|Lauren Ellis - Feels Like Family|
|Music Disc Reviews DualDisc|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 28 June 2005|
Take notice and move over, you fleet-fingered soulful string benders, bottleneck blues barons, lap steel Lotharios, there’s a new Mosrite maven in town, and with her sophomore release, Feels Like Family, she’s kickin’ ass and takin’ names and you didn’t even make the list.
Well, okay, maybe she’s not going to make you forget Duane Allman or toss your Sonny Landreth discs, but even in the stubbornly and overwhelmingly male-dominated world of rock and roll, you do not listen to Lauren Ellis and think, whoa, she’s good for a woman; from note one all you think is, damn, she’s goood! She measures up to anyone you can name, but let’s take a look at those names.
Sorry for this upfront focus on gender, but it’s the elephant in the room you really shouldn’t ignore. You music junkies: name your 10 favorite guitarists. Name your best 20. Make a list of all the guitar players you think are really good and stop when you get to 100. How many females on your lists … ?
I thought so. (When Rolling Stone did that two years ago, only Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell made the Top 100.) If you looked at participation numbers, say from musician guilds or union lists or instrument sales records, you wouldn’t come up with goose eggs, but the ratio would be staggering, I’m sure.
Why? Only two possible explanations. Either females just aren’t anywhere near as good as males at playing electric guitar, or … some other reason. (A reason that’s way too long, complicated, pervasive and controversial to go into here but has to do with the sexism of a patriarchal society, warrior mentality, media collusion, capitalism, and so much more.)
Here’s an observation I’ve made that may come off as sexist (though toward which gender, I’m not sure). There is a certain area of smokin’ electric guitar playing that is bereft of the gentler gender, and that’s when the player just grinds, flails and wails in the hardest, most sneering, teeth-gnashing screaming attack possible. Personally, I still love to hear that done well. But I say it comes out of the anger and aggression that seems to reside in youthful testosterone, and that’s why you never have and probably never will see or hear a female play that kind of guitar. (I’ll probably get a challenge from Shredmistress Rynata, or maybe the Great Kat, neither of whom I’ve ever heard, but if anyone breaks my stereotype I’ll demand a blood test, and I’ll bet we’ll have trouble detecting much estrogen.) Go ahead, name anyone, from Jett to Wilson to Quattro to Hynde – excellent axe-wielders all but not playing in the zone I’m talking about.
So – ignoring that lovable little angry rock niche, given that Lauren Ellis does not play her many guitars like a snarling man but can play everything else under the sun exceedingly well, based on the evidence in Feels Like Family (not exactly a shredding title, is it?), you now have to rank her among the very best. Period. The album credits have her playing slide, baritone, Epiphone acoustic, National steel, Mosrite dobro and electric dobro, Carvin acoustic-electric, and Oahu acoustic lap steel and lap slide. Some people pick one of those and spend a lifetime trying to excel. Whatever the song, she’s got just the right sound, and doesn’t need to bring in any hired guns.
Most of what she’s playing are variations on the blues, which is sort of the great equalizer. No race, religion or gender has an exclusive claim on the blues, though some of those groups have had societal help at living it, and there’s no doubt that Ellis, a white chick from Nashville by way of L.A., can play and sing the blues. She says in the Interview section of the Special Features (which, unlike the Video Scrapbook, which shows only a moving-camera selection of photos, posters and reviews, has some good video footage of her playing) she was drawn to the various slide instruments by their vocal quality, and she sure does make them talk, moan, sing and cry.
She’s not purely a blues artist, though, as shades of jazz, a little country and lots of rock come through her fingers on Family. Her first release, Push the River, was way more pop-oriented, and Family is a vast improvement in all areas. At the tail end of the credits she writes, “Thanks Lucinda for encouraging me to rock.” Oh, yeah. Just one more reason to appreciate the hell out of Ms. Williams.
Ellis has truly found her voice with this release. She’s not blessed with a technically great instrument or much range, but she’s singing mostly in a lower register than before and it endows the songs with much more emotion and authenticity. Her vocals now match the songs so perfectly it takes a while to dawn on you that she isn’t holding many notes or venturing much past her limited range. Yet her singing is a very large part of her success on this album. She could find herself in the odd position of another blues player I’m sure she admires, Eric Clapton, who sold tons of records to a whole generation more because of his singing than his playing.
So what about the songs? She’s a killer player, a convincing and seductive singer, but in service of what? A damn fine collection of tunes, that’s what, of which she wrote all but two. These are the kind of songs that grow on you with repeated listenings, and become your friends. They range dramatically.
The album kicks off in the highest gear as “Dry as a Bone” comes roaring out on the deep throaty vibrations of her National steel guitar, choogled along by the harmonica strokes of the venerable Tony Joe White. If the whole album were as good as this, you’d be seeing 10s at the top of this review. She slams the brakes on next with “Shades of Blue,” a heartfelt paean to love lost with some tasty slide playing, then does the best Bob Welch (Fleetwood Mac/French Kiss) imitation, song/arrangement/guitar /vocal, I’ve ever heard with “End of Our Line.”
“Afraid to Love” is a tasty little diversion, then Tony Joe returns to inspire her with his other harp cameo on Muddy Waters’ “Just to be With You,” a heavy, heavy slow strutting Mosrite electric dobro monsterwork, and her singing is right there, down to the last whisper. The title cut doesn’t stand out except as bathos (guitarist Dean Parks’ clarinet intrusion may fit the song perfectly, but the arrangement makes it a lost sheep on this album), “When I See You” might’ve been good in the hands of AWB, but the fire emerges again with the double guitar assault of “Livin’ in a Dream,” the kickass mouthwatering-lethal pairing of her 1939 National with her ’66 Mosrite, and follows strongly with “Setting Son,” a song about a musician friend of hers (“the crazy motherfucker with a gun”) who blew his brains out in front of his band. “Oahu Song” takes a tasty instrumental trip to the islands, and she closes with another light but satisfying live-in-the-studio rocker titled “Extra Mile.”
So thank you Duane and Lucinda and Nashville for the inspiration, and until I can realize a dream to see Lauren and Sonny Landreth on the same stage, slip-sliding together, I think I’ll file this disc alphabetically by her first name, so it can sit next to Landreth’s albums and I’ll have a gold mine of guitar riches all in one place.
This is a 24-carat guitar lover’s album, with Lauren Ellis not only masterfully playing her houseful of new and vintage instruments, but also superbly producing the disc. She also repairs and restores guitars, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this accomplished and still-young musician someday learns the fine art of 5.1 mixing and mastering, but at this point those chores were turned over to the experienced knobs of Nashville’s Seventeen Grand Recording’s Jake Nicely, and he did a masterful job – that I’m not thrilled with.
Most people wouldn’t fault it. He’s got the various guitars floating distinctly at different levels, clearly separated and distinguishable, drums and vocals up front, some percussion, the harmonica and those disturbing (because they are so distinct) handclaps in the rear, sometimes clearly left or right. But with Ellis’s particular style of rumbling, percussive slide guitar playing, I love the claustrophobic sense you get from the stereo mix, where it seems like the guitars are this heavy blanket that fills the room and takes up all the space in an almost suffocating kind of way. I know that doesn’t sound like fun, but I find it more extreme and overwhelming than the articulated 5.1 mix. The beauty is, with the DualDisc, you can have both: float at home, get suffocated in your car. Both sound superb.