With a sharp inhale of breath you wake from a dream you can’t quite remember. Fears and worries from the day-to-day grind gnaw at your fuzzy consciousness and in an attempt to shake them you stumble out of bed, into the living room, and flick on the television. The white noise soothes as the nightmare that woke you still echoes in your head. Take this feeling and distill it into musical form and you have ‘The Lights From The Chemical Plant,’ the new album from up and coming singer-songwriter Robert Ellis.
Hailing from the Houston, Texas area but currently residing in Nashville, those locales will give you an indication that yes, there is a keen appreciation and appropriation of country music in his music. His record label debut, 2011’s ‘Photographs’ was a decidedly country-focused affair with rollicking numbers like “Comin’ Home” and the tears in your beer of “What’s In It For Me?”
Those of you who aren’t keen on the genre fear not, ‘Chemical Plant’ may have roots in country but it’s a sound that any lover of indie rock and folk can enjoy. Ellis takes the genuine emotions and rugged sensibilities of classic country artists like George Jones and puts it through a modern music filter, adding his own personal touch with seamless fusion of rock, pop, folk, and even the smallest sprinkle of jazz.
Robert Ellis’ “Good Intentions”
The album opens with “TV Song,” an unabashed love song for the feeling of being lost in our favorite televised stories. Considering so many people look down on the entertainment form, it’s a bold way to kick things off. Only after the entire record is at an end do you realize it’s the comfort food to prepare you for the peaks and valleys of the journey ahead as the strums and heartbeat of “Chemical Plant” drift into your ears. Ellis paints a sepia-toned picture of childhood memories with his words and the haunting glow of a chemical plant at night is matched in mood perfectly with this slow burn of a tune.
The atmosphere continues with the incredibly catchy “Good Intentions” where a man repeatedly assures a woman of his intentions, but from how paranoid and concerned he sounds, it might be himself he’s assuring during some questionable actions. “Steady as the Rising Sun” provides a brief reprieve from the brooding with a traditional and moving love ballad right before plunging us back into the darker parts of the psyche with “Bottle of Wine.” This mournful piano-centric track drips with remorse as a man sifts through the rubble of a broken relationship only to find “a bottle of wine and a bag of cocaine” at the heart of his problems. Its stark honesty disarms the listener and if you weren’t awash in the sorrowful sentiment before, a morose saxophone solo appears, adding a tasteful and surprising touch to the song.
After such a dark turn, Ellis lightens the mood next with the album’s only cover song, Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Wisely he eschews the sappy saxophone solo of the original and instead treats us with a jazz-influenced guitar solo that’s one of the album’s instrumental highlights. It’s this song where he tips his hand and reveals Simon’s influence on the pop-sensibilities of the record. Both share a wide-eyed sincerity in their writing and the ability to take any music style and squeeze a memorable tune out of it.
Case in point? “Pride,” with its bossa nova beat and smooth melody that will have you humming the chorus after only a listen or two. A little over three minutes into it the song transforms into something lending itself to both rock and jazz in a fascinating little detour before jumping back into the main melody to tie everything back together. For other artists moments like this can seem out of left field or clumsy, but Ellis and his talented band make it look effortless and natural, giving the song different levels that beg for repeated listens to fully take in.
Robert Ellis’ “Only Lies”
Shedding light on human frailty continues as worries take the form of concern for a friend who refuses to believe the truth about her man’s infidelities in “Only Lies.” It’s another slice of nervously dark pop with a mesmerizing guitar progression and an undeniably catchy chorus. This is lighter fare however, compared to the emotional tour de force of “Houston,” a coming of age manifesto about knowing when it’s time to move on. The smoldering beat explodes into a great electric guitar solo and a rhythm that almost resembles prog rock. You’ll be amazed that so many styles blend in a single song but never be distracted by it either.
Just when you think you’ve got the album figured out, a curveball is thrown in the form of “Sing Along,” an anti-religious song in the guise of a galloping bluegrass number from an ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ fever dream. The juxtaposition grabs your ears with an electric jolt of energy and refuses to let go. The exhilarating high of this track ends as we’re brought back down to earth with soft acoustic album closer “Tour Song.” It is here we realize these troubled dreams came not from a man waking in his own bed, but a touring musician out on the road, missing his newly adopted hometown and loving wife. It’s common to hear a musician tell you how hard it is actually making a living doing so, but when the downsides are illustrated in such an heartbreakingly visualized manner it’s difficult to not feel for not only the modern day bards struggling to make a living off their art, but also the loved ones they leave at home in this pursuit. It’s a fitting closer and if you start the album over again, you can almost see the TV flick on again to soothe the anxieties detailed across the entire album.
‘Chemical Plant’ as a whole is a rewarding journey through the emotional spectrum with a morose pop filter. It’s the perfect late night/early morning album for those frosty car rides to work or after the party dies down when you’re left alone with your glass of whiskey, staring into emptiness of the night, reflecting on the things that keep you up at night. This is the sound of Robert Ellis hitting his stride as a songwriter, crafting a cohesive and fluid piece of work that nods to its influences but lives in a unique space all its own.
Written By Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Senior Writer