ROBERT ELLIS - TEXAS PIANO MAN

Release Date: 
15.02.2019
Label/Vertrieb: 
New West Records/PIAS-Rough Trade

“We make a lot of assumptions about different people. Heck, I like Liberace. I got a kick out  of  him. He played vaudeville. And he was reverent about it. He’d come out with all the  rings on his fingers. It was like, ‘You could have this, too. I’m going to bring a little elegance into your rotten tomato life.’” – Tom Waits

 

Indeed,  we  particularly  make  a  lot  of  assumptions about people who make songs for a living.  Because  Robert  Ellis  and  his  band  were  fluent  in  honky  tonk  and  capable  of burning  through  dozens  of  George  Jones  standards  on  any  given  night,  he could have found his boots set in concrete. He has instead over the course of now four albums done his  best  to  set  wide  parameters  for  his musical expression, befitting a guy from a state nearly 800 miles from one end to the other.

 

Had  we  paid  more  attention,  we  might’ve  seen  the  Texas  Piano  Man  coming  with  his white  tuxedo  and  bouquet  of  yellow  roses  to  hand  out  to  fans.  Maybe  we  made  some assumptions about him. After all, Robert Ellis traveled the world for a few years, playing songs  and  pouring  sweat  each  night  into  the  unforgiving  fabric  of  a  lapis-colored western  suit  with  Titan  rockets  embellishing  the  sleeves  and  a  space  suit-clad  Buzz Aldrin  standing  on  the  flaps.  If  rhinestones  were  truly  stars,  the  stages  wouldn’t  have needed lights.

 

Something  inside  wanted  out.  Or  as  one  of  his  bandmates  put  it:  Ellis  had to create a character in order to finally be himself on stage.

 

Which  brings  us  to  the  Texas  Piano  Man,  a  character  or  persona  that  isn’t  made  up whole cloth, but rather a large projection of Ellis’ wilder inclinations. A guy who named his  publishing  company  Southern  Liberace  has  embraced  the  idea  of  being  a  Rocket Man from Space City.

 

 

“With  Texas,  people  expect  a  certain  thing  and they want a certain thing, and I fought that  for  a  long  time,”  he  says.  “I’ve  realized  though  that  Texas  shouldn’t  be  made  a category. I want to redefine what it means to be Texan a little bit.”

 

This  is  the  Texas  Piano  Man  who  made  Texas  Piano  Man,  a  record  that  nods  at  its honky  tonk  roots  set  by  a  guitarist  as  he  finds  more  room  to  roam  while  playing  a stationary  instrument  and  pulls  from  a  tradition  set  by  Billy  Joel,  Leon  Russell  and Elton John. Guys who sat at that large stationary instrument, and plinked away at it in a manner that balanced honesty and mythology.

 

Ellis’  play  on  this  trope  focuses  on  his  Texas,  which  contains  multitudes,  a  space  so broad  and  wide  open  that  it  can  contain  the  caricatures  and archetypes seen from the rather  narrow  view  so often taken from the outside, as well as the artists, oddballs and freaks  who  populate  its  many  crannies.  He  knows  the  roadside  attractions  and  the favored drinks and foods. That’s how one ends up with a song called “Topo Chico.”

 

“There’s  a  sort  of  reclamation  process  with  this,”  Ellis  says.  “There  are  young,  urban Texans who don’t want to be known by the cliché that people have allowed our state to become. It’s saying, ‘NO, this is also Texas.”

 

So Ellis suited up to find his own play on the late, great Mr. Showmanship.

 

“It’s  more  about  a  spirit,”  he  says,  “than  an  aesthetic.  There’s  the  classic  play  of  the piano man, and with a little fashion behind it. I want you to listen to the songs. But also to  see  the  rings  and  the  glitz  and  the  glamor.  This  guy  who  always  seems  to  be succeeding. And people love him for it.”

 

The tone on the record can swing like moods during the course of a day. “Fucking Crazy” finds  that  two  people’s  jagged  parts  sometimes  fit  together  perfectly.  “When  You’re Away” is bracing in its frankness: “When you’re away,” he sings, “little things overwhelm me.”

 

Should the feelings come across as too intimate on paper, the presentation by the Texas Piano  Man  sells  it  with  feral abandon and pop majesty, “screaming like an animal and rattling your cage,” as he puts it in one song before bringing in some pretty cooing vocals that  remind  of  Brian  Wilson’s  work.  Putting  down  his  guitar  and  sitting  at  the  piano awakened something, and Ellis likens the musical experience to being behind the wheel of “a rock solid fucking muscle car.” It’s a heavy thing, with beautiful lines.

 

Ellis  describes  the  Texas  Piano  Man  as  the  guy  who  wears  the  tuxedo  everywhere.  If there’s  a ribbon to be cut, he’s there. A groundbreaking? He’ll hold the shovel and deal with the dirty suit later. He’ll christen your ship, and he won’t judge your yacht rock.


Sand  slipping  through  hands  sits  thematically  at  the center of “Texas Piano Man.” His tux-clad  host  tells  some  stories  about  wanting  to  pump  the  brakes  on  life  as it speeds along. “Nobody Smokes Anymore” isn’t a song about smoking. Well, it’s a little bit about smoking. But it’s really a song about habits and urges, as well as time and change. And that it truly is a drag getting old. Before he pumps out a piano part that sounds like a tip to “Benny and the Jets,” he declares, “One more drag and I’m out.”

 

  PHOTOS BY ALEXANDRA VALENTI

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