Robert Ellis has the quintessential country music voice. With a southern pedigree and a knack for writing clever lyrics over catchy melodies, Ellis is a sure fire country music star. His timeless sound is one that ought to be more prevalent in Nashville, but is certainly welcome for the rest of us country lovers. His lead tenor vocal quality makes any song sound good, but his songwriting is enjoyable from start to finish.
The opener “TV Song” is probably the silliest song on the album. Sounding like something off of a pop country Brad Paisley album, it pokes fun at the adventures people have, kids in particular, in emulating the characters from television. It probably makes a harsher commentary on modern American life than Ellis intended, but if we leave it as quaint and humorous, it’s sure to put a nostalgic smile on the face of a lot of fans. In terms of sound, it’s a full band production with heavy steel guitar and Ellis’s twangy vocals make the track.
(This playlist is the entire album streaming on YouTube, courtesy of New West Records.)
“Chemical Plant” is divergent from the lightheartedness in the opener. “Chemical Plant” addresses the hard working world of Ellis’s youth. “The lights from the chemical plant burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp.” While the image works in a literal sense of thinking about a plant being open 24 hours, but it’s also an intriguing metaphor of the economic dependence manufactured in a city so dependent on a single employer. There’s a consistent theme of sexual tension threaded through the song, initially regarding younger folks sneaking off to be intimate, then later talking about spending nights together. This intimacy (with respect to Ellis if I’ve misinterpreted) seems an expression of the interdependence between the town and the plant.
The third track “Good Intentions” has an alt country vibe to it, much like the Mavericks. The beat, twangy electric guitars, and Ellis’s soaring vocals really give the track a unique sound. What’s fascinating about this track is that it shows off yet another facet of the “classic country” sounds that Ellis seems to emulate. He can do Hank. He can also do post-Hank rockabilly. He is a country renaissance man. The song’s lyrics seem to be about an affair, or at least an unpopular relationship, “I don’t care how wrong it is, I’ve got good intentions… and I just can’t hide it anymore. I’ve made my decision.” If being a man is about owning up to mistakes, Ellis has this one on lock down.
The much cooler “Steady as the Rising Sun” is reflective of another classic country voice, George Strait. It’s a swoon, slow dance, snuggle up to your lover song. The key lyric, “honey I hope you won’t let me down” is just perfect for the slow, soft melody. The electric guitar melody, complete with a mid-80s era minor crawl, sounds like it’s right out off of the AM radio station (in the best way possible). Oh and the nature metaphor, “steady as the rising sun” absolutely works. This really is the only track to bring down the lights at the honky tonk from here on out. Seriously it’s a song of the year candidate for me.
The old piano on “Bottle of Wine” actually steals the song. Ellis’s vocals are full of texture and subtle emotion, but the piano really wins the show. The dust on the ivories and those few sticking keys seem palpable for the listener. The message of the song is about alcohol, drugs, and trying to cope with relational difficulty. The lyric, “In this lonely apartment in a cloud of regret I go through the same old argument to reminisce or forget” is one of those… whew… tough ones to hear because we’ve all been there.
“Only Lies” might be the best song on the album (which is full of great music). It’s experimental, adventurous, and infinitely relatable. It’s a real, authentic country music song. “Only lies can comfort you. Only lies will see you through. Just because a thing’s convenient, well that doesn’t make it true.” A phenomenally raw song, the fast paced rhythm contrasts nicely with the melodic delivery of the narrative. “What good is a truth when it causes so much pain?” Beyond a mere simple song about a singular situation or person, this is a song that taps into a much larger cultural milieu. Whether he intended to or not, Ellis has crafted a song that exposes an entitlement culture in which people only listen to the confirmation biases that surround them, rather than confronting truth in difficulties like addiction, hardship, loss, and even morality. It’s deep.
“Houston” is a layered song about a place and a person. It reminds me a bit of “All my exes live in Texas” without the funny part. It’s an intensely personal song that longs for someone. “I will not forget all those nights I spent… how your lights shine so pretty… just a boy in the city.” It really fits the album with the stripped down background and an electric guitar line that highlights Ellis’s vocals. It all works together quite nicely. The electric guitar solo later in the song doesn’t really fit any typical country mold at all, sounding a bit more like something out of southern rock’s world. But, when taken with the lyrics of the song, is merely the electric note version of a soul’s cry. Although not the crisp sound of Stevie Ray Vaughn, it reminds me of that kind of soulful purging of emotion through strings.
“Sing Along” is a honky tonk track with a bit of that “western swang.” It’s upbeat with nice breaks between the hard driving band and softer vocal lines. The imagery is powerful, calling out Christianity for teaching a lie about hell “just to teach a boy right from wrong.” The main idea is that someone can either fight the message of religion, or just “choose to sing along.” It would be fascinating to further unpack this track with Robert Ellis some day.
The soft and introspective “Tour Song” is a real gem. “She’ll find someone to talk to when she’s feelin’ all alone… she’ll find someone to cook for when I’m gone…” It’s about feeling absent. “Though I can’t be with her she’s always on my mind.” It’s about how some day his wife is going to leave him because he’s always on the road. It’s really going to resonate with a lot of musicians that follow this blog. Although it deserves a warning – it is a terribly tragic song both in its stripped down, sweet performance, as well as its intensely personal message.
There just aren’t very many singer songwriters doing what Ellis can do. His songwriting doesn’t repeat cliches, but it does pay homage to some of the greatest in country music history. He has the incredible ability to capture emotions and moments in song form. This is a legitimate contender for album of the year not for it’s one or two radio hits, but for its consistent ability to pack a powerful punch. Although he leaves the end of the album with a sad note about the trials of the road, I’m afraid for his marriage’s sake the success of this album is only going to lead to more life on that divisive road. This is a heart wrencher, dear reader, but give it a spin. It’s a must-listen for all country music fans and most people who like authentic troubadours.