Amos Lee lives up to expectations

Doug Gallant
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Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song terrific follow-up to previous release

How do you top a record that debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Billboard Rock Albums charts?

The answer, simply put, is that you may never top it.

In fact, you may never experience that kind of response to one of your records again.

So you don’t dwell on it. You do what Amos Lee did. You continue to hone your craft. You go into the studio with a good producer, some great new songs and some of the best players you can line up and you make the best record you can. Then, like everybody else, you put it out there and just hope people respond to it.

Lee, whose Mission Bell record debuted at No. 1 on both of those aforementioned Billboard charts in 2011, has just released Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, and after cycling my way through this record twice I don’t think there’s any question about the kind of reception it’s going to get.

The former Philadelphia school teacher has resurfaced with a record that, like Mission Bell, will strike a positive chord on so many levels with so many people.

Lee, 36, has shown us yet again that he’s one of the best songwriters of his generation, a writer with an extraordinary head for strong melody lines and a knack for penning lyrics that immediately draw us in and make us want to know more about the characters he writes about, the lives they live and how they deal with the things life throws at them.

Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song has even more of a country flavour than Mission Bell did.

But that’s not surprising, given that Lee recorded it in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce - best known for his work with artists like Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Eric Church — and was able to enlist several Nashville heavyweights to appear on the record.

Those special guests included Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin, both of whom sing harmonies with Lee here.

Also on deck were ace dobro player Jerry Douglas, guitarist Tony Joe White and Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player. Grammy Award-winning sax player Jeff Coffin from Dave Matthews Band also contributed to the record.

On his website, Lee explained his decision to make this record in Nashville.

“I’ve always enjoyed it down there, so I thought I’d bring my band and see how a bunch of Philly guys fit in,” Lee said. “Jay (Joyce) brings a musicality, a different kind of ear. He definitely hears things in ways that I don’t and brings out extra dimensions in the songs.”

And Joyce certainly did that with this record, adding more depth and texture to the production than it might otherwise have had while never diverting attention away from the lyrics, the music or Lee’s soulful vocals.

While he utilized the talents of several special guests on these sessions, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song is the first of Lee’s studio recordings to feature his longtime touring band, comprised of Freddie Berman, Zach Djanikian, Andy Keenan and Jaron Olevsky. Their contributions to the record are all solid. I expected nothing less.

As stated already, there is a stronger country flavour to this record than Lee’s earlier offerings, but it is by no means purely a country record. You’ll also find tasty bits of soul, roots rock and the blues here as well. It’s actually a well-rounded package.

Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song is available in two versions on CD: the standard version with 12 songs and a deluxe version with three extra tracks. Pick up the deluxe version, the extra tracks are all good. It’s also available on vinyl.

Choice offerings on Lee’s fifth record include Johnson Blvd, Stranger, Dresser Drawer, The Man Who Wants You and Mountains of Sorrow.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at or 629-6000, ext. 6057.

Organizations: Philadelphia school, Patty Griffin and Eric Church, Dave Matthews Band The Guardian The Man

Geographic location: Nashville

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