He’s sharp, he’s expressive, he has a tragic sense of life. In him, I hear a little Rodney Crowell, who knows life is messy. I also hear a little Kacey Musgraves, the bright light and recent Grammy winner who isn’t afraid to get maverick-y. And I hear a little buzz in my left speaker, which I’ll have to get fixed because I don’t want anything distracting me when I listen to Robert Ellis and his excellent and imaginative new album.
It’s called The Lights from the Chemical Plant, which refers to sparkles and connotations from unlikely places. For his third album, Ellis moved from Texas to Nashville, but not to make honky-tonk. “I wanted to break it down,” he told Rolling Stone. “I don’t want people to think of this record as coming from classic country influence. Obviously it’s a part of who I am, but I want them to hear the other stuff.”
I hear it and I like it, that other stuff.
TV Song, for example, is a delight, even without its Mad Men reference. In his sweet drawl, Ellis depicts a failed couple – “Oh Betty Draper, I wish my wife was less like you” – and confesses to a solace found in a box of moving pictures. “I’m a gun fighter, I’m a bull rider, I’m the captain of some pirate ship at sea,” the chorus goes. “For a couple hours I’ve got super powers.”
The track is decorated with curly Knopfler-esque guitar notes, perhaps at the suggestion of Jacquire King, the producer whose résumé is dotted with names such as Tom Waits, Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon. The album (out Feb. 11 in the United States, March 4 in Canada, and currently streaming free at NPR.com) was recorded on the checkered linoleum floors of the Casino studio in East Nashville.
Ellis is in gentler form on the string-swept Chemical Plant, a metaphor involving bright things that are assumed to last forever. The trope is picked up on the lesser, twangier and drearier Houston, in which “new start” is unfortunately rhymed with “the seas they must part.” A jazzy outro, complete with a freaky-neat guitar solo, arrives just as you reach for the next-track button.
More six-string imagination happens in the middle of a charming take on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. The burst of eclectic fury recalls the talents of Wilco’s Nels Cline and distracts us from the nagging notion that Ellis might be too young to look back just yet.
Sing Along caustically attacks the religious indoctrination of youth: “That’s a hell of a thing to do just to teach him right from wrong / You can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can choose to sing along.” The God-fearers will loathe Ellis for that, and they’ll also feel a little better about themselves, which is probably the point of it anyhow.
“Nobody talks too loud in my hometown,” Ellis sings on Sing Along. “Nobody stands too tall, for fear of getting knocked down.” This evolving musician. who has made a trend-bucking record about journeys, has every reason to stand proud. He has come some way.
Robert Ellis plays Toronto’s Drake Hotel, Feb. 13.
The week in music
Top selling albums in Canada for the week ending Feb. 2:
A week after the Grammy Awards, the party continues for the 2014 Grammy Nominees compilation, which topped the Canadian album chart, according to sales figures from Nielsen SoundScan. Debuting at the No. 2 spot is Down With Webster’s Party For Your Life, followed by the soundtrack to Disney’s Frozen, Lorde’s Pure Heroine and, the recipient of a whopping post-Grammy sales-bump, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Sales of the album-of-year winner jumped 300 per cent in the United States after the French robot duo nabbed five golden gramophones. Unorthdox Jukebox, by best pop vocal album victor and Super Bowl halftime performer Bruno Mars, enjoyed a similar spike, moving up 11 slots to No. 7 as sales shot up by 303 per cent.
Top single: Katy Perry’s Dark Horse (featuring Juicy J) stays at No. 1 for a second straight week on the Billboard Hot 100. Raise a glass to Beyoncé’s Drunk in Love, which soared to No. 2.
Released this week: Broken Bells’ After the Disco, Toni Braxton & Babyface’s Love, Marriage & Divorce, Old Man Luedecke’s I Never Sang Before I Met You, Li’l Andy’s While the Engines Burn, Del Barber’s Prairieography, Colleen Brown’s Direction 1: Major Love, Marissa Nadler’s July, Mark McGuire’s Along the Way and Jeremy Messersmith’s Heart Murmurs.