Recorded live to tape in just two days, Robert Ellis’s exquisite new album, Yesterday’s News, is as stripped-down as it gets, with the celebrated songwriter and producer’s delicate, reedy tenor accompanied only by nylon string guitar, upright bass, and the occasional piece of handheld percussion. The arrangements are harmonically sophisticated here, drawing on the open tunings and intricate fingerpicking of English songwriters like Nick Drake or Richard Thompson, and Ellis’s performances are similarly subtle and nuanced, tapping into the bittersweet longing of Chet Baker and the playful poignancy of Bill Evans and Jim Hall.
While that might seem surprising coming off 2019’s raucous Texas Piano Man, subverting expectations is nothing new for Ellis. Born and raised outside Houston, he gained early acclaim for his piercing introspection and absorbing narratives, but over the course of five solo albums, he flirted with everything from Paul Simon and John Prine to Elton John and Joni Mitchell in a series of sonic and visual transformations that ran the gamut from Redneck Steely Dan to Lone Star Liberace. NPR hailed his “musical daring and impeccable songcraft,” while Rolling Stone praised his “sharp eye for storytelling,” and the New York Times lauded his writing as an emotional “gut punch.”
Yesterday’s News marks Ellis’s debut LP for Niles City Records, an outgrowth of the famed Niles City Sound studio he and longtime collaborator Josh Block run in Fort Worth, TX.