CD Review: "The Forgetting Place"

CD: The Forgetting Place
ARTIST: Jeff Ellis

Looking at things one way, it seems like Jeff Ellis just can’t catch a break.

Back home from serving in the Middle East in the Army Reserves, the 29-year old Huntington resident and Marshall University student barely seems to have time to make great records in between work, school, and, most importantly from a songwriting perspective, getting his heart trampled on by female love interests.

Hey, if he wasn’t getting his heart broken, what would he write songs about? Gold rims, platinum grills and worshipping Rockefellers and the Illuminati? It just wouldn’t be the same if he did.

On his new CD The Forgetting Place, Ellis, despite all the personal upheaval, lays down 13 songs worth of his own version of rockin’ Americana; folk, bluegrass, alt-country and blues, and, like most songwriters worth their salt, turns the things that suck for him, and weaves them into touching, personal stories inside great well-structured, memorable songs.

On another level, on the new CD, Ellis, on first listen to longtime followers, may seem to be a victim of his own past success; following up 2007’s epochal A Front Seat for the End of the World (mainly a recounting of Ellis’ time in the Gulf) and 2008’s Covering The Distance (his alt-country trip home) would be tough for anybody, but Ellis pulls it off nicely on The Forgetting Place.

Having had a burned copy of the CD for a few months now, and hearing it at first, it is, to longtime fans of his, no big surprise how good it is, just a bit softer overall than the material on his last two releases. Only letting it digest over many plays, can you appreciate how solid it is, and his talents as a songwriter.

Yeah, it’s another great CD from Jeff Ellis; ho hum.

Regardless of Ellis’ success in the relationship department, or how and where The Forgetting Place stacks up to, or fits in with his last two releases, Ellis has taken his music to the proverbial next level; he has caught his (relatively) big break, as it were, as his fourth overall solo release (this after his work in Guinness Clarke’s Wine) is put out on the New York-based NewSong Recordings. Since we last heard from him on Covering the Distance, Ellis has impressed some of the right people, winning the Mountain Stage NewSong competition in 2008.

Ellis is joined on the new CD by his longtime cohorts Bud Carroll and the Southern Souls (Jimmy Lykens, Steve Barker & Jon Cavendish) in the studio, along with longtime friend and GCW bandmate Phil James on piano. Anybody who’s heard Ellis’ last two releases, with Carroll’s soaring, bluesy solos, knows how powerful the duo is. If you haven’t or you don’t, now you do.

The Forgetting Place opens with “If He’s So Good To You,” jangly, twangy Americana with layered organ and awesome solos, which catches us all up on what’s happening with Ellis -- the whole relationship thing. Long story short, he’s trying to move on, but getting jerked around. The nerve of that girl!

“Russell & Honeybee” is Ellis’ stripped-down, shuffling, somber and dreamy-yet heartbreaking ode to a heartless lost love, sung from the perspective of a homeless romantic. It’s got kind of the same vibe as Distance’s beach song, “Sleepyhead,” but nowhere near as good from the singer’s perspective.

Ellis’ dynamic, powerful voice takes a softer backseat along with delicate backing vocals, showcasing his range (and writing) as he sings on the chorus:
And it’s been a long life of waiting for some change to come
It might take a long time/but that’s something he’s got plenty of
He searches for some comfort/But never finds relief
And out there on the streets he dreams of Honeybee
So you’re only two songs into the record and you’ve got a nice encapsulation of Ellis’ songs: touching, painfully honest poetic balladry (“You can barely call it livin’/Oh, but dying’s too extreme. And somewhere in between he dreams of Honeybee.”) inside of well-arranged, catchy songs with Ellis’ harmonica thrown in for the Dylan effect. A great song.

Ellis breaks out the rockin’ Americana on “Don’t Let Me Go” and the Wilco-esque Being There bar-balladry of “Still Ain’t Over You Yet,” one of the standout tracks, and at two-and-a half minutes long, it doesn’t take long to rock out.

