It’s hard to talk about Chris Lee without mentioning Ryan Adams. Both shot up through the N.C. music scene playing what’s most commonly referred to as alt-country: Adams with Whiskeytown and Lee (then known as A.C. Lee) with Pine State. Pine State owed more to GG Allin and punk rock than it did to country. Their sardonic, deconstructive approach was the antithesis of Whiskeytown’s early drunken Replacements-esque revelry and that band’s later blatant attempt to cash in with its major label-country-rock-Eagles homage, Strangers Almanac.Like Adams, Lee, an avid student of music, moved to New York City. He switched his name back to Chris, settled in Brooklyn to study BoHo culture and got lucky enough to have Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley add him to his quirky and eclectic Smells Like Records roster.
That’s where the comparisons with Adams end. As a former WXYC DJ and sometime music critic, Lee’s ideas of what makes a record fly is put to good use on Plays & Sings, where he keeps things minimal, yet catchy. Gone is the hootin’ and a-hollerin’, the in-the-red production and “We’ll fuck you up before you fuck us up” attitude of Pine State, replaced with a sultry, post-rock vibe and filtered through a smoky, white-boy soul delivery. Obvious comparisons to Jeff Buckley, Alex Chilton and Elliott Smith arise when folks get to talking about Lee’s music. Is it Brooklyn-ized Lambchop? Or a less tongue-and-cheek Ween? With lyrics like, “We’re star-crossed lovers to a ‘t’/so let’s just call the whole thing off/e.g. we both worship d+g/but you’re a fashionista/and i’m a philosophe,” it’s clear that Lee’s remembered not to take things too seriously. (Ryan, you reading this?)But while Greenpoint and Williamsburg hipsters may eat up Plays & Sings (I predict it’ll grace many a Top Ten list this year by New York scribes), I’d much rather have Chris return to being A.C., playing punk-rock country while Dan “The Gimp” Partridge throws barbecue at me. Lee’s record may turn out to be better than Gold, but I’d just as soon both boys do some real soul searching and get back to their Carolina roots. Overdubs suck.