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Album Review: The Lights from the Chemical Plant by Robert Ellis
Great, Based on 10 Critics
Paste Magazine - 86 Based on rating 8.6/10
Like Sam Shepard, Robert Ellis understands the tenderness beneath the untamed’s leathery exterior. Born and raised in Lake Jackson, Texas, recently relocated to nouveau hipster central Nashville, Tenn., Ellis broadens his musical reach beyond deadly accurate classic country to often austere arrangements that reflect his small etchings of real life without aggressive genre-coding. A splash of instruments, tones, textures, well-turned phrases and space, Plant’s an architectural triumph for producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon), who recognizes the power of the realizations captured in the moment.
Robert Ellis’ slept-on 2011 album Photographs was an excellent bifurcation of folk and genre styles. Ellis has since moved from Houston to Nashville, and based on his ruminative and stark story songs on his second effort for New West Records, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, he’s reeling from love, self-deception and the loneliness of touring. Influences range from veteran singer-songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Randy Newman and free-jazz artist Ornette Coleman.
Produced by Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Punch Brothers, Norah Jones), Robert Ellis's third album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant, shares with Caitlin Rose's The Stand-In not only its recording venue (East Nashville's Casino studio), but a sense that it marks the arrival of another original voice in a prolific new wave of country songwriters. While 2011's fine Photographs was split between sparse folk and boisterous country, The Lights features a fuller sound and more sophisticated arrangements: handclaps, piano and pedal steel on the chugging, urgent "Good Intentions"; a dissonant guitar interlude on a cover of "Still Crazy After All These Years" that recasts Paul Simon's song as a jazzy country weeper; suffocating strings on the slow-burning "Chemical Plant. " At the heart of the album is the contrast between the striking "Steady As the Rising Sun," a classic countrypolitan ballad that steers clear of maudlin sentimentalism, and the wobbly "Bottle of Wine," on which Ellis's pleasantly nasal croon blames a breakup on "a bottle of wine and a bag of cocaine.
In an age where mainstream country has an honest-to-goodness rap sequel to Achy Breaky Heart and Taylor Swift is experimenting with dubstep, one can easily get the feeling that country is turning into generic pop with a drawl. The backlash, of course, is to create purist work that doesn’t rock the boat, or in this case, the Grand Opry. To evolve and expand on what country can be while still being true to its essence is hard.
If Robert Ellis solidified himself on Photographs as a champion of classic troubadour-y country, he’s letting us know with The Lights From the Chemical Plant that we sold him short. On his third full-length (second for New West), Ellis shows he’s got a lot more tricks up his sleeve. Two songs in, and the leap Ellis makes on his latest is already readily apparent.
Since New West released Photographs in 2011, Robert Ellis' reputation has spread internationally. These days he plays European festivals as well as Texas honky tonks. He moved to Nashville from Houston in 2012. Given the growth in his songwriting on The Lights from the Chemical Plant, it was the right choice.
You can't take the country out of the boy – just listen to Robert Ellis' honeyed twang – but the boy can take the country out of his songs. The young Texas songwriter, who has proved his honky-tonk chops onstage, takes this opportunity to offer 11 expansive folk-pop songs that are closer in weary spirit to Paul Simon – including a soulful, pedal-steel-sweetened cover of "Still Crazy After All These Years." Elsewhere, "Chemical Plant" casts a harshly beautiful visual as a wrenching metaphor for impermanence, and "Tour Song" puts a tired roots singer in "some hipster bar," borrowing Simon's "Homeward Bound" ache: "I long to be back home." .
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.
Robert Ellis The Lights From the Chemical Plant (New West) Much has happened to Robert Ellis since his first New West release, 2011's Photographs. For one, he moved from Texas to Nashville, dedicated to growing his song craft. The Lights From the Chemical Plant easily outshines the uneven Photographs, but Ellis' reach still exceeds his grasp. With Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon) producing, he's crafted a different kind of Americana, one where pop, country, and roots rock mingle but never quite get comfortable.
There may be no such thing as narrative honesty in a song, but Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon represents the idea, at least, in large canvases and deep, oily hues. On “Benji,” he writes from a tunnel of self-absorption, casual and graphomaniacal and sometimes sour. Hear 15 minutes’ worth, and you know, roughly, his age (mid-40s); his areas of interest (his family and his own past, rock ‘n’ roll, serial killers); where he’s from (near Canton, Ohio); his morality and class preoccupations; the story of his learning guitar, and exactly what he liked about the Led Zeppelin movie “The Song Remains the Same.” Mr.