Up On the Mountaintops
Wait. Is this really the same guy who sang “Colors”? Amos Lee has changed—what was once “folksy soul” has taken a decided turn for the former. Not that we’re complaining; Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, Lee’s fifth studio album, is a well-paced, artfully-produced record. Add an ensemble cast of musical collaborators, and an undeniably brilliant singer/songwriter in Lee, and you’ve got something truly special.
Did we mention the collaborators? All credit to Lee, but it’s sometimes the stagehands that make a play work. There are some incredible players behind Lee, and every song absolutely reeks of virtuoso musicianship. Andy Keenan, on the guitars and banjo, does a particularly good job of syncing up with Lee’s voice. A couple of larger names are also here. Jerry Douglas, long famed as one of the world’s best dobro players, brings his weapon of choice to bear in the opening track, and Patty Griffin shows up to harmonize with Lee on the soaring title track.
Which brings us to Lee. Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song has Lee’s name on the cover and Lee’s stamp on every second of every song. His writing is introspective and occasionally brilliant (“Tricksters, Hucksters, and Scamps” is tongue-in-cheek, and absolutely worth an in-depth listen), but it’s his voice that cements his presence on the album. Amos Lee has a drop-dead gorgeous voice—so good, in fact, that it covers for any deficiencies in his writing. Songs such as “Burden” and “Indonesia” don’t push any lyrical envelopes. In another singer’s hands they’d be background noise to the singles, but Lee is such a pleasure to listen to that they become memorable songs in their own right.
But, of course, there’s still a gap between them and the ones that Lee really hit out of the park. “Chill in the Air” is an obvious choice for album darling. It doesn’t hurt that bluegrass phenom Alison Krauss decided to contribute her own considerable talents to the track. But it’s the mood that Lee set that brings the song home. Lines such as “I don’t want to see you again/I don’t want to feel your breath/as you leaned on me so peacefully/while we slept” sound a little trite, but not after listening to the song. Lee drags himself through the song, too exhausted and aching to even rouse himself to bitterness. It’s the song of a man who’d like to hate, but can’t rally to do even that. It’s poignant, haunting, and should be avoided at all costs if you’ve had a recent breakup.
The rest of the album shines as well, in part thanks to its arrangement. It’s impossible to get bored with Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song. There are no slow patches; settle down for one of the tearjerkers, and you’re liable to get jolted out of your chair by the fiery folk that comes after it. “Indonesia,” a slow, yearning love song, might drop eyelids a little low—but that’s where “High Water” comes in, a menacing, distorted track reminiscent of the Black Keys at their most aggressive. Nowhere is this better done than in the transition from “Plain View” to “Mountains of Sorrow.” “Plain View,” a sepia-toned folk song (complete with banjo opener) that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Woody Guthrie tribute, perfectly sets up the crisp, transcendent harmonies of the following track.