Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis

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Robert Ellis Review

by Thom Jurek

Robert Ellis' fine Lights from the Chemical Plant features "Tour Song" as its closer. The sparsely orchestrated track confesses to paranoia and fear while he's on the road. He speculates about possible infidelity from his wife. That story gets fleshed out on Robert Ellis. It's a divorce record that meditates on themes of infidelity, existential pain, accountability, desire, conflict, loss, acceptance, and the marrow-deep restlessness in his own life that drives them all. Ellis produced the date at Sugar Hill Studios in his hometown of Houston, Texas, the city that begat Mickey Newbury, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, and Robert Earl Keen (all mavericks who challenged convention). His lyrics are often nakedly confessional and are framed in melodies and arrangements that embrace the kind of sophisticated pop songwriting pioneered by Randy Newman, Danny O'Keefe, Newbury, and Charlie Rich without leaving roots music behind. Even the two songs he didn't write, Matthew Vasquez's "How I Love You," and guitarist Kelly Doyle's "Screw"-- feel all of a piece. In "Perfect Strangers" he reflects on what brings lovers together and what ultimately alienates them from each other. The intricate, savvy chart suggests a production aesthetic influenced by Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, Roy Halee, and Ben Mink. Conversely, "Drivin'" is a super picker's delight, steeped in honky tonk and bluegrass, complete with brushed snares, tom-toms, and Dobro. In the first person he expresses impotent frustration: he's unable to coexist in the same space as his estranged other, but has nowhere else to go. In "California," Ellis skillfully blends a jazz guitar vamp with a Rhodes piano in classic AOR musical vernacular. His protagonist is a woman after a broken relationship, who finds herself rootless while packing her belongings in an empty house. She recalls the fights, its bitter end, and the possibilities of a new life. "The High Road" is introduced in a minor key through an uneasy balance of tense strings and nylon-string guitar. The words reach into Van Zandt's grab bag of economical tough drama, but the music is framed in the stark baroque country Willie Nelson offered on the conceptual Phases and Stages (another divorce record). Ellis admits he's tired of pretending to play fair, not because it's wrong, but because it doesn't work. The shimmering bossa rhythms under "Amanda Jane" may not suggest Houston, but a close listen to the melody unmasks Clark's massive influence. Set closer "It's Not Ok" explains the reason Ellis is a jealous man: it's a confession of his own cheating. He knows it's wrong, feels doomed to repeat himself, but doesn't -- or can't -- care. He's swept away by his feelings for another woman. This track is a collision of modern country, Americana, pop, and guitar heroics, with 21st century production. It brings Robert Ellis to an unsettling, dissonant, beautiful close. The artist makes a convincing argument here that he too belongs in Houston's pantheon.

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