The start of a new year gives us the chance to look back at the last. One thing I resolved to do in 2008 was to write more. While I didn’t accomplish nearly as much in this area as I’d hoped, I did make a couple of attempts. One was an album review that never saw publication. So I thought I’d at least let you take a peek. And if you’re looking for some new music for 2009, this might not be a bad place to start. Cheers!

I’ve had my share of sleepless nights. As a younger guy they were intentional and enjoyable. Lately, they’ve been neither.  Except for one early morning a couple years back when I happened upon the sounds of Amos Lee.  Maybe it was magnified by the sleep deprivation, but his music felt comforting and familiar to me.  Like it was born to speak through the vinyl of my youth. My insomnia has mostly relented, but I keep coming back to Lee’s music again and again. When his latest project dropped, I couldn’t wait to grab it.  After dozens of plays through, I’m still impressed with what I hear.

Amos’ soulful vocals are the first thing most notice when they give his music a listen. “Last Days at the Lodge” finds him playing his natural instrument at a level beyond what previous recordings have captured. Lee’s trademark bluesy, working man crooning is still there. But he also shows off the softer side of his voice, including an unexpectedly smooth falsetto. Beyond vocal tone or style, Amos Lee has mastered the ability to draw his listener close and look them in the eyes through his honest and varied delivery.  Changes in inflection and articulation, organic vocal runs, notes cut short or held a fraction longer, and the timely insertion of a pinch of grit all enable Lee to convey the emotions behind the words.

Storytelling is the bread and butter of folk music, and once again Lee is serving up savory stuff still warm from the oven. The feast begins with “Listen”, an invitation to turn down the noise of daily life and tune in to a subtle refrain that has captured the artist’s attention: “Love is far from easy. Life is often unjust. But don’t give up on either.” Amos Lee uses lyric and melody to incarnate these themes right before our ears.

“Last Days at the Lodge” is full of songs about love- not to be confused with feel good love songs.  Instead of getting sentimental, Lee explores the various phases of this messy thing most of us struggle to master: initial expressions of interest (“Won’t Let Me Go”), risky professions of feeling (“Baby I Want You”), violent jealousies (“Truth”), disappointment and degradation (“Better Days”), dissolution (“It Started To Rain”) and the insufferable ache that follows (“What’s Been Going On”).

Many of us rattle off the platitude “life isn’t fair”.  But do we actually feel anything about all the darkness in this world?  Amos Lee seems to and wants the rest of us to empathize too. But instead of shaking an angry fist or smacking the listener in the face to demand attention, songs like “Listen”, “Street Corner Preacher” and “Jails & Bombs” take a more humble approach.  Putting their arms around our shoulders, these tunes act as a tour guide- allowing us to peek in on a few things we’d just as soon blow by.

Hang In
Reading this review, you might be thinking that “Last Days at the Lodge” is a depressing record. Strangely, it isn’t.  Lee measures out just enough hope and optimism to keep things from going south.  “Kid” acknowledges the resilience of the human spirit. “Ease Back” reminds us that we all need to dial it down and relax from time to time, preferably with some old friends and maybe a glass of wine.

Should you pick up “Last Days at the Lodge”?  If you are an Amos Lee fan, you should have it already.  Shame on you.  If you don’t know Amos, but love music that comes from a real place and makes you feel something- this project is worth your time and money.  And if you’re having a restless night?  Lee may not sing you to sleep, but at least you’ll have good stuff to listen to at 3am.