few songs performed by Jones' opening act, Amos Lee. The then-unknown Lee had no band with him, relying simply on his own skills as a guitarist, singer, and storyteller to captivate the crowd. And captivate us he did; I was immediately impressed with Lee, who simultaneously brought to mind several of America's most enduring singer/songwriters-- Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Otis Redding. Lee sang with the golden voice of a great American crooner, and his songcraft was remarkable, at once traditional and forward-thinking.

Since that time, Lee has released a self-titled debut album, which I've finally had the pleasure of hearing. The good news is that everything I loved about Lee's live show is still present here; he proves himself over the course of twelve songs to be an impressively smart songwriter, fully aware of the great tradition of American song but never content to be a mere nostalgia act. His skills as a writer, coupled with his beautiful voice, make him a dangerous new talent.

Let's just hope he finds himself a producer who has the guts to unleash that talent on the world. Unfortunately produced by Norah Jones bassist Lee Alexander, Lee's album sounds like it was carefully crafted to appeal to the same core audience who loves Jones' music so much. That is, it's an extremely mellow, low-key affair, with Lee's energy and enthusiasm often getting lost under all the polish.

It sounds like meticulously crafted background music. And Amos Lee deserves better than that. He proves here that he's more than capable of holding an audience's attention, if only his sound is allowed to exist unencumbered by sleepy, bland arrangements and lifeless production.


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