Robert Ellis somehow finds wide-eyed wonder in heartbreak. His downbeat themes come up against sonically ambitious and lushly arranged sounds on his self-titled, fourth album, which plays with country and Americana music tradition, not to mention the legacy of '70s singer-songwriters.
So when Ellis and backing guitarist Kelly Doyle came to the NPR Music offices dressed in sharp suits (Ellis' "uniform" this year, he told me), they retained these meticulous and thoughtful arrangements by foregrounding the tender and timeless melodies with busy, yet reinforcing guitar work. The grandiose "How I Love You" becomes a slow-burner desperate with lingering desire. The fiery, bluegrass-inspired "Drivin'" guzzles fuel with no destination in mind, Ellis "just surviving" without his lover. It's a song that makes a point out of the many things we do to forget, lyrically ("I've changed all the light bulbs and had this conversation about three million times or more. I guess I'll walk around the grocery store ... again") and musically as Ellis and Doyle's fingers blaze across guitar strings.
Ellis closes with "California" at the piano like the soft-rockers of yesteryear — tellingly, Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" was teased during sound check — but he wrenches drama from his Texas twang, a soulfully bouncing rhythm and Doyle's hypnotic guitar pattern. On record, synths and electronics take the song to atmosphere, but here "California" is broken down as hopes fall apart.
Robert Ellis is available for pre-order now. (iTunes) (Amazon)
- "How I Love You"
Producers: Lars Gotrich, Niki Walker; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Niki Walker, Kara Frame; Production Assistant: Jackson Sinnenberg; Photo: Brandon Chew/NPR.
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