Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song
Reviewed by: Robert Brind
When I first saw Amos Lee he was standing in a crowd on Penn’s Landing’s Festival Pier. This was almost a decade ago at WXPN’s Singer/Songwriter Festival before they changed the name and moved it to Camden. I remember Amos Lee in the crowd because of his striking appearance, not because I knew who he was.
The rain was pouring down at the outdoor festival that day, and the crowd had thinned out significantly, but he would have stood out in a packed house. Wearing a large, clear poncho and a bright yellow rain-hat, he was grooving along to music of Mutlu, a local performer whose music I have since forgotten. Amos Lee is tall, very tall, and the goofy looking rain-hat floated six inches above the closest people to him. Imagine my surprised when he took the stage next. I had no idea what to expect.
He opened with jokes about the rain and praise for the remaining crowd, then he opened his mouth and launched into “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight,” and I was enthralled. Most memorable that day was his cover of Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” His voice cut through the rain and sent chills down my spine. You can imagine my excitement when I was asked to write this review.
The first track of Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, “Johnson Boulevard,” contains Lee’s soulful voice, but with a surprising country twist. It tracks the journey of a displaced family in a strange town, “Somewhere in the backseat/ thinking out loud/ this be nothing new.”
“Dresser Drawer” includes the typical Amos Lee vocal swells on the line, “shoulda known that time alone, would only serve to break you down.” The song is about a cast off wedding ring in a dusty dresser drawer. “If anybody asks me what I think that love is for now, I tell them, look in a dusty dresser drawer now.” The imagery is poignant and sad, and the tune very much country. In fact, At this point in my listen I really felt that the album was a country album, the lyric on a previous track reinforces this impression. “I don’t want the keys to our door/cause I don’t live there anymore.”
The album takes a hard left on track seven. The opening lines of “High Water” are sung through a megaphone. The vocal distortion works well with a funky blues baseline, as does a distorted guitar repetitively hitting the fourth of the root chord in the background. A broken down harmonica solo transitions into a talk-box guitar solo after the second verse. The production value on this track is incredible, with each note distorted just right and blended perfectly into a surrealistic bluesy whole. The song has the feel of walking through a haunted swamp in the Deep South.
“Plain View” is a banjo-backed track of folky simplicity. While the tune is whimsical and catchy, the lyrics are quite dark indeed. “We all live in glass boxes and bows, tempting each other with our lonely souls.” The song is really about isolation and personal torture, in stark contrast to the music and instrumentation.
The aptly titled “Mountains of Sorrow” closes with an apology, perhaps for the emotional heaviness of the whole. “I never meant to be a burden, please forgive me if I weigh on you.” It is a beautiful apology, with a sense of hope embedded in the lyrics. Amos promises the addressee to “find my own way outta this [abyss].”
Very much a breakup album, or at least so it sounds, “Mountains of Sorrow” is just that. Permeating the album is a sense of bitterness and heartbreak. Some tracks definitely showcase something new from Amos Lee, and I highly recommend giving it a listen. If you’ve recently gone through heartbreak yourself, better have some tissues handy, because you are in for a good cry.