Do you remember when you were young and every new album you heard blew your mind?
You were probably somewhere between the ages 13-18, and you started to “discover” music that you had never heard before. Each great new album/artist that you discovered changed your idea of what music could be. Over time, these albums/artists helped you form your musical ideologies and mold you into the music fan that you are today.
It doesn’t take much thought to figure out why that “mind-blowing” feeling doesn’t happen as much as one gets older. One’s overall knowledge of music becomes vaster, and thus the possibility for an album to blow one’s mind decreases. Instead of happening once or twice a month, this feeling may only happen once or twice a year.
Although this concept can be depressing, there is a pretty strong upside: When an album does blow your mind after your taste in music has matured, you know it must be something truly special.
Robert Ellis’ The Lights From the Chemical Plant blew my mind.
I should start by saying that I saw Ellis live last month, before the album was actually released. Ellis was opening for Jason Isbell, whose Southeastern was one of my very few mind-blowing albums from 2013. Ellis’ set consisted entirely of songs from his new album (and one cover). By the end of the set, I had no clue what I had just witnessed, which I could only describe as a hipster-influenced young Willie Nelson on acid. I was flabbergasted, and that feeling lasted long into Jason Isbell’s set.
I’ve now listened to the album at least 40 times. I’m still not quite sure how to describe it: It’s atmospheric; it’s jazzy; it’s country; it’s hipster-esque; it’s avant-garde; it’s art. At the risk of redundancy, it’s mind-blowing.
Ellis’ songwriting alone, which is great on the whole album but especially great on the title track, could lift him to the level of today’s best singer/songwriters. He specializes in vivid and poetic tales that might traditionally be accompanied by country-tinged instrumentation. This, however, is not the case. With the musical accompaniment, Ellis makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be compared to today’s best singer/songwriters.
As opposed to the usual “twangy” sound of a pedal steel, Ellis uses the steel to create an eerie, ethereal sound similar to Bill Frisell’s best albums. The guitar playing and open arrangements are at times heavily influenced by jazz music, specifically by the guitar innovators of the 50’s and 60’s (i.e. Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, etc), especially in the songs “Pride” and “Houston.” The openness and innovation of the album are so present that one might expect a classic “Blue Note Records” sticker to be slapped onto front of the album.
Just like the best albums of any genre, The Lights From the Chemical Plant has a unified conceptual tone that weaves its way through each of the album’s tracks. There are no curveballs, there are no misplaced tracks or disruptive moments. Once the album is over, the first thing you’ll want to do is start it back up again.
Rarely do artists have enough talent and ambition to deviate from the norm and create something that stands on it’s own artistically. This album is truly special. If you haven’t had your mind blown in awhile, I’d suggest giving this album a try.
Key Tracks: “Chemical Plant,” “Good Intentions,” “Pride,” “Only Lies,” and “Houston.”