Sometimes I get an album to review, and I know I like it and want to review it, but I have to adjust my thinking to do so. I favor a lot of songwriters who are artful and use misdirection and other poetic devices to make their points. I will get back to that, but Ellis isn’t like that. Ellis is an open heart. She expresses herself directly in terms that are simple and universal. As I started listening, I began to dismiss her songs as cliché-ridden, but that’s not right. What she does instead is so rare that I almost missed it. Ellis’ feelings are sincere and unencumbered, and they are expressed that way. In a complicated world, she keeps it simple. More power to her. Once I realized what was going on here, I found it very refreshing.
Right on Time begins with the title track. Here, Ellis sings in a clear alto, and accompanies herself on acoustic guitar. And that’s it. She fingerpicks the guitar part, and plays it beautifully, and the song does not need anything else. Starting with the second song, she is joined by a crack band, with Tony Levin, Ben Wisch, Larry Campbell, and Duke Levine. Liner note freaks like myself will know all of these names, and be properly awed. But their job is to thicken the songs and add texture. There is no flashy playing here. It’s all about supporting Ellis and her songs. And her acoustic guitar is always front and center in the mix. The last song on the album was a late addition, with a different band whose names were unfamiliar to me. But again, their job is to provide support, and they do it well. Throughout, there are no drums; that would undermine the delicacy of these songs.
Right on Time is a collection of love songs, but not all are addressed to a lover. Again, I had to adjust my thinking. The closer, You Are Royalty to Me, was written for Ellis’ grandmother, and the song thanks her for the love she showed Ellis as a child. Right on Time strikes me as being addressed to someone the singer met, who elicited her sympathy, and whom she wanted to encourage. And Coffee Song is a love song to, well, coffee. Ellis’ shows a wonderful sense of humor here, and the song put a big grin on my face. When the songs are addressed to a lover, the results are beautiful. Coming Home to You expresses the yearning of a lover who has to travel, and can’t wait to get home. The singer has complete faith that her lover will always be there when she comes off the road, but she does not forget to be grateful for that. Without a Compass perfectly captures that period in a relationship where there are no rules yet; you have to try things and see what works. This song also features some wonderful imagery. Ellis’ singing is not fancy either, but she puts the emotions of her songs across perfectly.
There, is, in fact, artistry here. It is subtle. Ellis can add air to her voice for effect, and she sometimes uses the bottom of her vocal range to good effect as well. Likewise, the songwriting does use metaphors in places, but the overall effect is on of directness and honesty. I often find myself wanting to hear more music from the artists I review. And I will be happy to hear more from Ellis as well. But this is one of those rare times when an album makes me want to spend more time with the artist. I met Ellis briefly at Falcon Ridge, and she seemed very nice. For me, this album confirms it.
Ellis: Coming Home to You
Ellis: Without a Compass