On Mission Bell, Amos Lee sounds like the synthesis of the disparate artists so famously brought together across the airwaves on AM radio back in the ’70s. He doesn’t fit neatly into any category, despite having a clearly defined signature sound. One could label him blue-eyed soul, Americana, pop, singer-songwriter, rock or country and not be entirely incorrect.
It’s the fusion of these elements that makes Mission Bell a rarity these days, a cohesive album rather than a collection of singles. Select any song of the 12 and you’re likely to hear a little James Taylor, Otis Redding or The Band at any given moment, but never the hint of merely reproducing any one artist’s sound. He’s all of them at once, only subtly showing his facets, dependent on what’s called for by the respective song.
On album opener, “El Camino,” Amos pensively considers all his mistakes as he drives a border road away from the lover he’s wronged. Spare and contrite, it features a gently Southwestern starkness—similar to that prevalent in producer Joey Burns’ desert-rock band Calexico’s music—that fits Lee’s voice perfectly. He also shows impressive lyrical chops here, with lines like, “My heart’s grown sick/I’ve got a shepherd’s crook as a walking stick.” Willie Nelson joins in on a more rustic reprise of the tune as the album’s closer.
“Learned a Lot” highlights Lee’s soulfulness in a celebration of yesterday’s love. It’s a song that’s strangely—but effectively—as sexy as it is sorrowful.
There’s such honesty in the standout romantic shuffle “Flower,” its positivity never steps over the line to schmaltzy. And though you may not know all the words—you’d be forgiven for this, Lee’s enunciation is not especially crisp—you won’t be able to get the melody out of your head.
Moments like this are the exception, however, with at least a third of the cuts being memorable more for the singer’s rich vocals than anything resembling a pop hook. That’s not to say the writing isn’t strong, only that there’s a prevailing sonic sameness through a lot of the album. What may be perceived as consistency from one listener may be interpreted as tedium by another.
Though I fall in mostly with the former, a little more variety couldn’t hurt next time out. The completely enjoyable Mission Bell doesn’t suffer from this uniformity, but if some of the singular aspects of Lee’s musical makeup were allowed to rise above the amalgam at times, the album would have a much more timeless appeal.