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ALBUM REVIEW: Kate Ellis – “Spirals”

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‘Spirals’, the second album from Kate Ellis will appeal to anyone who appreciates a subtle blend of country and folk with thoughtful lyrics that delve into the innermost feelings of people, often those very close. It’s those nearest us with whom we often struggle the most to communicate. Ellis has no such difficulty as she listens, empathises and encourages. ‘Spirals’ has a more layered sound compared with her debut, ‘Carve Me Out’. These more complex arrangements from some very fine musicians create the perfect backdrop to such intimate emotions. Ellis describes ‘Spirals’ as a collection of songs that came out of a process of soul searching, “to quieten the thought storms in my head and find my balance in the world”.

Born in Louisiana, Ellis grew up in New York and is now based in London. Although she studied law, music has always been in her life beginning with her father’s record collection.  Including some of country music’s great names, this wasn’t the collection of a fan. Ellis Snr was an accomplished guitarist who played with Hank Williams at the legendary Louisiana Hayride. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Gram Parsons, Gillian Welch and Nanci Griffith feature among Ellis’s influences. Whether lyrically or vocally there are definitely touches of each but there is no doubting the originality of her own velvety voice and searching lyrics.

‘Can’t Not’ gives the record a gentle start. A lament to a lost love Ellis creates such atmosphere setting the scene in the very first line, “the dark skies, the crow flies”. Her voice, scarcely more than a whisper, is loaded with regret, “I can’t not love you”. The electric guitar and keys add a sense of distance between these two erstwhile lovers.

‘Bluebirds and Rye’ is a soothing message of support from a mother to ease her daughter’s anxieties. Deeply personal, Ellis wrote this for her own daughter in whom she sees her younger self. All will work out in the end because, “there’ll always be bluebirds and rye”. More folk than country her deep sincerity and calm radiate a profound tenderness.

Staying with family ‘Another Way’ is loosely based on her father, “a little boy he was loved but not quite good enough”, who in adulthood became very much stuck in his own ways. He was not necessarily the kindest, but he wasn’t a bad man. “Despite trying every day/you couldn’t see another way”. Piano and pedal steel add sorrow around a voice that exudes forgiveness, understanding and most particularly love for a flawed, but ultimately well-meaning, man.

A folky vibe runs through these songs as it does the title track. Unsurprisingly, ‘Spirals’ best encompasses how Ellis describes the “thought storms” behind the album. A lilting muse about “thinking overtime” she laments memories receding into the foggy distance but she still maintains optimism. The lightness of the gentle guitars and keys ensure the light does not go out but begins to brighten as she realises “there’s so much more ‘unfound”.

Ellis applies the same acute perception to place as she does to people. Inspired by walking in a London park, ‘Wonderland’ is a panoramic soundscape about the natural world that we are losing so fast. Her delicate voice conveys the fragility of nature.

Long-standing collaborator Andy Hobsbawm co-wrote four of the songs on the album, as well as playing acoustic guitar throughout. The album also includes a song he wrote himself. A full-on country rocker ‘Scars’ is a dysfunctional love story that charts the fine line between love and hate. “I know you’re keeping score, but I come back for more/ I guess this must be love ‘cause we can’t get enough/ I got scars.” The band gives a kick similar to the list of drinks Ellis reels off mid-song. Another change of style into a lighter country comes on Tom Hackwood’s ‘Other Side of the Street’. Chris Hillman’s pedal steel adds  poignancy to this tale of love gone wrong.

As well as Hobsbawm, Ellis has around her a top-notch group of musicians. Most prominent are producer, dummer and percussionist, John Reynolds, Chris Hillman’s electric and pedal steel guitars, Thomas Collison on keys, Clare Kenny on bass, Joseph Paxton’s violin and Pauline Scanlon’s backing vocals. Together they make ‘Spirals’ a deeply sincere and personal collection of songs. If the inspiration was a “thought storm” then ‘Spirals’ charts a course to calmer, more reflective waters.

Lyndon Bolton

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