Robert Ellis earns his rhinestones on excellent new album
Artist: Robert Ellis
Album: Texas Piano Man
Label: New West Records.
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
One of the most dynamic albums of this still-young year might’ve passed fans by when it arrived on Valentine’s Day.
Robert Ellis, a proud Texan filed away from some listeners as an Americana singer-songwriter, would as well draw comparisons to Elton John as Willie Nelson based on Texas Piano Man. The 11-song collection reflects a different time in pop and rock history without sounding like a retread. As importantly, it never strays too far from country tradition.
Many Americana artists come across as 20 or 30-somethings who’ve realized along the way that Mom and Dad knew what’s up when they were buying Glen Campbell and Roger Miller albums. With piano-led songs like the brilliant “Passive Aggressive,” Ellis makes it sound like he reached that same conclusion after hearing his folks’ records by Sir Elton and Harry Nilsson. Instead of country legends, he draws inspiration from stars responsible for introducing class to rock and rebellion to pop. Sure, those are obvious influences, but how many young artists borrow cues from these greats without scaring away old souls with the trappings of modern production techniques?
The album departs from the norm lyrically, as well. When Ellis gets snarky on “Nobody Smokes Anymore,” his lyrics sound more reminiscent of Randy Newman than any notable country or Americana smart aleck—and remember, those artists love the dry wit of John Prine. He’s equally clever on the biting “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love?” and the explicit “Fucking Crazy.” Each zinger reminds listeners of Ellis’ red dirt roots: he’s a singer-songwriter first, a piano-playing raider of Michael Nesmith’s wardrobe second.
If all this talk of pianos doesn’t pique your curiosity, check out “There You Are.” It dives deeper into ‘70s pop and rock lore with its stadium-filling drum parts and soaring guitar riffs.
Ellis closes the album with a would-be commercial for young Nashville’s favorite non-alcoholic beverage, Topo Chico. Despite coming across as tongue-in-cheek, it’s infectious, fun and adds some Latin flair to his classic pop formula.
By setting aside his guitar in favor of a piano, Ellis demonstrates the sort of mainstream pop ear shared in past generations by early influencer Bob Wills and a who’s-who of modern country legends: Campbell, Patsy Cline and Ronnie Milsap, to name three. By effectively incorporating outside influences into his country sound, Ellis continues a very old tradition of broader palettes reaching wider audiences. At least there should be a wider audience once Sir Elton basks in his share of Queen’s biopic fame.