Anyone who knows the songs of Amos Lee knows the harmony of sorrow. His voice, ever in the key of struggle, pulls layers of heartache from the depths of listeners' souls like a magician tugging an unending series of hankies from his sleeve.
So, one may be surprised when one presses play on Lee's most recent outing, "Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song" (Blue Note Records).
Despite the sorrow in the title, a more jovial air permeates the album. Tracks like "Stranger" and "Loretta" still contain much of the same world-weary soulfulness that Lee has built his career upon, yet with an edge that curls like a smirk, more of an inside joke about unrequited love and loneliness.
"Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps," as well as "Plain View" jangle and jam almost like the Soggy Bottom Boys of "O' Brother Where Art Thou." No doubt a musical nod to the Southern mecca that is Nashville, where, after all, Lee and his touring band cut the new record. Almost every article on Lee, as of late, slips in that he is a Philly native, (including this very article, apparently) as if the newer Southern twinge to his sound might erase fans' memories of Lee's roots.
Lee's own bio does maintain that the "new material is less autobiographical than usual, save for the title track." His focus this time around was on "writing through other people's eyes."
Adding another element to the new flavor proved to be a change-up in Lee's typical recording process. He brought his on-the-road jam band with him into the studio. Such a move proves for a less polished vibe. Grit lives in the fingernails of these songs, and they are all the better for it.
The new album also features guest vocals from the likes of Allison Krauss and Patty Griffin, who add their sirens' vocals to "Chill in the Air" and "Mountains of Sorrow," respectively. Krauss' bluegrass background and the banjo coax chill from the streets of Philadelphia to the rocky hills of Tennessee. Griffin's folk influences bring Lee's mountains out of sorrow and into rivers of song. In this way, Lee cannot be easily anointed as country's new "it" guy. He shapeshifts into various genres, but simply seems to feel most comfortable in his folk/country skin.
With a slew of shows coming up for the summer, Lee better drink his Red Bull and pop back the chewable Airborne tablets. He'll need to stay sharp, especially for his August show in Denver, when he'll tune up with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Southern music aficionados not familiar with Lee can brush up on his licks from his recent appearances on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and and "Late Show with David Letterman" via YouTube.
Speaking of struggle, Lee will do his part to reduce the suffering of patients in health care facilities by donating $1 from each ticket sold to Musicians on Call, a nonprofit organization that brings live and recorded music to people's bedsides.