Amos Lee – Live From SoHo

Amos Lee - Live From SoHo

If you don’t consider the music of Dylan protégé and folk-rock aficionado Amos Lee to be your bag, then the odds of his recently released Live From SoHo iTunes album swaying your mindset are minimal.  Sure, the Philly-born songwriter has copped a style that is a sure bet for fans of Zimmy, Neil Young, and James Taylor, but his well-worn roots aesthetic seems to cast him more as a steward than one of the genre’s modern torchbearers.

Lee’s SoHoset arrives on the heels of his Mission Bell LP, which was the recipient of predominantly lukewarm reviews upon its release in January.  Boasting a formidable roster of names from the country and indie rock circuits, the record found Lee stout-heartedly seeking to evolve as a songwriter, particularly after three well-received but ultimately derivative albums of earthy neo-soul.  Everyone from Lucinda Williams to Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam to even Willie Nelson showed up, but neither them nor the production work of Calexico’s Joey Burns could prevent Lee from falling victim to more of the mellow acoustic musings that garnered him attention in the first place.

Serving either as a placeholder to satiate his core fanbase until the next studio album or perhaps as a strategy to boost Mission Bell sales, this latest offering from the iTunes Live series features eight songs that span Lee’s discography.  Recorded at Apple’sManhattan store this past February, every track boasts the same reliably wistful, intimate atmospheres as his studio records.  Sadly though, the album fails to capture the galvanizing spontaneity that often (and uncannily) takes place in live environments.

The four cuts presented here from Mission Bell are a mixed bag.  “El Camino” begins the session with the sort of tender melancholia that has earned Lee such a devoted following.  The song soothes, but also smacks of banality.  “Well, all my friends / have treated me so well / you know I’m head out / to that mission bell / gonna wash my soul / get it clean,” he sings in a gravelly Dylan warble.  The setting is an intimate one; only acoustic guitar and a touch of pedal steel round out the instrumentation.  “Violin” finds Lee pushing his voice into falsetto territory, lending the song a broader melodic range that also highlights the soulful ambience he so deftly creates.  “Cup of Sorrow” exudes a road warrior sort of presence with the addition of some electric guitar and barroom-style piano licks.  In spite of lyrics like, “I want to bathe in your holy blood / I want to sleep with the promise of tomorrow,” the track still retains a playful bent that encourages imagery of convivial cross-country hijinks.

Of Lee’s newest material, “Windows Are Rolled Down” is the most stirring.  Shimmering, hopeful, and soaring, the track hints at epic gestures with sustained vocal melodies (“Windows are rolled down / sun is setting high / windows are rolled down / I’m fixin’ to die”), a sturdy triplet groove, and enterprising guitar solos.

With his two cover choices, Lee pays homage to folk-rock forefather Neil Young and alt-pop oddballs Gene and Dean Ween.  Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country” isn’t much of a stretch for a guy whose back catalog bears myriad similarities to Harvest, but Lee’s decision to take on Ween’s “Buenos Tardes Amigo” is a welcome departure from his usual singer/songwriter fare.  Downtrodden and dark, Lee’s setting of the 1994 Chocolate and Cheese cut is peppered with a Tex-Mex vibe that was undoubtedly the influence of Joey Burns.  The lyrics may not be Lee’s (“You killed my brother last winter / you shot him three times in the back”), but the union of dark humor and folksy southwestern atmosphere is a winning combination for him.

Though Live From SoHo is a perfectly gratifying display of taut songwriting and ace musicianship, it suffers from a lack of vigor that nearly translates into malaise.  No one should question Amos Lee’s penchant for crafting an earnest folk tune, but at this point in his career, a few more risks could pay bigger dividends down the road.  If he’s willing to give Ween a go, maybe Zappa’s not faraway.