The thing about Ellis’ songwriting is that he can write songs geared toward a big, full band lineup, or songs made more for solo rocking; either way, at this point you get the idea that Ellis is one of the best songwriters in the state, and maybe beyond.

“Is Something The Matter” is Ellis’ slow, road weary, piano-flaked ode to love, with cool sounding e-bow type guitar parts on it. For Ellis, who listed R.E.M. as an influence, this is a song that would fit well on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, maybe. When it comes to “the battles of love” and dealing with women, is something the matter? Something’s always the matter.

Ellis is joined on the stripped down alt-bluegrass hit “Can’t Stop Me From Loving You” by members of Huntington’s Wilson Creek, for the nice female backing vocals and delicate mandolin runs. You want more broken hearted, poetic lyrics? Okay, here is the chorus:
You can’t make someone feel something they don’t
Make ‘em love you if they won’t
Change the way things are/no matter what you do
Just like you could never stop me from loving you
The song has great progressions, delicate, hushed vocals, and with Ellis’ harmonica parts, is one of the best songs on the CD. It’s a tribute to Ellis that he would invite female guest vocalists on his songs, to complement his vocals, like he did (most famously in our mind) on “Time Slips Away” on Front Seat.

“Fooled” shows off Ellis’ bluesy side, (it’s good that he’s got Carroll with him) and his ultra-powerful, belt-it-out vocals as he takes the fight to his ex’s strategic disinformation as he builds the song to the awesome chorus:
Well I thought if I run and hide
I might escape the things I’ve done
But I’ve come to find hurt and time,
Are the only things that’ll heal someone
Symptoms may include goosebumps, as it’s one of the more powerful parts on the entire CD.

Ellis is again joined by Wilson Creek members for the fun bluegrass feel of “Jealousy,” again with the female backing vocals, a nice touch. But while the song has the fun bluegrass feel, Ellis sings about the bad times suspicious minds can bring about:
Like a cancer it crept in and took its toll on me and you
Eating at the little parts til it tore our hearts plain through
“Mama Dear” sounds like a bit of a post-script to, or at least would’ve fit well on Front Seat, with its Eastern, Sitar sounding guitar parts (ala the band Live) over marching snare, and the post-traumatic, war themed lyrics:
I have seen destruction and I have seen its toll
I have seen the works of men
I have seen their wealth, their power and control
And I don’t want no part of them

These men have crushed my spirit, these men have crushed my soul
These men have made my hands to sin
They’ve stripped me of my conscience and left this empty hole
This darkness deep within
The sprightly, almost haunting fireside folk of the title track may evoke “House of the Rising Sun” for some reason, as Ellis continues his efforts to get women off his mind at the pub, but no, he can’t stay there.

“Fade” opens with rockin’ muted riffage, sounding like Weezer or something in parts, (not much like anything on Ellis’ previous releases) as he recalls running from his strong feelings.

The swaying acoustic of “I’ll See You Soon” closes the CD, with Ellis yearning for a long lost love, with the hope of a reunion.

Ellis, for The Forgetting Place, returned to Athens, Ohio’s Tracking Station and re-enlisted Eddie Ashworth to produce the new CD, with solid, rich results. And, Carroll snagged an associate producer nod on it; nice. Throughout the CD, before and after the songs, Ellis can be heard cutting up in the studio with Ashworth and his bandmates, giving the recording a more fun, informal feel. Come to find out, the songs were recorded in one or two takes, on the fly.

For newer fans of Ellis, it might behoove them to go get their hands on his prior releases. Wrapping all his music up into one package, you can get a feel of his talent and why Ellis has now impressed the important people, who will hopefully help him get the audience he deserves.

And, without a doubt, you’ll be glad you got turned on to the music he’s been making the past couple of years.

mp3: “Can't Stop Me From Lovin You” by Jeff Ellis

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