Over the course of his first three albums, Amos Lee has developed a reputation as a powerful soul vocalist who happened to adopt the sensibilities and style of a ‘70s-era pop singer-songwriter. That style hasn’t always allowed him to capitalize on his extraordinary voice, and his latest, Mission Bell, suffers from the same dedication to mellow, Starbucks-ready music. Working with Calexico’s Joey Burns as his producer, Lee ventures into a more Americana-leaning sound on Mission Bell, and it’s only a slight departure from his dogged Mellow Show shtick.
Lee is a solid enough songwriter, and the ambling, country-folk arrangements that Burns brings to the songs here suit Lee’s laidback approach well. The gentle acoustic strum of “El Camino” brings an appropriate wistfulness to the song, as Lee sings of heading down the titular border road to do some soul-searching. Lead single “Windows Are Rolled Down” covers similar territory, and, though it never fully builds to a rousing climax, its uptempo structure gives Lee an opportunity to cut loose a little with a throaty, rich vocal turn. “Cup of Sorrow” is perhaps the strongest cut on the record, offsetting its effortless country-blues shuffle with unconventional imagery and Lee’s soulful performance.
Though Lee’s songwriting is more competent than truly remarkable, he’s nonetheless able to bring in high-profile collaborators to give his Americana move more street cred. Willie Nelson’s distinctive warble surprises for how well it matches Lee’s languid vibrato on a one-take reprise of “El Camino,” while Lucinda Williams and her drawl of misery bring authentic melancholy to “Clear Blue Eyes.” The guest appearances elevate the material, and it’s a good thing, since Burns’s production does nothing especially innovative and Lee sounds content to stay within his comfort zone. That makes Mission Bell a pleasant record, but Lee should be aiming for more than just “pleasant” by this point in his career.