Blue Note Records
In assessing the startling originality of Philadelphia schoolteacher-turned-troubadour Amos Lee, it's easy to suggest that, as a singer, he crosses the pained fragility of Jimmy Scott with the poetic wizardry of Van Morrison and that, as a guitarist, he echoes the gentle authority of the pre-electric Bob Dylan. But there's so much more to Lee that even such laudatory parallels are too constrictive. Traversing the 11 tunes that fill his debut full-length, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the young journeyman's dexterity, with evocative hints of everything from Mick Jagger's pouty mid-'60s righteousness and Neil Young's plaintive morality to Tom Waits' raw gutsiness and the razor-sharp sting of Rufus Wainwright's social commentary. Suffice it to say that Lee, lately too easily deemed "the male Norah Jones" (who, for the record, is Lee's longtime pal and guests here on both piano and backup vocals), is the vibrant folk-rock-jazz quintessence of both black (absorbing all musical hues and influences) and white (simultaneously reflecting them back). He's a hopeless romantic ("Arms of a Woman," "Give It Up"), a sage cynic ("Soul Suckers," which serves up the finest condemnation of the "star-making machinery" since Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris"), a street-smart realist ("Seen It All Before," the dazzlingly intelligent "Love in the Lies" and the bleakly suicidal, yet astutely self-aware, "Black River") and, corroborating his tender age, occasionally a robust, if slightly naive, optimist ("Bottom of the Barrel," "Dreamin'"). Soon enough, if this album truly is the titanic launching pad it seems, he'll surpass Jones and genuinely rival Mitchell, Dylan, Waits and Young.