[13 February 2014]
If country music is defined merely by the presence of pedal steel guitar and vocal twang, then, sure, Robert Ellis fits the bill. But to limit expectations or opinions of The Lights from the Chemical Plant based on that measure alone would be thoroughly misguided. There’s so much more to it — some of which is blatant, some of which is not, but all of which signals that Ellis wields wisdom far beyond his 25 years.
There’s so much to it that, in fact, it might be easier to describe what this album is not. There are no beer-busting party anthems here, no sweet sugars in short shorts, no trucks on red dirt roads. There are no catchy-as-hell hooks to be whistled or bumper sticker-ready slogans to be emblazoned. Though stories of small town hard times do abound, they are stark and dark, and not at all breezy or easy. Indeed, the album’s title and cover art should be the first two clues that Ellis has far more in common with Tom Waits, Bon Iver, and Jason Isbell than Blake Shelton, Jake Owen, and Luke Bryan.
It’s a challenging and intimate experience, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, and intentionally so. After two previous records that fit fairly comfortably into the folk/country tent, Ellis wanted to step outside of himself artistically and stylistically with this effort. To do so, he turned to producer Jacquire King, who has captured the musical essence of artists ranging from Norah Jones and Buddy Guy to Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon. King brings that wide-spectrum fluency to bear by infusing the collection with flourishes of jazz (“Houston”), bluegrass (“Sing Along”), classic pop (“Steady as the Rising Sun”), and bossa nova (“Pride”). Tipping his hat to one of his heroes, Ellis even folds in a enchantingly potent cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”. Closing things out, the acoustic “Tour Song” turns the lens upon the life of, yes, a touring musician and, almost more importantly, the loved ones they leave at home. Ellis makes it clear that it’s lonely and frustrating on both sides of that equation.
Still, it’s the lead track, “Only Lies”, that sums the set up best in a single turn: “Just because a thing’s convenient, well that doesn’t make it true.” What Ellis does in this song — and throughout the album — is capture the sound of futility, of frustration. Though he doesn’t go all the way into despair, he creeps — sometimes marches — right up to the brink and stares into the abyss, calling it out to play. As the storyteller in these songs, Ellis injects just enough emotional distance between himself and the subject matter to prove that there is another side. And that’s where he lives. It might not be airy and bright, but there is solid ground under his feet.