Amos Lee scored an unexpected commercial hit when his 2011 project Mission Bell debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard Top 200 the week it was released. How does the 36-year-old Pennsylvania native follow up the biggest hit of his career? Well, by switching up many of the most fundamental aspects of the recording process, of course.
For his latest offering, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, which is available now, Amos headed to Nashville to record in a new city with a new producer. Working with in-demand producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), Amos also brought his touring band along to support him on record for the first time. The result is a wonderfully atmospheric 12-song collection blending Appalachian folk with classic soul and singer/songwriter introspection.
Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song gets its title from an acoustic ballad on the album’s back half. A guest at the legendary Levon Helm’s famed Midnight Ramble jam sessions, Amos notes that the title-track was inspired by the late drummer. Supported by Patty Griffin’s touching harmonies and Jerry Douglas’ virtuoso dobro (Jerry plays on many of the album’s pieces), “Mountains of Sorrow” provides insight for the overall project. Full of Americana poetry, Amos continually makes deliberate and contemplative lyric choices to bend around sweet folk melodies with an eye for exploring new sounds.
Jay Joyce has gained a reputation for employing atmospheric, avant-garde and even psychedelic nuances when working with artists in the studio. This project is no different as tunes like “Stranger” come out like a sonic concoction of psychedelic, bluegrass and Honky Tonk. “Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps,” telling a seedy story in old school pro boxing, thrives with fuzzed out guitar and throwback rhythms. Amos’ voice is easy and natural, never forced, in order to emphasize the characters in his songs as well as its overall vibe. The hard times found in the melancholy “Johnson Blvd” or the palpable loneliness of the traditional country number “Dresser Drawer” are brought to life by the charred timbres of his weathered voice.
Amos’ performance is deeply soulful while recalling artists such as Bill Withers. The stunning “Chill In The Air,” featuring harmonies from Alison Krauss, plays to acoustic guitars and mandolin while fleeting notes vanish into the song’s rich ambiance. A song about hurt and loss, Amos sings, Look at the bright side, you get a new life, to the one he has no choice but to leave behind. Even on the funky “High Water,” which bangs open to heavy drums reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” Amos’ arresting delivery cuts right through distorted vocal effects. The deep desire in the retro/R&B “The Man Who Wants You” or the longing wrapped up tight in his vibrato on the descending “Loretta” continually provide striking depth.
For all the modern sounds or wild psychedelic arrangements, the project remains a clear roots-driven album. The closer, “Burden,” is quintessential singer/songwriter folk and the banjo-lead “Plain View” is traditional country at its core. Amos’ willingness to experiment with tradition is exciting and fresh on Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song while also demonstrating that this exceptionally talented artist is willing to take chances and pushes to evolve.
Key Tracks – “Chill In The Air,” “Stranger,” “High Water,” “Mountains Of Sorrow”