England’s hottest country picker’s last Sugar Hill release, 2003′s Heartbreak Hill , was a nice tribute to his former bandleader, Emmylou Harris – albeit somewhat tame compared to the stuff he’s been recording with his British satellite band, Hogan’s Heroes. Maybe he and the label just needed to get acquainted, because this time out he wastes no time getting his hands greasy.
After an almost rubato opening chorus, Lee hits the ignition (literally, with the growl of a vintage V12 Ferrari) and dives into an uptempo, rockabilly take on “Road Runner” – not the Bo Diddley song, but the Junior Walker Motown hit. The song was co-producer Steve Fishell’s choice, the Ferrari the idea of the CD’s other co-producer, Lee himself. As unlikely as it seems, it’s the perfect vehicle for Lee to strut his stuff, including one of his beat-and-a-half-delay solos – sounding like two Teles chasing each other.
Another choice Lee made when cutting this record was doubling on his first instrument, the piano, which he has played in many of his high-profile sideman stints but has rarely featured on his own records. Solos are still mainly reserved for guitar, but Albert’s keyboard underpinning puts more of his stamp on the proceedings.
More glue is provided by using a “band” throughout, rather than different session players on different songs. And what a band! Bassist Bob Glaub and drummer Don Heffington serve as rhythm section, and Fishell, Lee, and Mark Cohen trade acoustic rhythm duties. Fishell also lays down some fat lap steel on Billy Burnette’s “Didn’t Start Livin’,” but defers to Buddy Emmons on pedal steel for the rest of the set – pretty much a no-brainer when “God is in the house.”
Other than the self-penned instrumental “Payola Blues” (seven lick-filled minutes of Albert swapping solos with Emmons), Lee prefers to interpret the material of others – something his expressive voice is well-suited to, whether he’s dipping into the catalog of Leo Kottke (“Julie’s House”), Delbert McClinton (“Livin’ It Down”), or Jimmy Webb (“The Moon Is A Hard Mistress”).
The album closes with Richard Thompson’s “Dimming Of The Day,” arranged as a beautiful duet with Lee and his daughter, Alexandra, an opera student at Julliard. Sometimes “classical” and “pop” singers mix like oil and water, but the familial bond must have facilitated the perfect blend heard here. And if this is any indication, she should graduate with honors.
Lee solo albums have always been too few and far between, but with three albums and a live DVD in the five years since Hogan’s Heroes’ Tear It Up, Our Man (or Englishman) In California has been in the spotlight more than ever. Let’s hope he stays there; the lighting suits him.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.