Several months ago Sam Lewis’s debut album was released. Completely unheralded- at least, advance notice wasn’t perceived by me- this creation of ten original songs has become more favoured with each and every listen.
Inhabiting a sonic mode reminiscent of both Bobby Gentry and Larry Jon Wilson, Sam Lewis reminds one of the music created by contemporary artists such as Shelby Lynne, Adele, and Paul Burch. Its soulful mix of Americana country themes and influences, not to mention execution, is wonderfully attractive.
“In My Dreams” is simply a wonderful song. “If you don’t want me in your dreams, then you stay out of mine” is classic country sentiment sharpened by a rare pop-soul approach of pure rural honesty and logic. Reggie Bradley Smith’s Wurlitzer riffs provide a simultaneously playful and melancholy tone.
While Sam Lewis- who wrote and sings all the songs- is the focus of the album, ample credit is given to his assembled band. While this is notable by the inclusion of their names in large font on the cover art, more substantial is the space they are afforded within each song. It almost feels as if there are no ‘sidemen’ on the album.
Rather, this has the feel of a unified band that have spent years playing together, learning each other’s nuances. But, hired guns they are and they- Kenny Vaughn, Dave Jacques, Derek Dixon, and Smith- are fabulous, and an ideal cohesive and collaborative blending of voice and instrumentation in created.
“Southern Greek Tragedy” is beautiful- complex, painful, and ultimately redemptive: a novel in 200 seconds. Autobiographical, the straight-forward lyrics reveal the complexities of children’s lives all the more effectively because there is a lack of overt poetic pretense within their construction. “How could they know better; to them it was a normal life” is perhaps the saddest phrase contained on an album comprised entirely of emotion.
“Wisdom comes from aging, but aging makes us weak; I’ll try harder to listen, when you’re not strong enough to speak,” from “Equal Love,” runs a close second. This song, and the album’s closer “Runaway Bride” are pure magic, exploring father-son history and dynamics in ways few songwriters this side of Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell are able.
“I’m A River,” sung with Jonell Mosser, is deceptive. Over Randy Newman-esque instrumentation, the river as metaphor for a broken life may be missed the first few times through, but once realized (as in, “Take one step closer, and I’ll pull you in”) the song becomes an elegy for desperation.
Beyond his wonderfully expressive singing- softly masculine with an edge of flannel buffering the blade’s edge- Lewis comes up with great song titles: “The Don’t Drop Inn” is a bit precious, but still witty, while “Bluesday Night” and “The Cross I Wear” surpass cleverness and advance toward inspiration. “Bluesday Night” is especially affecting, and in no way do I mean that it is manipulative. Over what I would call ‘church music,’ Lewis details his interpersonal shortcomings.
All too soon, it concludes: without doubt, one of the most inspired and most competently executed albums of 2012.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in the south, but every time I listen to Sam Lewis I feel as if I have. Does that make sense? Much like Kate Campbell does, (and like Campbell, Lewis injects spiritual overtones in his songs) Lewis makes the listener one who has shared his experiences, his world.