Amos Lee is one of those rare artists possessing both a soulful and a gifted voice. Nothing against Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson (two of our very favorites), but when engaged in duets with Lee (which they are on Mission Bell) their vocals pale in comparison — he’s just that good.
Lee sets the tone straight out of the gate — after all, what is a mission bell but a call to worship, a signal for sanctuary and redemption? The opening track, “El Camino”, is a reference to El Camino Real (Spanish for “The Royal Road”), the name for the historic road that joined the twenty one Franciscan Missions, the Pueblos and Presidios in California’s early days.
Lee’s previous albums since his 2005 self-titled debut have highlighted his soulful, R&B acoustic folk sound, but this time around he’s joined by Calexico‘s Joey Burns (the album’s producer) and John Convertino, both of whom appear on nearly every track, adding lush horns and an atmospheric “desert sound” to the songs. It’s a collaboration that works well.
Mission Bell is one spiritual album rife with images of a seeker’s journey in search of grace and redemption: “Cup of Sorrow” is pure Staple Singers gospel, while “Jesus” and “Clear Blue Eyes” runneth over with Christlike images. On the latter, when Lee sings, “When I look into your pale blue eyes I could cry./When I think about what they’ve put you through/You know it tears me up inside,” the emotions evoked are remarkably close to the surface. Lucinda Williams‘ vocals on this one only seem to distract from Lee’s performance, and the song could be better served without her. Again, nothing against Ms. Williams — Lee’s light simply shines so much brighter.
Even the accessible “Windows Are Rolled Down”, the obviously anointed single, benefits from Lee’s strong lyricism and soaring vocals that nearly demand the listener jump in the car and light out for new frontiers (with windows rolled down, naturally). “Flower” echoes the smiling R&B optimism and joy of an Al Green classic, with Lee’s delivery so honest and pure (“My heart is a flower that blooms every hour/I believe in the power of love”) that it rescues the song from the sentimental optimism and guile that might be present in the hands of a lesser singer.
“El Camino (Reprise)” includes the Willie Nelson duet, a spare and dusty vocal/guitar/harmonica closing number that’s as bittersweet as a desert sunset. Taken as a whole, Mission Bell is balanced with light and dark, marked by an expansive intimacy, an album full of soul, gospel and folk, intertwined with pedal steel, Wurlitzer, horns, gritty guitars and Lee’s amazing voice.
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