Album review: Photographs by Robert Ellis

This blog doesn’t carry regular music reviews these days – I’ve got into the habit of doing a lengthy end-of-year round-up, but lack the time (or just discipline) to review records as I pick them up. I’m making an exception for this album because it’s the most impressive record I’ve heard in a good while and seems not to be getting huge amounts of publicity in this country (though I suspect word of mouth will generate quite a few sales over the year).

I stumbled across it at the Brixton Windmill last Monday, as it was played on loop between bands at the Cornshed Sister gig (whose album is also likely to be worth the wait – there’s a three-track sampler here, yours in exchange for an email address).  The song that most stuck in my head was a big ol’ country ballad, meatier and more textured than Hank Williams might have sung, and maybe less rock-oriented than Gram Parsons, but slap bang in the tradition the two had in common. From the lyrics, it was almost certainly called What’s In It For Me?

Some googling the next day produced an unexpected result: this wasn’t an old-time classic from 1960s Nashville, maybe reissued recently on CD, as I’d expected, but a cut from Robert Ellis’s second album, Photographs, released last year in the US and on that very Monday in the UK.

Perhaps the most obvious comparison for Ellis is Caitlin Rose: similarly young, similarly talented and similarly having mastered the traditions of country music and writing devastatingly good songs within it. Perhaps, even, better songs than generally got hawked round the honky tonks of old: these are rich, emotional pieces, full of lyrical details and musing. They go beyond the traditional realms of country songwriting – cheatin’, lyin’, gamblin’, drinkin’ and feelin’ lonesome – and draw on the wider developments in songwriting over the last fifty years, with a richness of detail that nods to Dylan and some wordplay that owes a debt to Costello.

Musically the album crafts a coherent, warm and traditional world: plucked guitars, shimmering pedal steel, and the occasional banjo-driven rave. It’s not an obvious record, though: its first half is dominated by slower, more sparse numbers, and the weightier stuff – the big ballad What’s In It For Me?, the build and release of Westbound Train and the knees-up of No Fun – at or after the midway point. Country is always emotional, and at times this even verges on twee, for instance on house-painting song Two Cans of Paint. It’s consistently impressive, however – Ellis doesn’t seem to know how to write a duff lyric.

If there’s a fly in the ointment it’s arguably No Fun, a song in the rather less pleasant country tradition of men threatening terrible vengeance on women if they’re caught cheatin’. I’d argue however the song is exactly that: Ellis writing in a tradition (as he does elsewhere on the record, on What’s In It For Me?, Westbound Train and Comin’ Home, all expertly navigating well-established territory in country music), and slightly sending it up in recognition of how attitudes have moved on – having warned his beloved not to romance other men, he concludes, “In fact, if I ain’t around you’d netter not even have any fun,” and seems to know how ridiculous a thing that is to say. On a record otherwise filled with compassion and empathy, I don’t think this song should be taken at face value – indeed, the very next track sees Ellis begging his lover to tell him her cheatin’ days are over, and scrambling desperately to convince himself to trust her, the direct opposite of the warnings in this song. I dwell on the matter though because it’s the kind of thing that an insensitive review might pick up on, not least because No Fun is musically the most energetic and immediate song on the record.

Faced with the task of compiling a top ten albums of the year, and therefore selecting a record to go at the very top, I’ve gone with country picks for the last two year (Caitlin Rose’s Own Side Now in 2010, and its alt-country equivalent in many ways, Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Tell Me in 2011) – I wonder if anything else will come along this year that stops me putting this record in the same slot this December. I’ll be impressed if it does.

Ellis is touring the UK and Europe at the moment, playing multiple dates with the band Dawes (all sold out), and a headline show of his own at the Windmill on March 7th – tickets are still available, and if you’re in London I recommend you get along to it.

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