The Lights From The Chemical Plant
On his third full-length album Robert Ellis seems to have totally nailed both sides of his songwriting personality – a hipster touching in on country tradition, and some playful subversions of countrypolitan music. Opener, TV Song seems to almost be tongue in cheek despite sincere references to wearily enjoying a rest in front of the box – it works well as bookend of the album against the closer, Tour Song, where Ellis is all but lamenting the chance to sit at home and take stock in front of Mad Men or whatever else is on.
The title track is the first example of the power of a narrative in the hands of Ellis – and in the way he croons it. Well, what do they say about country – you’re kinda stuffed if you don’t have the songs right? It’s all about the song. And Ellis has packed more than his fair share of stunners into this album – you could say he’s packed more than his fair share right into the title track alone, playing out like Steinbeck, like a Derek Cianfrance movie – all yearning and heartbreak and battling on.
Ellis knows how to frame urban ennui, how to give it that country scrub up and dust down, much like Robbie Fulks, but he has a more subtle brand of humour. He’s – for the most part – earnest, sincere. That voice just fairly soaring, taking the tunes on to another level. And then those mellifluous guitar lines, all cinema-jazz and slow-burn country.
When Ellis takes on a cover he is still able to bring new life to something that’s always felt like a standard. His version of Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years shouldn’t offend any Simon fans but it just might win over a few new people to the song. Hey, at any rate, it’s a good excuse to let the full fire of the guitar burn through.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this record is that it’s instantly captivating – almost in the way where you’re so sure you’ve heard the whole story straight away; you know, it couldn’t possibly have any secrets, couldn’t have anything more to say. But repeat plays have found this album continuing to soar, continuing to show more and more. We have to tip the Stetson to producer Jacquire King (Norah Jones, Tom Waits, Punch Brothers) for knowing the right strings to cling to, the way in which to drape them, as if shade cloths, to protect but never cover up the tune.
And then there’s the way that jazz just keeps peeking in – Ellis has done his listening to Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell among others. In fact much of this feels like Frisell’s lovely Nashville album if a young James Taylor – still with so much to prove – added lyrics beneath and poured heart and soul atop the music. I’m reminded too of Richard Hawley, not so much for the actual sound of the music, more the attitude and feel, that commitment to being a man out of time, to creating a distinctive – stand alone – voice even though you could lay that baking paper down and trace right around the obvious influences.
The Lights From The Chemical Plant feels like a great leap forward for Ellis – but it also feels like a strange leap backward in time when listening to it. But to where? Not quite the 1950s or 1970s, elements of both. And then these modern touches, and flawless, spotless playing. It’s a wonderfully rich record, a strange and magical journey.