Chris Lee

Plays & Sings Torch'd Songs, Charivari Hymns & Oriki Blue-Marches (Smells Like Records)

With a sophomore album title worthy of Lee Hazelwood or John Fahey, a swooping, tenor-throated vocal style as invigorating as the late Jeff Buckley's and songwriting/arranging smarts steeped equally in lush late '60s/early '70s grandeur and contemporary post-rock/avant-folk, Brooklyn's Chris Lee could be a poster boy for today's increasingly crowded "reach exceeds grasp" movement. On paper, that is; while at least 90 percent of indie CDs fail the artistic litmus test (the "if this were a cassette billed as a demo tape 10 years ago, would I still pay money to own it?" scrutiny), Lee not only makes the grade, he should be teaching seminars to other young hopefuls.

Part of the appeal is textural. Indiecentric ears constantly on the hunt for anything that doesn't sound like mainstream fluffers perk up in the presence of interesting instrumentation deployed in interesting ways. To that end, P&STSCH&OB-M brims with eclectic invention, from the woozy Chicago-on-'ludes horn charts of "Lonesome Eyes" to the experimental country-jazz vibe (upright bass, pedal steel, hollow body electric guitar, restless percussion -- the latter courtesy of Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley) of "The Politics of Sway" to a fascinating reprise of Neil Young's dark epic "On the Beach," which sounds like Television transported to Big Star's Sister Lovers sessions.

Cool sonics aside, however, Lee's words and delivery are what ultimately locate him in rare climes. As noted, he suggests Jeff Buckley (nice falsetto), and even Jeff's papa Tim, too, particularly during the jazzier passages. There's also some Nick Drake in the mix; check his breathy phrasing during the tragic swoon of "In Yellow Moonlight." And it's hard not to think of Curtis Mayfield when the "People Get Ready"-like chords of "Slow As the Sun" cue up and Lee edges into an intensely soulful croon. Lee's lyricism is genuinely poetic in the old-fashioned sense, as opposed to the indie-pop diary scribblings sense, effortlessly transversing the sacred ("Breathe slow/Sing like a bird who would know . . . So long since I had faith in a song") and the profane ("City woman like a machine/You don't know the trouble she seen/City sirens making the scene/Broken belles and elegantines"). The lines roll easily and logically off the tongue, and they cast a wealth of images in the mind.

Quoth thee press soothsayers of Lee's self-titled debut from a couple of years ago, "The indie scene's next golden boy . . . [An] astounding slab of pop perfection . . . Talent this effortless is a rarity." While clearly premature, such accolades ring truer than ever when second time's the charm. Trust us, there will be a lot of media and industry buzz about Lee, with rafts of breathless comparisons floated and entire boatloads of hypercaffeinated hype launched. For once, though, do believe the hype, and remember that you read that hype here first.

 
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