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The string players bring this chamber folk pop to life, especially on “Hurt Me” where their swirling intensity reflects the emotional turmoil of lyrics “and I’m begging you to free the pain that locks me up inside.”Lee ruminates on a particularly bad relationship in many selections including the disc’s first single “Vaporize” where he says “I’ve been stressing all the time/I can’t seem to find/a little piece of mind” as tinkling piano and programmed beats along with real drums push an already catchy ballad melody into sing-along status.He compares his emotions to the harshness of nature (storms, crashing waves, wind) on the wonderfully churchy “One Lonely Light,” one of many tunes that marry honeyed melodies to darker lyrics.He took a guitar with him to South Carolina, where he studied poets — John Keats, William Butler Yeats — as well as such African American writers as James Baldwin and Richard Wright. I really do." , is a slowed, spare acoustic number whose shimmering surface recalls the country blues of Mississippi John Hurt.He augmented his education working in a record store, where he boned up on Withers, Curtis Mayfield and other soul singers, as well as on such jazz greats as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, both of whom were on Blue Note in the late '40s. "Whoa, black river," Lee sings, in a light, agile tenor.Whether he’s espousing the joys of “New Love” that introduces the stripped down horn section of saxist Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross on trumpet or reveling in the slinky Memphis inspired groove of “Til You Come Back Through” and “Walls,” two tracks where the singer shifts into sweet falsetto mode, this is a smart move.Lee also adds subtle strings — violin, viola, occasional cello — to further embellish this vibe.Since then, he's rarely been in Philadelphia for more than a few days at a time, so he crashes at a downtown hotel.In between touring Europe and the United States with Jones last year — playing almost 100 dates in total — Lee found two weeks in July to record his 11-song debut in New York, produced by Jones' bassist (and boyfriend), Lee Alexander.
The hand claps and religious fervor that drives the upbeat Motown-ish “Running Out of Time” pushes him into Al Green mode, a style that underlies the best of these 13 tracks (the deluxe edition adds two extra).Growing up, he didn't have any aspirations to write or perform."I wasn't one of these kids who was into Joni Mitchell when I was 7," he said.At a downtown restaurant, wearing his trademark scraggly beard and porkpie hat, Lee savored a vegetarian meal and sampled a Belgian beer that has the same name as a club in London he played the prior week: Troubadour.
In a quiet falsetto, he sang along to Otis Redding's .
The first week in March, he played three shows in New York, did So how did Lee — who just four years ago was teaching second graders how to read at Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia — go from playing open-mike nights in the city for anyone who'd listen to being the latest Philadelphia soulster anointed as a star in the making?