CD Review: "The Line"

CD: The Line
ARTIST: Jeff Ellis

There might not be any better day to review a Jeff Ellis CD than the Fourth of July.

Ellis, the Chapmanville native and South Charleston resident, who, having turned his experience in the Middle East as a member of the Army Reserves into now four records’ worth of rockin’ Americana, folk, bluegrass, alt-country, and yeah, rock, returns right in time for the Fourth with his new 10-song EP The Line.

Like on his previous efforts, A Front Seat for the End of the World, Covering the Distance, and most recently, The Forgetting Place, Ellis’ lyrical themes cover topics sung from only the perspective a soldier and a veteran can sing from.

Subjects totally appropriate to appreciate on Independence Day: faith, family, and friends -- but run through the prism of being involved in a foreign war, and maybe losing your own faith in it.

This ain’t Lee Greenwood or Sean Hannity’s version of a soldier’s diary, though. Like many soldiers before him, Ellis quite clearly has been finding his way through this whole thing with his own questions and doubts over the past decade, as the war on terror has continued without any end in sight.

But where The Forgetting Place and Covering the Distance touched lightly on the war, they seemed to hover mainly around Ellis’ own experience “coming home,” as it were.

The Line finds Ellis returning to more conflict-oriented themes and thoughts, like on AFSFTEOTW, with his continued branching off into a more alt-country and bluegrass sound than what was found on that great, iconic record.

There are killer, sludgy, dirty riff rock songs, “God Ain’t On Our Side No More” and the very nicely redone “In My Time of Dying.” Ellis, throughout, displays his vocal range, from delicate rasp to guttural power.

But on alt-country and bluegrass songs like “For You,” “Hard Times,” the somber title track and “How Do You Fight a War Like This?” Ellis not only finds the domestic job front lacking, and his friends unable to understand what he’s dealt with as a soldier, he ends up having most of what he ever believed in thrown into doubt, and turned upside down.

Maybe no song encapsulates Ellis’ own attitudes more than the dreamy alt-country tune “Tim’s War,” sung from the perspective of a soldier who signed up for the army after 9/11 to avenge the attack, ends up in Afghanistan, but over 400 days of fighting, moving past revenge, just wanting to get home, now arrives home with doubt and unease at “a darker perspective only vets understand.”

Just as on the aforementioned records, Ellis, on The Line enlists the help of friends Bud Carroll, Jimmy Lykens, Steve Barker and Jon Cavendish (of the now defunct Southern Souls) along with his Guinness Clarke’s Wine friend Phil James.

But Ellis recruits even more guest musicians on this one. Ed Price, Mike Parker and Bobby Withers (who rocks lead guitar on “God Ain’t On Our Side”) round out the sound throughout on pedal steel, banjo and guitar. Ellis is joined on vocal duty by Jess Kauffman and Lauren Weldy (always a nice touch) and he welcomes Sasha Colette and the Magnolias for an alternate, stripped down bonus version of “Dying Days,” before closing the EP out with a bonus, acoustic version of “God Ain’t On Our Side.”

Ellis even has Eddie Ashworth making appearances as a guest musician, and this is worth noting to point out the very coherent sound Ashworth has helped Ellis achieve in the studio over these past few records. Just as Ellis writes great, well-arranged songs, has help from great musicians, and makes great records, there is a very consistent sonic thread that permeates and transcends Ellis’ records; a feat for any musician to achieve in any studio.

If there’s ever a Jeff Ellis Greatest Hits or compilation of the songs from AFSFTEOTW through Covering the Distance and The Forgetting Place now into The Line, if you shook up the records and made your own mixtape, it would, even with the skipping of the genres, all sound like it was from the same recording sessions.

But this is a great EP to check out just to keep tabs on Ellis and keep in touch with where he’s at, in a sense. He has been able to take his experiences in the desert, and with his acoustic guitar, make what can only be called real national treasures, and this one arrives right in time for the Fourth of July.

mp3: “God Ain’t On Our Side No More” by Jeff Ellis

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