Back in January, when Cake's latest album, Showroom of Compassion, debuted at No. 1 with the lowest one-week sales of any chart-topper in the history of mankind, the band's frontman simply laughed off the dubious honor. Two weeks later, a relatively unknown singer-songwriter from Philadelphia named Amos Lee debuted at the top of the chart with his fourth album, Mission Bell. And he did it by selling 4,000 fewer copies than even Cake did.
When this came up recently in conversation with Cake's John McCrea, the singer joked, "I don't think Cake is a band that's supposed to be No. 1." When the same subject comes up in a chat with Lee, the singer does not reply. After about 15 seconds of agonizing silence, I realize he has ignored what I said. Apparently holding the record for the lowest-selling album to ever debut at No. 1 is no laughing matter.
And therein lies the difference between Cake — 1990s survivors who recognize the inherent cheesiness of mariachi horns — and Lee, a self-serious type who writes songs about "Freedom," "Jails and Bombs," and "Jesus" with all the levity self-serious types usually give those subjects.
On the surface, the 34-year-old Lee isn't all that different from other indie-folk singer-songwriters. He pens songs that are rooted in old-fashioned Americana that take side trips to timeless tourist stops (in Lee's case, jazz and blues) along the way. He takes his music very seriously. And he likes to bring up big, mythical visions of the heartland (street-corner preachers, barrel bottoms, and skipping stones all make appearances in his songs) as seen through some sort of panoramic, bug-splattered windshield.
But there aren't too many identifying marks to his character studies and tales of friendship and heartbreak. Mission Bell is defined more by its high-profile guest stars (Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, and Iron & Wine's Sam Beam) than by Lee himself. Which leaves the album's themes of escape and acceptance sort of hanging there on the edge of the wide-open vistas Lee likes to visit. "The songs run a sort of cyclical thing that happens — getting from a place of vulnerability to finding out where you fit with the tides within yourself," he says. "There's a lot of back and forth in there."
Lee released his self-titled debut album in 2005. A year later came Supply and Demand, followed by Last Days at the Lodge in 2008. Along the way, the usual supporters of occasionally bearded, always-delicate-sounding neo-folkies started taking notice. NPR played his songs and interviewed him. AAA radio picked up his music. And he played a few lower-tier late-night talk shows.
But something happened in the three years between albums. For one thing, Lee took his time recording Mission Bell. "There was more self-discovery this time," he says. "I had more perspective and was at ease with the process. I wasn't reaching as far; I let it come to me. Collaborating really turns me on. I'm trying to work with as many people who are open musically as I can."
The Arizona roots-rock band Calexico adds a little muscle to Lee's songs, a sort of dusty overcoat for the mostly acoustic, sorta-skeletal tunes. And while a song like "Windows Are Rolled Down" won't be racing through your head the rest of the day, it's a pleasant-enough drive for four minutes. Which may or may not be why music buyers were in the mood for something so unassuming after the holiday rush.
There are a few reasons why Mission Bell debuted at the top of the chart. Most obvious is the fact it was released during the last week of January — not exactly a peak time for new records, since almost every big artist put out their albums in time for holiday gift-giving. (Cake can tell you how crucial a January release is.) But maybe it was just Lee's time. Indie-folk guys are big now: Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Bon Iver have all released hit records since Lee unleashed his.
"I'm inspired by keeping it going down the road — meeting new people and keeping the faith in what's going on around me," says Lee. "It's like a relationship: There's gotta be some periods of renewal. And that's what I'm going through now."