With more piano and less guitar, Ellis electrifies
Robert Ellis’ last record, 2016’s Robert Ellis, was written in the aftermath of a divorce, and it featured his most dramatic music to date to complement the emotional unrest of songs like “Drivin’” and “You’re Not the One.” Texas Piano Man repeats the rock edge of the previous record as opposed to the sensitive, quiet folk of earlier work. However, instead of serving anger and discontent, the roaring solos and crashing melodies lead to Ellis’ most jubilant and swagger-filled tunes to date.
The piano has been a constant element since the beginning, but as the title suggests, it has replaced the guitars as the main instrument. The jazz and Elton John-esque glam influence is strong here, as the piano melodies twist and turn to great off-kilter effect. That’s not to say the guitar is not a presence either; roaring blues solos turn up on “Nobody Smokes Anymore,” “He Made Me Do It” and especially “There You Are” bring the electric showmanship home. Ellis has shown moments of roaring energy alongside his typical sensitive lilt, but not to the level seen here as he sells the rock n’ roll swagger with gusto.
Texas Piano Man could have gotten really exhausting, yet the compositions know when to drop out the music while making it feel natural or harmonize various instruments to each other or Ellis’ vocal track to increase their impact. There’s little to complain about when it comes to any of the performances, and the mix is lively and organic; there is no question of how good these songs would sound live.
Rest assured that Ellis has not completely abandoned his penchant for nocturnal ambiance a la Lights from the Chemical Plant. “Father” is the lyrical highlight of the record, as Ellis visits his estranged father after getting his address from a cousin and lets loose a barrage of questions asking what he remembers about their past over gentle piano and stripped-down percussion. It’s well-structured, realistic and capped off with the moving line: “Well, I wanted a father, but I’ll settle for a friend.” Though “Let Me In” and “Lullaby” are more broad and oblique, the sparseness of the writing works when backed by haunting atmospheres of fluttery pianos, tense tapping and an especially beautiful vocal performance and guitar solo on the later that would have fit right in on Lights from the Chemical Plant.
Sadly, not all of the writing works as well. Ellis has written plenty of songs in which he is supposed to be the villain or clearly in the wrong, like “No Fun” or “Nobody Smokes Anymore” from this record, and his performance is good enough to salvage most of it here. However, some of the toxic moments feature a lot of projection without the self-awareness to save them. “Fuckin Crazy” is a repeat of the same sentiment as Luke Comb’s already-tired “Beautiful Crazy,” except that song mentioned more positive aspects of the girl in question than Ellis. As good as the music and melodies are on “Aren’t We Supposed to be in Love” and “Passive Aggressive,” neither justifies their harsh put-downs due to repeating the title to the point where Ellis sounds neglectful of his partner’s concerns. Moments like these hold Texas Piano Man back from greatness, even as the lively instrumentation and intoxicating showmanship are worth it on their own. Ellis can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the rock ‘n’ roll side of modern Americana, and with a few lyrical issues ironed out on further records, he could emerge as the best.