My review strategy is to avoid mental contamination. I try not to to even look at album covers, since so many of them are truly awful. Publicity people often send artist information, either virtually or physically, along with the music you’re reviewing and I try not to look. Any of these things can sometimes color your impression of an album, before you’ve even heard it. So this process is how I came to enjoy Michael Lee’s self-titled debut CD, before realizing he was a contestant from The Voice TV show.
I don’t watch The Voice and know only a few things about the show, gleaned by fast-forwarding through commercials on my DVR. I know the show has celebrity judges I don’t recognize. I know swivel chairs play an important role in the show. And I know it’s a musical competition, a la American Idol. And while I’m a huge Kelly Clarkson fan (who just outed himself for the sake of a review), I don’t usually enjoy performers from those kinds of reality shows, where there’s an emphasis on bombast and theatrics. And while Lee’s debut has moments of theatrics and bombast, there are lots of others sounds and moods, too.
Lee also plays guitar (the cover of his album, which I eventually looked at, features him pointing it at the viewer, almost challenging us to a very expensive, noisy joust), and plays it well, but the strengths of the album are his singing and songwriting.
Lee’s voice has a genuinely bluesy quality. It’s weathered in a way that you don’t hear often enough in pop, or even in the blues. He’s able to create intimate, soulful moments, while still conveying the power needed to survive on reality music shows. “This Is” is impressive rhythm and blues that oozes soul. His voice is sexy and vulnerable, and the funky guitar jogging quietly beneath the song only amplifies that slow jam energy. “Love Her” is faster, but no less soulful.
Lee also delves into rock, just as successfully. “Weeds,” driven by a great trumpet riff that stops just short of mariachi, is a 60s pop rock gem. “Heart of Stone” is the heaviest track on the album, with a distorted guitar riff and a pounding blues beat. The organ pulse gives the track a Warren Haynes vibe and the horns perfectly lighten things. Like pretty much all of the album’s cuts, this feels like a complete song. Lee doesn’t leave anything on the table and nothing is lacking. However, at the same time, the songs are strong enough that you can imagine another artist taking them on. Like, for instance, say Kelly Clarkson.
The one possible mis-step on the album is Lee’s cover of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” Apparently it was a big Lee piece on The Voice but this more rock-oriented cover of King’s signature song lacks King’s emotion and urgency. And Lee’s otherwise fine guitar work can’t touch King’s conciseness. I understand the idea that the song needed to be here because of the TV show connection, but I would have preferred Lee include something less iconic.
But other than that, Michael Lee is a wonderful surprise. Lee is an impressive vocalist. His guitar playing isn’t flashy, but it’s present and noticeable, working in service of some incredibly strong songs. Great art comes from weird places. It says way more about 2019 than about Lee that we’re finding blues rock artists on prime time network TV. One the one hand, it’s a chilling thought. On the other, it’s pretty amazing Lee’s gotten that kind of exposure, seemingly without compromising his integrity.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Love Her
– Heart of Stone
– Can’t Kick You
– This Is
The Big Hit
– This Is
Review by Steven Ovadia