REVIEW: ARIEL PUBLICITY
Artist: John Ellis
Reviewed by Andrew Greenhalgh
Sometimes, something must die in order for something better to live. Such is the case with the career of the contemporary Christian rock worship group, Tree63, and their lead singer, John Ellis. Tree63 rose to prominence within the CCM industry, reaching the apex with their cover of Matt Redman’s now-classic, “Blessed Be Your Name,” which took the band to another echelon. Yet, they never could quite recapture the success of that hit and the band unfortunately folded in 2009.
Yet out of the ashes rose the solo career of former front man, John Ellis. Ellis set to work, returning to his native home of South Africa and released “Come Out Fighting,” which he succinctly described as “wry comedy and a fair bit of ranting.” That album garnered the artist solid reviews as he pushed forth into life, giving himself over to his other passions, lecturing at Varsity College on topics as diverse as English, politics, and communication. It’s those passions that most heavily influence Ellis’ latest outing, Rural.
As the name implies, Rural is a sparse album, moving away from Ellis’ past dynamic sound with Tree63 and instead focusing itself on a Spartan backdrop of sound. Ellis is fortunate to have world-renowned percussionist Barry van Zyl, of Johnny Clegg fame, along for the ride on this most organic of albums. The two chose to perform the tracks live, in studio, and what you hear is what you get. No over-dubs, no fixes. It’s live, unadulterated music through and through.
And that music is a far cry from the John Ellis most are familiar with. While Tree63 featured a very up-tempo rock ‘n roll, Rural shuts down the amps and lets the songs develop organically, flavored very carefully with doses of acoustic guitar and van Zyl’s always tasteful points of percussion alongside some other tidbits. The arrangements really let the lyrics do the heavy lifting while the music serves as a tasteful plate upon which to sonically dine.
Ellis opens the album up with the politically charged “Rights All Wrongs,” and utilizes a jaunty arrangement to declare his views. It’s a solid opener but fades in comparison to the track next in line, “Jack Kerouac’s Blues.” Buoyed by frantic acoustic guitar, soulful vocals, and a growing percussion base that eventually adds joyful handclaps, this song simply rocks and sounds like a Black Keys B-side…in a very good way.
“Any Minute Now” follows with a track that resonates with usual singer-songwriter fare, its lyric toeing the line between the secular and the spiritual while “Backroads” picks up the pace a bit with a lighthearted opening that segues into something more fulfilled as the song fleshes out. “Come Home” seems to find the singer revisiting his spiritual roots with a sparse acoustic arrangement and a lyric that recalls the tale of the prodigal son. Ellis breaks out the falsetto and helps to make this one of the shining lights on the record.
“Landfall” bridges the gap between folk and country while “Sure Enough” keeps things simple with somber piano notes leading the way to a hopeful end. “Back of Beyond” is an interesting track, coming across as something of an instrumental piece with some soulful guitar flowing over against a solid beat from van Zyl until some distorted, almost not there lyrics from Ellis are sung into the background. It’s unique in its delivery and actually works as something of an intermezzo here.
That track leads into the gratitude-filled subtlety of “Never Had a Winter,” simply fueled by some bass, shakers, and guitar. “Aliena” is a Joshua Radin-feeling tale of love, finger-picked guitar essentially dominating the palette while “We Are Not a Nation Yet” moves back into the political with the appropriate percussive pizazz and jamming acoustic strings. “A Good Idea at the Time” keeps things moving forward with more singer-songwriter fare and some less than successful falsetto notes from Ellis but they’re small potatoes due to the great track that follows.
“Three Day Rampage” is a must-listen here, again revisiting a blues-flavored frenzy with a Bob Dylanesque delivery from Ellis and a frenetic lyric and playing that gets the blood pumping. That excitement fades with the return to the slow acoustic vibe of “Wonderful Place” while “Got My Wish” plumbs the mid-tempo depths with a track that’s a slow build, given some character by some solid minor chord notes.
John Ellis has fully removed himself from the shadow of his former life as front man of Tree63 and that’s a good thing. While that band had its day, it’s time for Ellis to shine. On this album, he does just that, offering up compelling arrangements, solid lyrics, and stirring artistry. Critics may long for a bit more diversity in sound but this package overall is solid. John Ellis has something to say and his art makes him worth listening to.
Review by Andrew Greenhalgh
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)