Amos Lee received some solid critical notice for his first two Blue Note records and made it through to create a third -- an accomplishment in and of itself these days. As they were described, these albums walked some strange line between Neil Young, Bill Withers, and James Taylor. That's some heavy company to keep for a young man who used to be a schoolteacher. Last Days at the Lodge isn't a radical departure. Produced by Don Was, Lee's studio band includes guitar slinger Doyle Bramhall II, no less a keyboardist than Spooner Oldham, bassist Pino Palladino, and drummer James Gadson. All of these cats are super-choppers. The guests include the ubiquitous Greg Leisz on pedal steel and banjo, and a slew of keyboard players including Was, Justin Stanley, Rami Jaffee, and Jamie Muhoberac. Musically, the soul tunes on this set are far more interesting than anything else -- Lee's got a terrific voice to exploit, but he seldom does it and it's a shame. Check the honey-dripping babymaker "Won't Let Me Go," with a sweet string arrangement by Larry Gold and Lee doing his best Ron Isley and Al Green combination. Then there's the more baroque Terry Callier touches on "Baby I Want You," which begins as a subtle folk-blues but becomes a gorgeous guitar-fueled soul number. These cuts are numbers two and three in the sequence; they create a very deep and genuine emotional vibe that stands in stark contrast to the opener. "Listen" is Lee playing a sloppy, minor-key guitar rocker that feels like David Crosby singing a ZZ Top song they wrote for CSNY. Thankfully, this dreadfully dull moment is the only one of its kind here.
Swinging acoustic/electric shuffling blues-driven tunes enter the mix on "Truth" before a washed-out singer/songwriter ballad, "What's Been Going On," displaces the setting. The blues reenter on "Street Corner Preacher" to liven things up a bit. The Callier cum Curtis Mayfield-esque soul returns on "Jails and Bombs," thank the gods, but that's the last taste of what Lee does best. The rest is standard singer/songwriter fare that is forgettable for its lack of originality even if it is pleasant. (Joe Henry already passed through these gates on his way to the dark yet living heart of American music, and he did it far better.) Despite its relaxed vibe, the sense of conflict in this set is everywhere. It reveals Lee to be at a crossroads aesthetically. The forces that drive him to the soul side are the same ones that drive him to the rest. The problem is that he only does one of these things exceptionally well: Lee is a great soul singer when he allows himself to be, and he knows how to write an excellent if quirky song in the genre that touches both Memphis and Chicago. The three tracks here that evoke that style set him apart from everyone else on the scene. It's a wonder that Was or his A&R man at Blue Note didn't push him a bit harder in that direction. Who knows? He will have to choose eventually, because one way or another, he can't get over by simply playing mix-and-match forever -- his albums will become generic rather than iconoclastic. Last Days at the Lodge is, after all, an average and bland singer/songwriter album with three great tracks (which is at least two more than most kids on the block).