Music Review: John Ellis – Tells

June 4, 2017

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

“Tells” – in the poker sense – is an interesting word to use as a title for an artist whose utterances are often misunderstood or wilfully misconstrued. And what’s even more curious is that much of this music was written a few years ago, but seems to speak more honestly to John Ellis’ current philosophy and emotional state than some of his other solo material did when it was released.

Many of these songs were written to be part of a follow-up to the 2012 album Rural, an acoustic, folksy singer-songwriter collection that saw Ellis deviate from the punchy protest rock of 2010’s Come Out Fighting. The gentler feel is retained, for the most part, but there are some obvious – and clearly heartfelt – homages to some of Ellis’s musical heroes along the way. Picking these up and deciding who you believe is the object of his attention in each case is part of the collection’s considerable appeal early on, and how much your tastes overlap with his may determine which tracks become your favourites.

Ellis also impresses in his playing of all the instruments on the record, and as a producer. He’s highly respected as a singer and guitarist, but displays considerable nous on keys, drums, bass and other bits an pieces besides. This album may have been some time coming and, if the singer is to be believed, it may be his last for a while, but it confirms beyond doubt that he still has much to give.

Set Your Self On Fire begins so quietly you’re not even sure it’s there, but quickly grows into something with the Afrobeat feel of Ellis’s experimental Bush Telegraph EP and a challenging lyric line that features the phrase “obfuscating dust of knowledge”, which is impressively sophisticated for a pop song as hook-laden as this one. Wreck At The Lighthouse has an intro that can reasonably be described as a “ditty”, and its cheerful tone is somewhat at odds with its thoughtful theme.

Ms Opportunity sounds like the Beatles backed by the Byrds, all head-nodding melody and glorious jangly 12-string guitar along with the tongue-in-cheek cynicism of its words. Standing On It sees Ellis borrowing from himself, re-using a song he wrote for Tree63’s comeback album Land. It has Southern rock guitar and banjo beginnings and a swaggering riff, with this incarnation being a little more muscular than the band version.

Second Chance is at the other end of the spectrum, all musical musing and falsetto choruses as Ellis ruefully considers his own capacity to first make his own life more difficult and then to recover when a new opportunity presents itself. Bellwether is another example of Ellis’ erudite approach to songwriting. The title is a term used to refer to the lead sheep in a flock, an intriguing metaphor in that sheep are supposed to be brainless followers, and in that context, leadership takes on a different meaning. And in addition to such profundity, there is a gorgeous guitar lick that is used as a motif throughout the song.

Own Sweet Time is a folk statement of intent, the sound – and words – of a man coming to terms with his situation after a long period of kicking against the straps and in doing so, providing a template for others in a similar mindset to follow. Worst Enemy (more jangly guitars – think The La’s) continues in the same vein, but with a harsher filter and no small amount of humour (plus the ridiculous vocal range Ellis is capable of).

Paul McCartney would surely smile if he heard OWSOWB (the letters stand for Overwhelming Sense Of Wellbeing), which has musical echoes of Blackbird as Ellis dissects the breakdown of a special relationship. If Macca stuck around for closer Goodbye, My Love, he’d be joined by Brian Wilson, which continues the same theme, but with the keyboards and harmonies of the Beach Boys, so wonderfully re-imagined that, in some fairytale scenario in which this song makes it into the hands of one of that band’s members, it’d be a strong contender for another comeback hit for that band.

Tells deals with some serious subject matter, but on balance it is upbeat and, without a weak song in the bunch, it deserves a sustained listen every time it’s played.

 

  • Set Your Self On Fire                                                  7.5
  • Wreck At The Lighthouse                                           7
  • Dear Ms Opportunity                                                 8.5
  • Standing On It                                                            7
  • Second Chance                                                           7.5
  • Bellwether                                                                   7.5
  • Own Sweet Time                                                         8.0
  • Worst Enemy                                                              7.5
  • OWSOWB                                                                   7.5
  • Goodbye, My Love                                                     7.5

Rating: 7.550

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