If you’re gonna try to stick a label on Amos Lee, you better bring a big roll of duct tape, a barrel of super glue, and a packed lunch. Lee never met a genre he didn’t like, and he has the inclination to wander through most all of ’em on any given recorded occasion. Soul usually is the dominant voice, but that doesn’t stop him from visiting country, jazz, gospel, folk, and jugband music. Lee admits that country has always been close to his heart, citing Randy Travis as one of his all-time favorites and a big influence on at least one album, 2006’s Supply and Demand. He’s also a big fan of gospel from groups including the Swanee Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds as well as the more plaintive Appalachian old-time style gospel.
You can add South African jazz to the list as well. Lee kicks off his latest, My New Moon, with “No More Darkness, No More Light,” a tune that sounds like the work of South African guitarist Ray Phiri, the soul of Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986.
But as upbeat and danceable as the melody is, the lyrics reveal a darker subtext. Lee said he had the song kicking around for awhile and was unsure what direction he wanted it to go in until the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting occurred at Parkland, Florida. Written the day after the fatal attack, Lee says he wants to offer up hope for solutions and change: “Some days it feels so hopeless / Nothing’s makin’ any sense / Flags we raise in praise of ruthless / Supposes innocence …. I think we may be standin’ in the same / Shadows that been cast.”
Each song is about overcoming hardships. “Little Light” is another upbeat melody, reggae-flavored gospel about a young girl who is a cancer survivor, letting her little light shine. Lee’s vocal contains some of Marc Broussard’s Cajun soul buoyed by a stellar group of guest instrumentalists including former Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench.
“Hang On, Hang On” is about dealing with the loss of a loved one, an ex-lover left behind but never out of his heart, coming back to say goodbye and make amends as well as peace with himself: “ I would have stayed there forever but it didn’t work out that way,” he says, before promising “morning comes, you won’t be here alone.”
“Don’t Give A Damn Anymore” sounds like an unholy alliance of Tony Joe White and Trent Reznor looking for somebody to stomp into a bloody puddle over a lovesickness problem.
“Louisville” is a twangy, Springsteenish homecoming ode, a man defeated but not broken, heading for home after getting his clock cleaned by a former beloved.
Lee is up to his usual high standards here, commingling styles and genres masterfully for a texture that proudly displays its lumps but still goes down easy.