Sept. 19--When Robert Ellis played a solo show at McGonigel's Mucky Duck last year, the Lake Jackson native told the crowd he was thinking about a move to Nashville or Los Angeles. Houston music enthusiasts can be sensitive about artists leaving the city, so the comment was not met with enthusiasm.
Ellis good-naturedly mocked the jeers. "Boo," he said. "Don't grow!"
Ellis relocated to Nashville and grew, while other things got shorter: He returns to Houston this week with more songs and less hair. Ellis' third album, "The Lights of the Chemical Plant," will be released in February. To call the new songs a departure would be reductive: Ellis doesn't place limitations on his music. Any perceived departure is just part of an ongoing creative journey.
"I'll be the first to admit it's all over the place," Ellis says, having returned to town a few days prior to his free show at Discovery Green Thursday. "Maybe some people won't like it. But I'd like to get to the point where there are people who are interested in what I'm doing, no matter what I'm doing, and not necessarily expecting me to stay in one place."
Staying in one place helped Ellis build a strong following in Houston. His regular Wednesday shows at Mango's and Fitzgerald's were torrid events of hard country music played full throttle before a regular crowd. But he says his performances are now "more about the newer stuff and less about the Whiskey Wednesday. I'm not even sure that phrase means anything to people anymore."
Ellis has been playing many of the songs from "The Lights of the Chemical Plant" for a year now, so they won't be completely new for some. His rep shared a few of the new recordings. That sampling suggests a jackrabbit muse that races through pop, folk, bossa nova and jazz. The guitar tones and textures are tantalizing in their variety. While Ellis, guitarist Kelly Doyle and pedal-steel player Will Van Horn previously played propulsive country music, on some of the new songs they reach for jazzier and more atmospheric sounds.
As for the lyrics, Ellis has talked about his affinity for Randy Newman and Paul Simon. Opener "TV Song" contains the line "every now and then I do pretend that I am someone else," which could be the record's theme: Ellis gives voice to a variety of narrators on the album.
The new music reminds me of something he said about his previous album, "Photographs," which he released two years ago. "Ultimately, they're just songs," he said.
That record had two distinctive sides, one more folk, one more hard country. A critic had suggested Ellis swap sides so the up-tempo songs came first. It was a well-intentioned suggestion but one oblivious to the thematic lyrical arc of a record that began with childhood relationships, worked its way through young love and then concluded with the wreckage of a relationship. Ellis' creative decisions tend to be deliberate.
One decision was hiring Jacquire King to produce the new record. King has made records for top-selling acts such as Norah Jones and Kings of Leon, as well Tom Waits and Modest Mouse. King was clearly tuned in to the range and nuances of Ellis' voice.
But more bold was the decision to expand what constitutes an Ellis record: It may confound a few listeners, but it'll prove more rewarding for Ellis and his fans going forward.
Waits once told me, "You try to make it a thoroughly balanced and meaningful listening experience for these strangers out there. (But) I'm more of an innovator. I don't really follow what my audience necessarily wants to have or hear. I just strike out and look behind me and there's a bunch of people following me. 'Go away! Go away!' "
Ellis seems to be saying something similar in one new lyric.
"I've got to pick up," he sings, "and wipe the slate clean."
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