Robert Ellis: The Lights from the Chemical Plant
When Robert Ellis released his first album, Photographs, it made sense to link him to the Texas troubadour tradition and its willfully scruffy folk-country poets. Boy, was that an oversimplification. The Lights from the Chemical Plant introduces a very different Ellis, a guy who gets off on uptown jazzpop finesse, when he's not haunting the honky-tonks. There's an obvious clue in the tracklist: a cover of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" (quite the inspired rendition, as it turns out). Ellis surrounds the Simon tune with sophisticated ballads of his own writing, like the romantic ode "Steady as the Rising Sun," the deeply conflicted parting narrative "Houston," which unexpectedly evolves into a free-jazz vamp, and the billowing, orchestrated title track, which follows a pair of lovers from youthful infatuation to their bodies failing with age. By the time the album closes with "Tour Song," a quietly prickly confession of an absentee husband's insecurity, Ellis has treated cynicism and sentimentality so finely that you won't soon forget it, and made his name as a new-generation roots-pop classicist in the process.