Tawny Ellis Proves She Can Wail With The Best On Striking LP ‘Love Life’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

One of the first things that is striking about southern singer-songwriter Tawny Ellis’ Love Life, her fifth full-length album, is her network of high profile musicians, producers, and engineers. To begin, she worked with three co-producers – Jesse Siedenberg (Lukas Nelson, Lissie), Ted Russell Kamp (Shooter Jennings) and Gio Loria (Jack Johnson). Renowned engineer and mixer Bob Clearmountain mixed three of the songs. The ubiquitous Don Was, another friend, lent his mixing notes. Among the musicians, aside from the three co-producers, is violinist Scarlet Rivera of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue fame.

This is not your typical guitar-laden, acoustic strummed singer-songwriter outing as Ellis, sometimes called “the girl with the weird instruments” plays Omnichord on two songs (“Love Life” and “Moonshine”), lap steel on “No More,” and just sings on the rest, her voice being the major instrument (and not a weird one). The Omnichord is an electronic musical instrument introduced in 1981 by the Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation. It typically features a touch plate, and buttons for major, minor, and 7th chords. And, it was lent to her by yet another famous friend, Daniel Lanois. Ellis found it to be a wonderful tool for writing and experimenting, subsequently writing most of the record on it. The instruments played by the other musicians are the usual ones, but keyboards and background vocals also weigh heavily into a layered mix that comes across as a ‘big sound” on several tunes.

Ellis, a Georgia native, has a voice with seemingly endless depth and range. She’s a crooner who can wail with the best if the song calls for it (i.e. “Powers That Be”) and unlike many of the southern ilk, doesn’t carry a twangy accent or haunting timbre. It’s just solid, strong, and malleable enough to fit many times of tunes, although most of them here are ballads (she is telling stories after all). The title track unfortunately traces to her dad who committed suicide when Ellis was a teenager. She firmly chooses the opposite path, singing – “don’t let go, you can defy gravity-through the darkest night, oh promise me.” Ellis is an optimist, shunning the dark and pointing to the light with a strong affirmation for living, in other words, “love’ becomes the verb as she encourages us to “love life.”

This is not to suggest that there aren’t melancholy moments or musical backdrops. “Spark of Love,” written with Siedenberg, is one of those tunes, as she sings in a lovely manner about the challenges of life and aging – “What lies underneath all that you see, Oh Humanity, oh frailty.” She follows with perhaps the most positive, forceful affirmation of any song, the rock-driven “I Believe” singing that she won’t let anyone hold her down. “powers That Be” was written during the California wildfires of 2018. Her friend, Scarlet Rivera, who plays a haunting fiddle on the tune, was living in Topanga Canyon and Ellis was trying to reach her phone, hoping she was able to escape. Rivera did by a close call and Ellis penned the tune that same day.

”Daddy” is a forgiving love letter to her father, where she is backed by just piano and organ (the latter somehow missing from the credits). Wanting to break that mood, she ends on a lighter note, covering Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” which she refers to as both nostalgic and kind of naughty. Other highlights include the smooth following “Pretend Love,” where Siedenberg, like he does on “Spark of Love,” plays all instruments. Ellis did three co-writes with Ted Russell Kamp, among the strongest in the set. Besides “I Believe” and “Powers That Be” there’s the confident, almost hymn-like “Deep End of Love.”

This is an album that gets better after repeat listens. Given the three co-producers, some interesting instrumentation, and a layered “wall of sound” in some places, it takes a little digging to get to Ellis’ stories but her vocals continue to impress with each listen.

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