Just try to kick back with your favorite musical nonconformists: It ain't no picnic.
If Jello Biafra's principled disdain for small talk doesn't ruin it, then Jonathan Richman's misplaced empathy for the comestibles will ("Lonely little coleslaw, ain't got no friends . . ."). Meanwhile, Queens of the Stone Age try to snort the turf and Cody Chesnutt insists you sit on a blanket knitted from his own hair. But Chris Lee is that rarest of musical eccentrics: the relaxing kind. The North Carolina-raised, Brooklyn-based singer's third and latest solo album, Cool Rock, is a throwback to a less self-conscious decade (any of them; take your pick) and a much-needed reminder that art doesn't necessarily have to hurt you. If Lee has much in common with the other stylistic loners, it's that he's the product of an unlikely cultural fender-bender.
"I grew up listening to soul, rhythm 'n' blues because my parents were heavily into that stuff," says Lee, 30, en route to Athens, Georgia, on his first national tour. "I mean, I didn't know much different. If you asked me what a singer was, I would say Marvin Gaye. But then, when I was a teenager, I got a third-generation cassette with Black Flag's first four years on it. All of a sudden, this whole wide universe of possibility opened up. I had the classic punk rock epiphany."
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Not that there's much "punk" about Lee's music, beyond its individualistic ethos. Imagine a world in which "coffee-house singer" is a high compliment instead of a sly insult, and you'll have some idea of Lee's accomplishment. His silky hooks could leap straight off that old '70s soul collection Hey Love (with the iconic infomercial: "No my brother, you've got to get your own!"), and his silvery, open-tuned guitar style is a sweet foil to the avant-garde tendencies of a band that includes Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and members of Afrobeat combo and fellow Brooklynites Antibalas.
It's Lee's velvet, cascading vocals, however, that have ensured a growing following that includes -- if the name that pops up in nearly all his press is any indication -- a huge, bereaved orphanage of Jeff Buckley fans looking for foster care. British Buckley acolytes Starsailor even handpicked Lee to open for them on their first U.S. tour. But unlike the late Buckley, who sometimes nauseously overshot his sentiments, and Starsailor's purely pompous James Walsh, Lee trades in a measured soulfulness. It's a lavish croon that's forthright enough to anchor the quirky metaphor of Cool Rock's lead track, "Cossacks of Love," and squeeze passion out of a cliché like "Mama, I need you" on the anguished "Lately I Want You."
No wonder Lee's friends are jealous. "He has this very interesting and bizarre sound that you don't expect to hear until he starts singing and you're like -- what the fuck was that?" says Rosecrans Baldwin, editor of the cultural webzine themorningnews.com, who befriended Lee before ever hearing him perform. "When a friend of yours also happens to be great at something and it happens to be something that moves people very much, it's hard to put the two together: Oh yeah, you're the guy I had dinner with the other night . . .' Oh yeah, you're the guy who all these girls are sweating over.' Okay, put those two together."
Lee's defining idiosyncrasy, however, isn't his voice. It's the generosity and accessibility of his music in an indie-rock universe of artsy ambiguity. His lean rock 'n' soul may have cool-cred by association: Lee's own tenure in the underground bands Pine State Boys and Mishagas, and his collaboration with Shelley, who released Lee's sophomore effort, Plays and Sings Torch'd Songs, Charivari Hymns & Oriki Blue Marches on the drummer's label, Smells Like Records. But despite the occasional cryptic title, Lee's music still bears a strong enough mainstream current to garner what in 2003 might be the hipster's most dreaded comparison: Hall & Oates.
It happened in a Time Out New York review. "Someone was trying to say This guy's just an indie-rock Daryl Hall,'" says Lee. "Of course, that's exactly what I'm going for. Okay, it's not exactly what I'm going for, but I've got no problem with Daryl Hall. I mean, Eddie Kendricks didn't get together with those guys onstage just for the money. People who base their tastes on little two-year increments are just going to be really embarrassed and they're going to own a lot of plastic that they wish they didn't sink their money into."
This, of course, would be sage advice for the proverbial 1984-music consumer, strutting out of Liquorice Pizza with a sealed vinyl copy of Big Bam Boom. But Lee's point here runs deeper than "Maneater," as do Lee's songs (which are often as tuneful as "One on One"). The fashion-obsessed culture that dismisses Daryl Hall as outdated kitsch but lionizes artists as pickled in the trends of their time as, say, Jesus and Mary Chain or the Cult, cramps our ability to just enjoy music. Lee calls that brand of prejudice "the malaise of our whole current scene."
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"I don't know if it's fear or what," he says. "That's one thing that Steve Shelley and I have really bonded over. We listen to Sade and Daryl Hall and people think it's ironic, but Sade is probably my favorite artist. I think that she and her band are the ultimate craftsmen and artists."
Charlie Moore, booking manager for New York's Irving Plaza, sees the commercial potential in Lee's accessibility. "It's just one of those things where you're just sort of like, Where the hell did this guy come from?'" says Moore, who watched Lee open for Starsailor at the club in 2002. "I think if Chris was never a singer, if he wasn't a performing artist, he'd be one of those guys, à la Jesse Harris, who could write a song that someone like Norah Jones would sell a million copies of. Of course, I think Chris should sell a million copies."
There might be easier ways to go platinum than being too poppy for the cool kids and too obstinately independent for radio, but Lee, for one, has humbler ambitions.
"I sort of like the sadistic challenge of walking onstage alone where nobody knows who I am and trying to silence people and win them over," he says. "That's a real kind of thrilling obstacle to set for yourself. But it would be cool to me to just get to a place where people are coming to hear my music."