Amos Lee is of the school of singer who apparently believes that anything sounds sensitive if it’s crooned. And Lee has quite an expressive croon–a soulfully, burnished tenor that’s reminiscent of the Band’s Rick Danko when he’s rocking, Cat Stevens during love songs and Bob Marley when he’s waxing political –but at the El Rey Wednesday night whatever charms his voice has to offer was betrayed by his lackluster material.
His songs present Lee as a banal narcissist; while many of the songs find Lee either far from home, trying to get safely home, begin taken back home, now matter how far he travels he’s never far from his favorite subject: himself. Just about every tune can be distilled down to “message is: I care.” Of course, this puts the emphasis less on what is being cared about than who is doing the caring, which results in emotionally short-sighted songs.
“Careless,” Lee’s version of a big, country-soul love triangle (from his sophomore Blue Note release, “Supply and Demand”), is less a howl of wronged love than a bloodless passive-aggressive complaint he sings. It’s not enough for him to accuse his best friend of stealing his woman, he has to psychoanalyze his rival: “I know you have a lot of pain that’s born inside you.” He kisses off an unworthy woman with an arrogant “I’ve see it all before.”
He’s no more effective when it comes to politics: “Freedom” is a forced protest songs so feckless it’s laughable: it concludes that “freedom is seldom found/ by beating someone to the ground” a sentiment that would puzzle the founding fathers, the crowds who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and occupied Europe in World War II. Lee has the pipes to make this sort of drivel palatable in small doses–he’s also helped by the lean swing provided by his three-piece band–but even the best voices need something to say to be really effective.
Mindy Smith also has a voice that’s better than her watery, unfocussed material, but a slowed-down, minor key adaptation of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is quietly effective, turning to song into an Appalachian lament.