Amos Lee: a songwriter for a new generation

The title of Amos Lee’s second album, “Supply and Demand,” might be a jab at the commercial realities of the music biz… or it might be an embrace of them. The Philly-born singer-songwriter found a folk-pop groove on his self-titled debut that hit the sweet spot and reached #2 on the Billboard “Heatseekers” chart and got a track on a couple of TV shows, including the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

That debut was produced by Norah Jones Band bassist Lee Alexander and featured Jones, who had hired Lee as her opening act on tour, on several tracks. This time out, singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant is at the production helm, but the production is low-key and unobstrusive.

When stray instruments including a ukulele, pedal steel or dobro make their shy entrance on a couple of tracks, they stand out starkly because so much of the rest of the album is monochromatic – mostly Lee’s hummin’ and strummin’, backed by bass, drums and the occasionally organ for that churchy feel on gospelish songs.

Lee’s strength is in his singing, which is supple, gently gravelly and capable of soulful heights. At times as a singer, he evokes the spirit of the young Van Morrison. Like the young Van, Lee sounds much older and world-wearier than his late 20-something age would suggest, as if he’s seen much more of the world and lived more than his share of heartbreak.

The songs in general are low-key so they fit the production style. If anything, Lee could use some hooks to make some of his music a bit more memorable. The lyrics are introspective and well-observed, and like the music, they’re low-key. He’s not over-reaching either as a poet or a pundit, and without forcing the rhymes, he makes the wordplay fit together to match his melodic sensibility.

The best songs – the catchiest and most memorable – include the opening track, “Shout Out Loud,” with its urgent strumming and insistent coda; the low-key (of course) anti-war sentiments of “Freedom”; the down-home gospel of “Skipping Stones”; the gentle retro jazz-blues of “Sweat Pea.”

Lee’s been compared to James Taylor, and that’s an apt comparison for his gentleness, but there’s something in his voice, and the fun he has with “Sweet Pea,” that reminds me more of a James Taylor contemporary, Jonathan Edwards, a singer-songwriter who’s remembered if at all today for one one hit song, “Sunshine,” but who deserved a much more visible longterm career.

Let’s hope Amos Lee has a career arc that matches James Taylor’s. And for those of you curious about Jonathan Edwards, his excellent debut album from 1972 is still available on Amazon, and you can learn more about him and find it and 14 other CDs on his Web site: http://www.jonathanedwards.net.

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