Reviews and Suggestions

Wonderful-Lee Done!

Michael Lee – Face Forward

Rarely do artists come along with fully-formed personalities, having boundless talent, their own sound and a complete vision of who they are, what they want to do, and how to present their talent to whoever they think is their target audience. An artist like Prince comes to mind in this respect, and though there has to be others, his is the obvious name one would recall as embodying this type of artist. While Lee does not have the hard funk sound Prince has long since settled into, Lee does compare to Prince in many ways. For one, Lee seems to have a vision for his sound. Mixing jazz, prog, and rock the same way Prince mixes soul and rock, Lee has fashioned a hybrid that no one could call totally original, but one Lee is able to use and manipulate to fashion his own sound. As Prince is able to take the R&B of James Brown and the guitar stylings of Jimi Hendrix and add a little of his own personality and come up with something new yet familiar, Lee is able to take his influences, throw a little of his own sensibilities in there and come up with something unique yet still recognizable. While not groundbreaking, Lee’s talents are quite formidable and his mastery of stringed instruments of all types and well as keyboards and percussion show Lee to be a musical prodigy capable of doing anything he wants in the music world. Also like Prince, Lee has found his own sound. Most likely due to Lee being a self-taught musician (also like Prince) Lee has his own idiosyncrasies and his own way of achieving his sound which makes it his own. He is also able to own it, not in the same way Prince flamboyantly owns his persona, but one can sense Lee’s comfort within himself as his confidence permeates the CD but doesn’t engulf it. This is a musician who labored over this album until everything was right, and once you listen, you’ll know that Lee knew it.

A jazzy-sounding and very liquid drum pattern from Gates and a deep popping bass by Lee open up the first song Land of Change before some guitar and Lee’s voice end up joining in to begin the song proper. The guitar playing reminds of Eric Johnson’s and Lee’s bass work is very up front while the drummer almost plays a constant solo though the time is kept quite nicely. The resembles fusion jazz with a few rock touches and the inclusion of Lee’s vocals. There is almost the same opening for the next song Trust, though the guitar plays some great arpeggios and Lee’s vocals at just about the very start of the song add an immediacy to the song that a long introduction part doesn’t usually suggest. This song is the opposite of the first, with more rock in the mix, and putting the jazz elements to the backseat though when one really listens to the instruments, it is obvious it is still there lurking under the surface. The middle part of the song almost goes into a Rush-like sequence with the interplay of guitar bass and drums. Vocally, Lee is a little thin but that may be the production as he can more than hold a tune, but doesn’t seem to have much of a vocal presence, almost sounding like a wan version of John Mayer. The next song, Despite, opens with some great guitar lines, and great interplay with bass and drums before the vocals come in. A bit oif Colin Blunstone is detected in Lee’s breathy vocals, though the song is more jazzy than the Zombies ever got. This cut sounds as if the baroque was taken from the Zombies and more jazz were added which makes for an interesting song, probably the most interesting one yet. Great guitar lines from Lee and the drumming shows great understanding and execution of dynamics. Keyboards and drums handle the chores on the opening to Tired, while Lee’s voice sounds like the title, probably by design. More of a ballad feel on this cut, though with the busy drumming and guitar/keyboard interplay the tune still sounds “up” even though it seems the song is supposed to be about a breakup. Some gently fingerpicked guitar opens up the next ballad Mystery of Life, with Lee picking and singing like a cross between Pierce Pettis and Blunstone. It is on these slower songs where Lee’s vocals shine the most. Suddenly, his voice is up front and the texture perfectly complements the music. A string section may have enhanced this song a little bit, but it is still powerful on its’ own. A rocker is next, Youth, and the guitar enters and gets growly before evolving into a little Satriani-sounding lead part before the vocals kick in. Great guitar and vocal work from Lee who has his voice mixed just about where it should be for it to be most effective. Lee’s bass work is impressive as well with some great intciate interplay between the bass and the other instruments. If Lee wanted to just concentrate on bass, I am thinking he could be quite a fine jazz bassist if he wanted to be. In The Picture is next and Lee does his Blunstone impression again. It’s almost uncanny how similar the two sound and I am sure it’s unintentional as how many people think of Blunstone these days? It’s a great vocal sound for ballads though and Lee does well with it, adding a poppy element to it that makes it seem as if it would sound great on the radio. Acoustic country-style fingerpicking opens the next song Distant Future and it’s just fingerpicked guitar and some minor percussion carrying the song as well as some tasty mandolin, also courtesy of Lee. The next song Never Enough Time starts out with some dextrous electric lead playing in an almost Latin-tinged way with some snaky runs. The vocals and sound of the song seem very ’60’s influenced, though not with any overt psychedelia just more so with the phrasing which seems to borrow a little from Robert Plant. Great guitar squalls from Lee who continues to show he is in a league of his own guitar-wise. Lee gets a little raucous with the guitar towards the end of the song, adding some lines of which Metallica would be fond. The next song, Face Forward, is an intrumental which starts with some stately piano and some African percussion before the drums and bass begin to kick in. The piano seems to be the lead instrument to this song, as opposed to the guitar, which had set the pace previously. As you would expect by now, Lee shows quite a bit of piano talent. The last song, That Day, starts with piano and vocals in a ballad style before moving into a prog-type thing in the middle, before resuming as a ballad at the end, though with an added proggy/jazzy oomph taking it through to the finish.

What I take away from this album, besides the songs and the playing, is the strong emphasis placed on the song arrangements. This is something most one-man band type acts give short shrift while being satisfied with just banging out some raggedy blues. Not Lee, who obviously spent much time crafting every note and nuance very carefully. While for some it may seem as if the careful placement of every note and nuance would take away the lively spontaneity most music thrives on, in Lee’s case it allows him to craft perfectly-formed musical jewels that shine with a brightness few artists can achieve. It doesn’t take long to hear Lee’s talent is something quite rare and extraordinary. From one listen, you will be able to tell Lee has his own sound and whether it will catch on is going to be up to the zeitgeist and how accessible Lee makes his music to the general public, but Lee has a terrifically bring future in the music business, of which this album is a wonderful debut.