Robert Ellis

Texas Piano Man

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The very title Texas Piano Man seems to be a statement of purpose, particularly for a singer/songwriter like Robert Ellis, who initially carved out a reputation as a po-faced guitar slinger. Faint echoes of that version of Robert Ellis can be heard in places on Texas Piano Man, but his fourth album is a bold expansion of his musical palette, placing Ellis on an axis that runs through Harry Nilsson and Ben Folds. It's a startling shift for the singer/songwriter, since Ellis not only embraces their rich melodicism but their wicked sense of humor as well. Opening his album with a ballad called "Fucking Crazy" makes that much clear, but Texas Piano Man is filled with songs that are livelier and funnier, including the pair of "Nobody Smokes Anymore" (with its punch line "guess I'll be the only one that looks good in pictures") and "Passive Aggressive." Placed toward the beginning of the album, this duo kicks Texas Piano Man into momentum and threatens to overshadow its quieter moments, yet those are also finely etched: "Father" hides its melancholy in a soft veneer, and the plea of "Let Me In" is subtly insistent. Still, much of the kick of Texas Piano Man lies in its playfulness, a quality apparent in the wry deflection of "He Made Me Do It," the yacht rock shimmer of "Aren't We Supposed to Be in Love," and the barroom swing of "Topo Chico," an ode to Texas' favorite carbonated beverage that's not Lone Star. Ellis may have suggested this level of melodic songcraft on his previous albums, but he never hinted at this wit, and his dexterous combination of craft and humor makes Texas Piano Man a rich, resonant good time.

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