Nashville ain’t what it used to be. At their best, contemporary country songs still address life’s universal hurts, but all too often the twang (and stringed schmaltz) of yesteryear has given way to something that calls itself country but sounds more like rock music that plays to the cheap seats. The revivalists—and there are many—tend to be derivative, and few of them have broken through to a large audience. Houston’s Robert Ellis, by contrast, evokes the era of George and Tammy without engaging in outright plundering. On his second album, Photographs (New West), Ellis collects all of the essential country ingredients—heartache, pathos, strained metaphors—and rolls them out in a fresh fashion. Or maybe it only seems that way because of the album’s odd sequencing. The first songs range from folk to pop shuffles to early Paul Simon–style balladry (“Cemetery”). The country influences creep in slowly and only emerge full-blown for the superior back half of the album, when he lets his George Jones fetish rip. “What’s in It for Me” is just the kind of self-pity the Possum loves to wallow in. But Ellis doesn’t sound like Jones; though his voice is spirited and engaging, it’s also pretty thin. Still, he navigates the tricky done-me-wrong tune “Westbound Train”—in which he decides he can forgive his friend but not his ex—well enough. Nothing, though, can save the threatening, misogynistic “No Fun”; if it’s meant to be funny, well, it isn’t. The wistful title track that closes the album is much more persuasive.
From the August 2011 Issue Subscribe