Lights From The Chemical Plant is Robert Ellis’ third album overall and his second for New West. Between his previous record and this new release the Texan has moved to Nashville, but having already established authentic country music credentials, oddly perhaps he has chosen a new musical direction. Although there’s still a cup of moonshine in the tank and an authentic, dark, rich twang reminiscent of George Jones and other younger voices from the ‘music city’s’ hall of fame, the new release is a varied and ambitious set. Robert has described it as being more about “The Paul Simons and the Randy Newmans and the other half of my upbringing, which is very much rooted in pop.” Ablaze with ambition it might be, but The Lights From The Chemical Plant also has the glow of something quite magical.
It transpires that some of the fuel for this complex collection of songs have come from a fairly incessant touring schedule, which has seem him out and about with Alabama Shakes, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Old 97’s, amongst others. As that was what eventually brought him to the UK, I had the chance to see Robert Ellis twice in two nights at the end of January, first at a solo showcase and the second night at Dingwalls supporting Nathaniel Rateliff.
For that second show I’d made sure I set off with plenty of time to get there early enough to catch him again, having been caught out by the vagaries of live billing before. Early enough to be amongst the first 50 in, I found a vantage point and didn’t move for the duration of the evening. By the time Robert played his set, the venue was pretty near full and the crowd surprisingly respectful and attentive. Robert took the stage, armed with an acoustic guitar and flanked by a banjo player and fiddler, both of whom he had only met that day and it’s fair to say, captivated the crowd.
An instant deal had been struck with the audience and in return for their attention Robert delivered a half hour of music that did two things. Firstly he kept everyone entertained, producing a growing wave of appreciation as the songs unfolded. He even managed some good humour and a bit of witty banter to gather up any stragglers along the way. Secondly, he proved that the interest, sparked in me by the previous night’s showcase, was indeed worth following through.
What sticks in the mind is that even when stripped back, the varied styles both musically and lyrically produced surprises, while he also displayed a willingness to tackle some big questions head on and with a sharp pen where needed. The passions and insecurities of love are naturally enough amongst poetic his concerns, but by no means the limit.
Perhaps most striking is the way the tunes and words linger in the mind, so that after only two brief encounters the CD caught me instantly in Sing Along mode. Some of the songs already have the familiarity of well-worn classics, engrained over years rather than a couple brief live performances. That said the CD still has plenty more still to be discovered, for this album to retain its classic status for years to come.
Sonically the The Lights From The Chemical Plant is especially adventurous and Grammy winning producer Jacquire King, who has Dawes, Kings Of Leon and Tom Waits amongst an impressive list on his CV, has done a good job of matching Robert’s ambition and perhaps persuading him to leave any self impose constraints behind. Whilst you can certainly shoehorn this into an overall Americana category, the sigh of the pedal steel and Robert’s voice echo his country music background, with Sing Along providing a straight ahead bluegrass romp, the music aims for wider horizons, incorporating soul, jazz and even a hint of bossa-beat.
As suggested above his way with words is a cut above too. TV Song is a jaunty opener, which gives the impression of being an enjoyable homage to childhood fantasy, until you realise that he’s singing about adults. In the second verse Robert sings, “Oh Betty Draper, I wish my life was less like you, it gets so hard to take her, she complains the whole day through.” Luckily for the protagonists, however, the TV offers a window into another world where their differences are put on pause.
The title track manages to carry a lifetime of emotions through a tale of love and loss, it’s an intensely moving and musically complex piece. Strings add to a swelling mix and the inevitable poignant and touching conclusion. Good Intentions, is sassy by contrast, the intentions in question being somewhat lecherous with a ‘hang the consequences’ swagger. Steady As The Rising Sun, meanwhile is the quite probably best James Taylor song that he didn’t write. A beautiful love song, it has one of those chord progressions through the chorus, which were I more musical I would be able to explain better. Suffice to say that if I was, I’d kill to write songs like this.
The same might be said for A Bottle Of Wine, or to extend the lyric fully, “A bottle of wine and a bag of cocaine.” While that might not be on any supermarket’s two-for-one-meal-deal that I know of, it’s quite probably a more common shopping list than most people would care to admit. But here it’s turned into a perfect metaphor for a doomed relationship.
So at just half of the way through we’ve already been on something of a rollercoaster ride, although perhaps that’s the wrong way to express it, as there’s nothing harum-scarum about the carefully judged song structures and the weight of Robert’s words. Sure, he has a way of charging the emotions with a high voltage spark, but this is a work of story telling that’s subtle, considered and intricate rather than simply a thrill a minute. It all sounds so personal too and whilst it’s a danger to presume everything a songwriter like Robert sings is autobiographical, some of this obviously is, which in turn suggests that the rest follows too. We are invited into Robert’s world and through this vicarious complicity, we learn a little more about ourselves.
In the second half of the CD, Pride, about not being able to see you’re wrong, Only Lies, about infidelity but the flipside of the coin to Good Intentions, Houston, about Robert’s relationship with his home city and the need to move on, Sing Along, about growing up in the midst of zealous religious belief and ultimately, Tour Song, about the insecurities of the travelling musician, all have a first hand honesty to them. They all have something to say too, making their points while avoiding easy cliché.
Of those the sequence of Houston into Sing Along is probably the most obvious signpost to those varied musical ambitions described above. Houston suddenly breaks into jazz-rock towards the end, whilst, as mentioned before, Sing Along has a kick-ass-bluegrass style that Bill Monroe might have been proud of. I suspect, however, he might have been more troubled by, “And the flames of Hell they seemed so high when I could barely see over the pew, I was just a boy when they told me that lie, but lord it felt so true.” “Fire and brimstone it may be Jim… But not as we know it,” to mangle a paraphrase.
As stylistically diverse as the album is, however, the variety simple goes to prove that Robert Ellis is no One Trick Pony, to borrow an album title from Paul Simon. The septuagenarian singer’s Still Crazy After All These Years, was the title track of the album that preceded it and is also the song that Robert chooses to cover at the fulcrum point of the CD. In part it serves to underline Robert’s stated aim, but is an interesting choice. The song and album came as something of a commercial peak at that mid 70s point, in Simon’s solo career launched off the back of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Indeed it would be more than a decade before he bettered it with Graceland.
The reason I mention this, is that as occasionally confounding and sometimes sporadic as his career has been since the early 70s, Paul Simon has made some groundbreaking music and is still making great records now. Sure’ he’s taken some wrong turns, but he’s unquestionably followed his own musical heart, come what may. When looking at it from Robert’s perspective, if you’re going to have musical heroes, they may as well be the big, self determined type.
Unfortunately there’s no way for Robert to channel surf his way his way into his hero’s life (al la TV Song), but given enough support and encouragement, he may just get there in his own sweet way. Of course, if he lasts as long as Paul Simon I won’t be around to see it, but The Lights From The Chemical Plant is a step on in that direction and that’ll do me just fine for now.
Review by: Simon Holland
Album Stream via Deezer
Released via: New West 3 Mar 2014