What makes a good song? It isn’t obvious. Perhaps it’s never crossed your mind. But the ingredients are out there, apparent within every classic tune, and yet extraordinarily difficult to grasp ahold of. Many artists fail. Fine is the line between cliché and catchy. Equally enigmatic is the appropriate boundary between “weird” and “wow.” The zen of the song is to land in the middle, between the attractive and the abstract. Complete with most of these essentials, twenty-two year old Robert Ellis’s Photographs will teach you not to take the craft for granted.
Two minutes into Friends Like Those, the opening track, and you are overcome with the conviction you need to listen carefully to the whole album. But if you’re looking to stay comfortable, hold on tight: Ellis split Photographs in half, starting folk and ending country. Bamboo and Cemetery follow suit to the opener with stunning composition, beautiful melodies and refreshing originality, but Ellis dons boots and steers his horse towards the setting sun at track five, Westbound Train, your ride back in time to old-school country a lá Merle Haggard and George Jones. The switch is almost jarring if you aren’t actually turning a 12” over. Pros to side B include a superb singing voice, great lyrics, and beautiful chord changes — cons include the repetition of a genre already mastered, perhaps a style you never wanted to hear again.
But a true artist will pay tribute to their elders, and if playing Whiskey Wednesdays at his favorite Houston club, Fitzgerald’s, wasn’t enough (Ellis and co. covered classic 70’s-and-earlier country every week), side B wipes out any remaining debt. Ellis grew up on the stuff, saying “I was raised going to bluegrass festivals and I think that had a lot to do with it…[country]’s always been what my role models listened to.” So in that sense, the country ballads submitted to a sense of duty, consummated a fantasy that Ellis needed to live after growing up at festivals, after all those successful nights at Fitzgerald’s. Despite your taste for the genre, it is represented here with top-notch honest goodness. But it’s virtually irrelevant compared to side A, which fulfills the true mission of the songwriter: to represent their pure, unique soul through music. The first three tracks are startling in an Elliot-Smith-meets-Gram-Parsons kind of way, and while side B boasts sturdy, infectiously airtight songs, you just can’t help but realize that they aren’t exceptionally original.
Robert Ellis has got it all – eerie acoustic folk, drunken country ballads, hot fingerpickin’ skills, and perfect pitch. But above everything else, Ellis’ greatest asset is his intuition for The Song. Across two genres he evidences the rare ability to craft easy, familiar stories using the simplest, most common (and most sturdy) tools. The minute Photographs starts playing, the full effect sets in of how rare this skill set is — artists like Robert Ellis are a fleeting breed … especially when they’re dropping material of this caliber at the age of twenty-two. Keep your eye on this one.
Photographs, due out July 2011, is Ellis’ second album and his debut release on New West Records.