Chris Lee 

Cool Rock

Fans of Chris Lee are sure to be taken aback by the cover of the soul singer's latest. Could that rapturous, brilliantly nuanced voice really come from this regular guy, rockin' the fuzzy Guido mustache and gazing vulnerably into the camera lens? Yep, that's him, and thankfully that voice remains the same, so often compared with that of the late Jeff Buckley, though Lee's never been as morose or ostentatious as that he-diva.

The tone for Cool Rock, Lee's third full-length, is set by the monstrously hooky "Cossacks of Love," wherein he lays his love on the line like the fragile, somewhat silly thing it is: "I don't think I'm brave enough/to run with the serious cossacks of love/but you move like a cavalry/and I have no choice but to sign myself up." Lee's delivery has never been more uniquely expressive. And he still has the unrequited yearning down pat, but gone is the overt sexuality that underwrote his previous releases, making him a sort of self-conscious, indie-set Barry White. That's been replaced by an almost all-encompassing exaltation of love, punctuated by ruminations on soul and pop music itself. Lee is also dipping into the blues well now, with the mellow country ballad "Lately I Want You" and an album-closing cover of Mississippi John Hurt's "Nobody Cares for Me." The result is one of the best pop records of the year, lovecentric or otherwise.

Chris Lee plays the Make-Out Room in SF on Tuesday. 415-647-2888.

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