By Ricardo Baca
The Denver Post
- Amos Lee, "Mission Bell," Blue Note
Amos Lee's appeal is in his songs. His fans appreciate the singer-songwriter's careful, meandering compositions, his emotional explorations of acoustic soul and R&B. But the low-key Lee - a rising star on Triple-A radio - also faces criticism for being too precious with his songs, which are often too similar in their mellowness.
And that's where we've taken Lee to task in the past. His albums sound like slight variations on a theme. A chill acoustic ditty here, a modest attempt at soul there. Lee's voice is a national treasure, but his songwriting could use some help.
And his fourth album, "Mission Bell," is a similar story. Recorded at Arizona's Wavelab Studio (where DeVotchKa records) with Calexico's Joey Burns producing, the record succeeds with its collaborations but fails in its intimate moments.
"Violin" is a nuanced track that plays off a lovely melody set in lush country-politan settings. Stacked harmonies from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam help create a melancholic mood. Heck, producer Burns plays three types of guitar on the song. And it's the strongest one on the album - an easy, mellow fit for radio and an enjoyable listen.
But Lee's inspiration soon wears thin. "Windows Are Rolled Down" is an affable song crafted for your next road trip, but it won't likely have you singing along. "Flower" goes for soulful but misses. "Clear Blue Eyes," a collaboration with Americana hero Lucinda Williams, hardly brings on the goose bumps.
"Mission Bell" has its moments, but they're too few. It's the same story from Lee, who remains a great singer and a songwriter with potential.
- Gang of Four, "Content," Yep Roc
Gang of Four was making headlines in the blogs and message boards last fall, but not because of this new record. The band's "Natural's Not in It" - an anti-commercialism rant written in 1979 - controversially appeared in a commercial for Microsoft's new Kinect product for the Xbox.
Nonsensical? Yes. But understandable? Sure. It takes a lot more to sell out in 2011's upside-down music business.
Speaking of which, the quintessential post-punk band is back with its first album of new material in 16 years - and unlike recent material from many of its counterparts from the '70s (the Stooges, New York Dolls), it's not terrible.
Mind you, it's not great. But the jagged guitars, imperfect vocals and anti-establishment philosophy sound surprisingly contemporary - almost as if Andy Gill and Jon King had some of these songs lying around on dusty, 30-year-old demo reels.
As the boys rail through "You'll Never Pay for the Farm," they don't sound as young and fresh and angry as they did on 1979's glorious "Entertainment!" But they still sound jazzed about their cause - and their anger shows no age.