I’m a sucker for ’70′s soft rock. In my vehicle, I’m as likely to have Sirius satellite radio tuned to “The Bridge” as any other station. Elton John? Carole King? Steely Dan? Yes, please. Maybe that is why I’m so captivated by “The Lights from the Chemical Plant” by Houston’s own Robert Ellis. Stunningly original and hard to categorize, Robert Ellis is a boot wearing, Texan troubadour raised on Paul Simon and James Taylor along with Hank, Waylon, and Cash.
“Chemical Plant” kicks off with “TV Show”, a deceptively joyous song about losing yourself in you favorite TV shows while ignoring your wife sitting next to you on the couch and wishing she wasn’t quite so much like Betty Draper. Next is the title track and one of my favorites on the album. “The Lights from the Chemical Plant” laments the impermanence of permanence; the chemical plant is the stoic backdrop in the lives of two lovers. As one of the lovers dies, the lights from the chemical plant that had always shone bright, go dark. This album isn’t exactly a heartwarming Disney movie.
“Bottle of Wine” is a powerful, beautiful, breakup ballad. Accompanied by only a piano and soulful saxophone solo, Ellis’s voice hits all of the right notes on a song that you don’t want to tackle next time you are at the Karaoke bar. It’s a tremendously strong song that sounds like a lost Dan Folgelberg track from 1977. “Bottle of Wine” is, perhaps, my favorite track on the record.
Two of the songs, “Pride” and “Houston” bust into unexpected free jazz jams in the middle of the songs because, well, why the hell not? I know, it sounds like it shouldn’t work but it does. The changes in direction and tempo do nothing to detract from the tunes, it only enhances the songs. “Houston” is Ellis’s love letter/break up song to his hometown. So long Houston, hello Nashville. Anyone that has had to escape their hometown because of the ghosts on every corner can relate.
The album closer, “Tour Song” is honest songwriting at its finest. I’ve never been a touring, semi-known singer of songs but I can’t imagine the life could be better documented than in “Tour Song”. “It’s the choice I made, it’s the price I’ll pay, just to hang out in some shitty bar, then spend ten hours in a car”, sings Ellis. And later in the song, “I know that she loves me and I know her love is true, but when she needs some company what else is she gonna do? She’ll have some tough decisions that may try her achin’ heart, but everything feels different from a million miles apart”.
We all love music. If you didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this. But, occasionally, once in a great while, a record will come out that you want to share with everyone you know. You want to shout about it from a street corner. You want to share it with the world. John Moreland’s “Into the Throes” was that way. I feel the same about “The Lights from the Chemical Plant”. The musicianship and songwriting are superb. Ellis paints from a different musical palette than most of his peers. Seamlessly blending country, folk, jazz, and rock, the result is simply brilliant and sublime. “The Lights from the Chemical Plant” is a treasure and is, most definitely, Essential Listening.