Published Feb 28, 2014Produced 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." The Texan also adds to the canon of weary songs about life on the road with "Tour Song," which quietly laments the wife he left behind.
It's hard to tell when an artist has made "the leap," that critical step between emulating one's influences and creating a unique body of work. It's an elusive and subjective notion, but it's impossible to listen to this rich, remarkable album and not be left thinking that this is the sound of Ellis coming into his own. (New West)