Review: Amos Lee’s ‘Mission Bell’

Jan. 28, 2011, 12:39 a.m.

Review: Amos Lee's 'Mission Bell'
Courtesy of Blue Note

Amos Lee is one of those artists that seems like he has been around forever; he is 33, after all, which is equivalent to about 70 in the music industry. Oddly enough, in all this time, it seems like his music has worsened. With his fourth studio album, “Mission Bell,” Lee aims to create the perfect relaxation music, only to wind up with a painfully dry and completely lackluster record.

The sad part is, “Mission Bell” had the potential to be so, so good. A singer-songwriter straight from Philadelphia, Amos Lee made a name for himself after college with his soothing sounds and daydream lyrics. He is known for his fantastic vocals that adjust perfectly to the mood of each song, from mellow to pleading. Furthermore, his actual musical composition is much more complex than that of many more popular singer-songwriters.

Lee is undoubtedly an artist who synthesizes his unique sound from a diverse range of musical genres. Several inspirations are evident; for instance, Lee has cited John Prine as a musical model, evident in “Cup of Sorrow,” the moody, country 10th track on the album, and Stevie Wonder’s influence shows up most in “Jesus,” a soulful piece with vocal exercise typical of the R&B icon.

So, then, this album should be exceptional. But it isn’t. “Mission Bell” is a take-a-glance-and-look-away album, an uninspired, unmemorable musical work. It is typical of every singer-songwriter in the business.

Why? Part of the issue is that there isn’t a whole lot of variation in musical style. Yes, Lee has a unique sound, but that sound stays static throughout the entire album. Every song is a guitar-driven ballad with a desperate plea to a woman and a generally depressing message. The tracks – particularly those near the end of the album, such as “Cup of Sorrow” and “Behind Me Now” – bleed together until they morph into a mass of chords. No one song truly has a distinct edge.

The main problem, though, is the lyrics. Lee is fond of using minimal phrases to express a simple idea. This would be fine, if at least one of the lines was unexpected or memorable. Instead, he uses unoriginal metaphors; the fourth song, “Flower,” is one of the happier pieces of “Mission Bell,” but the lyrics (“My heart is a flower/ That blooms every hour/ I believe in the power of love”) have been done before. Similarly, “Stay With Me” is the same ballad fawning over a girl that floods the genre.

The worst song on the album is its penultimate one, “Clear Blue Eyes.” A collaboration with Lucinda Williams that sounds like it should probably be a love song, the track is yet another lamentation of everything that goes wrong in the world. Besides being yet another dreary song, “Clear Blue Eyes” features too much excessive crooning and not nearly enough substance to its name.

Lee obviously wrote this album to be honest, not profound, and his message is certainly appropriate for a 30-something man experiencing heartbreak and the realities of life. However, what “Mission Bell” brings in honesty it lacks in appeal. There is better mellow music out there, and it won’t make everyone fall asleep, either.

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