Robert Ellis’ 2011 album Photographs caught many an ear with its efficient and emotive songwriting and guitar playing and gave him an international audience. The Lights From The Chemical Plant finds Ellis expanding his repertoire, stepping outside of the restraints of pure Americana to embrace pop elements, diverse country influences and lush production while still retaining his incisive way with words and melody.
There are some key ‘moments’ on the album like the saxophone and clarinet passages on Bottle Of Wine and the wigged out guitar solo on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. They are signifiers, emblematic of the spreading of Ellis’ songwriting wings as he follows his muse into richly rewarding territory. Three songs stretch past the six minute mark with Houston the standout of the longer songs, its last two minutes spiraling into metallic, jazz-inflected guitar playing that brings to mind Satriani and Nels Cline in equal amounts. Only Lies is one of the album highlights, one built on restraint, dreamy pedal steel and shuffling backbeat drums with a chorus that swells with a melodic and melancholic pull. As much as Ellis addresses matters of heartache and pain he also takes a six string swing at the testifying, wailing and preaching side of American religion on Sing Along.
On an album that thrives on atmosphere and emotional gravitas there are surprisingly no weak tracks across its 53 minutes. This is a bold musical statement from a multi-talented musician who has matched his ambition with results.
A shorter version of this review was first published in The Music