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Chris Lee torches soul and classic pop.

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
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Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley has one hell of an ear. His label Smells Like Records has become a showcase for all kinds of diamonds in the rough, including eviscerating folk singer Cat Power (who recorded the sublime Myra Lee for the label before jumping to Matador), art-noise combo Blonde Redhead, and beatnik country-soul artifact Lee Hazlewood. Smells Like's latest find and possible crown jewel is Chris Lee, whose second album, Chris Lee Plays & Sings Torch'd Songs, Charivari Hymns, & Oriki Blue-Marches, is the finest collection of singer/songwriterly soul to emerge this year.

The abstruse title aside (perhaps explained by the fact that Lee used to write for experimental U.K. music mag The Wire), Lee's style is marked by profound simplicity: clean-strummed guitar chords, white-hot electric bass lines, and judiciously overdubbed trombone, trumpet, and analog keyboards. The songs themselves display a deep knowledge of classic pop, busting out augmented jazz chords, Beach Boys counterpoints, and the kind of turn-on-a-dime pivot from major to minor that Mark Eitzel and Elliott Smith built their careers on. But the real reason you need to hear Chris Lee is his voice. At first blush, he's a dead ringer for Jeff Buckley, singing in a fluttering falsetto that seems to fly in Buckley's shadow like a dove honoring the deceased. But listen again and you'll hear an agility that Buckley never knew, a liquid glide from register to register that sends shivers coursing down your spine. And give the man props for such wordplay as, "We're star-crossed lovers to a 'T'/ So let's just call the whole thing off/ E.g. we both worship D&G/ But you're a fashionista, and I'm a philosophe" (from "Lonesome Eyes"). Not your typical coffeehouse crooning, that's for sure.

Judging from the picture on the back of the CD, Lee's something of a dreamboat, too, so you might want to score a spot front and center when he plays his Bay Area debut this week. The last time he was in town, he says, he was 14 and got mugged on Fisherman's Wharf, so try to make a good impression.

About The Author

Philip Sherburne

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