Let Us Now Praise…Robert Ellis

RobertEllis-rec

One of the most loathsome tropes employed by music critics is the comparison of a new band or artist to an old band or artist for the sake of lending credence, understanding, or street cred to the many ineffable qualities of uncharted sonic territory. You know, something like, “Dawes is today’s heir apparent to The Band.” No. Dawes is Dawes and The Band is (was) The Band. Sure, all art is reductive on some level, but grasping at these low-hanging-fruit comparisons is just not fair, neither to the new nor the old. In doing so we water down the energy of the contemporary for the sake of nostalgia or simplicity (and yes, I’ve been guilty of doing this myself). That being said, when a February 2014 Esquire blurb did this with singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, I’ll admit, it made me sit up:

“The 25-year-old Texan is Paul Simon trapped in Tom Waits’s head, with George Jones’s voice. He’s what Jim James might sound like if he’d liked Randy Newman more than the Band.”

Ugh. Admittedly, that blurb is one big orgy of regrettable comparisons, but it did the trick and inspired me to give Ellis a digital spin. And I’ve been delighted ever since.

With three full length albums under his belt—The Great Re Arranger (2009), Photographs (2011), and The Lights From The Chemical Plant (2014)—Ellis’s talents as a lyricist and vocalist are undeniable as he aches his way through landscape tales of disillusion, complicated love, and American ennui with a pinched and plaintive whine accented by slide guitars, jangly pianos, and inspiring dynamics. And while I’ll resist the urge to do so myself, it’s easy to see why Esquire saw fit to make the comparisons it did, name dropping the likes of Waits and Newman in its review. Because there’s something slanted about the songs of Robert Ellis, who lures listeners with the charm of his melodies but then takes them by the hand through sinuous back alleys of irony, insight, and sympathetic satire once they’re hooked. Consider, for instance, these lines from “TV Song,” the opener of The Lights From The Chemical Plant:

I am not a failure, I played the hand that I was dealt
But every now and then I do pretend that I am someone else
It takes no imagination, just a flick of the remote
Then I am on vacation in a life someone else wrote

Maybe I’m a millionaire, I travel over the world
I’m handsome and respected, I get all those pretty girls
So calm and mysterious, fighting for the greater good
People love and adore me from New York to Hollywood

Well, this may not be the healthiest, I know
But I’m happiest when I exist through my favorite TV shows

I’m a gun fighter, I’m a bull rider
I’m the captain of some pirate ship at sea
For a couple hours I got super powers
Oh my God, I love watching my TV, oh yeah
Oh my God, I love watching my TV

In the hands of lesser talent, a song like this would be nothing more than a self-righteous hipster’s sneering lament about the trappings of contemporary escapism. I mean, I don’t even own a TV, man. But Ellis treats the characters in his songs with a melancholic kindness that inspires introspection rather than condescension. Give it a listen:

Another highlight is his most recent album’s namesake, “Chemical Plant,” an impressionist tale of young love juxtaposed against industrial skylines.

She says my heart is like an orphan
And your words are like home
I do not deserve such kindness
Keeps me warm down to my arms
We bear some strange familiar likeness
To a man I feel I know

As if to keep each other safe
They spent the night and then embrace

And the lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
When all seemed unstable
I could watch how they were there
The lights from the chemical plant

I could go on at great length about the virtues of Robert Ellis, but you gotta hear it for yourself, because it’s well worth the listen. This guy not only understands the sublime and painful nuances of life, but he gets America and what it means to feel the way we feel during this specific time and age. And that’s a rare quality indeed.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s