I TO YOU, Tawny Ellis, Music Building Records
I To You, the fourth studio album by Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Tawny Ellis, is a deep (like the Yankees' bullpen is deep), texturally rich, mostly acoustic affair; it's also -- without a doubt -- her finest release to date.
For starters, it is beautifully and simply recorded, showing off the clarity and timbre of each instrument, perhaps the most pleasing of which is Ellis' voice. It's the sort of voice one could make a meal of, in the vein of Neko Case or Ray LaMontagne, and her texturally rich music calls to mind the work of those artists -- not to mention country singers from years, if not ages, past.
Ellis, a native of Savannah, Georgia, calls upon her Southern roots at will, injecting several tracks with a homespun, often smoky, feel. Highlights include the title track, "Why Can't I Be Her," "I Don't Want to Fight" and her killer cover of Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee." But there's more than enough variety in context, tempo and instrumentation to keep the album interesting, with one surprise after another.
Let me get this out of the way: Tawny Ellis can sing. The girl’s got a voice and she controls it well, none of the shrill runs and histrionics that one might expect following the assertion “Tawny Ellis can sing.” She also isn’t wearing a meat dress or a cone bra or otherwise posturing for your attention, and neither is her music. It is tasteful, simple music fit for grown-ups.
The apparent influences on I To You, her latest album are myriad, and honestly I don’t want to condescend (nor do I wish to embarrass myself) by enumerating who and what I think I hear. It’s irrelevant. We’re all the sum of our influences, and we all hope to make something new out of those bits and pieces.
And I won’t pretend to know what Ellis and her partner, Giovanni Loria, had in mind when writing the songs that comprise I To You. At first glance it appears to be a straightforward alt-countryish collection of breakup songs, and in that context the album works quite well. “What can I do to erase you?” she asks, on “Erase You” adding “not that I want to.” It’s a beautiful sentiment backed by a wonderful, simple string arrangement, and by “simple” I mean “playing on the porch with my family” simple. “Handmade music” simple — no Pro Tools or other studio nonsense allowed.
If I were in the throes of post-relationship depression I’d latch onto that track for dear life while taking the advice of the album’s next cut, “Tonight I Drink Whiskey.” No doubt about it: If you’re looking for a good wallow you’ll find it here.
But I To You throws us a curveball in the late innings with “Dear Muse,” an open letter to, well, to the speaker’s muse. What is a self referential cut about making art doing in the middle of a cycle of breakup/relationship songs? I must have listened to the album sequentially twenty times trying to crack that safe, and when the last tumbler fell into place the album took on a second life that wasn’t apparent while I was staring into my shot glass.
I To You, both the song and the album, opens with the lines “Coward trudging along, a secret way down in my bones.” Isn’t that how everyone who makes art feels? We’re putting one foot in front of the other daily, but we’re scared out of our minds. And though we’re trying to connect sometimes that “secret way down in our bones” is just a bit too much to expose. The album works not only as a collection of relationship songs, but as an artist battling with her creative herself, her muse.
Without hearing a note, consider the following song titles as if they were chapter titles in a novel:
- I To You
- Erase You
- Tonight I Drink Whiskey
- I’m Alive
- She Stays
- One More Cup of Coffee
- Why Can’t I Be Her
- Dear Muse
- All My Life
- I Don’t Want To Fight
Whether you were hoping for a book about a breakup or an artist battling with her creative muse, those are chapters that are going to bring the goods.
Good work leaves room for the reader/listener/viewer to bring his or her own experience to the proceedings. That’s what going on here, without question. I’m not a beautiful woman with an Emmylou Harris-purty voice, I’m a nerdy middle-aged bald guy who can’t carry a tune and struggles to string two coherent sentences together. But what Tawny Ellis has done on I To You is given me room to crawl around inside her songs as if they were meant for me.
Enough. I can’t say anything here that isn’t much better understood by simply listening for yourself. I To You is available October 12, 2011 at http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/TawnyEllis and other music sites.
Looking for more info? Visit the lovely Ms. Ellis’s page here: http://www.TawnyEllis.com.
It’s always possible to read more into the music and words of a performer than is actually there. When the first song on an album is also its title track, I always experience a moment of expectation, of the anticipation of a song sequence, of a form of musical storytelling: not quite of a concept album (no-one really makes those anymore), but of a cycle of songs, interconnected in their themes, which display a definite beginning and end. Then when I listen to an album such as I To You I soon realise that I am of course projecting concepts of my own onto the words and music of others, particularly when, as with Tawny Ellis and her songs, there isn’t an immediately noticable sense of hidden depth, of ambiguity and mystery within the songwriting and vocals.I To You is a skilfully played and refreshingly down to earth song collection, songs that express themes and ideas which just about anyone hearing them will instantly recognise.
“I To You”, the song, is brightly played, smartly crafted and unapologetically, a love song. It’s also an intricately developed melody, and with backing musicians whose CVs include work alongside artistes as diverse as the Indigo Girls, Jack Johnson, Pink, Dizzy Gillespie and Bob Dylan, it’s also only the first of a sequence of what are very high quality performances from both Tawny Ellis and her band. The musicianship never overwhelms Tawny’s own songs or voice though. Throughout, I To You is a finely produced and committed performance from everyone involved. Tawny herself remains seemingly nonplussed by the array of talents bringing added dimensions to her already luminous, deceptively inventive songwriting. Intruigingly, Tawny Ellis almost entirely avoids slipping into the lyrically involved, fragile confessional that so many of her contemporaries bring to the stage. It’s slightly underplayed, but there’s a combination of both realism and optimism in her words that reveals Tawny as a lady with both feet very firmly on the ground, one whose lyricism is tempered by her everyday experience but also has the ability to bring an added depth to even the most unremarkable events.
So, I made it past the album’s first and title track and realised that, while the world of Tawny Ellis isn’t perhaps a very mysterious or magical one, there’s plenty going on. “Erase You” is a heartfelt and lyrically strident plea for personal independence in the context of a collapsing relationship. “Tonight I Drink Whiskey” is exactly the song its title suggests, a barroom escapade set to a keening slide guitar. “She Stays” has both Tawny and her musicans developing their sound, leaving me to question whether or not I can hear a backwards guitar part amongst the percussion, vibes and cello. “Why Can’t I Be Her” shows Tawny at her most vulnerable, a solo guitar and vocal performance that’s as affecting as it’s uncomplicated, and which also reveals that Tawny Ellis could carry the entire album minus her backing band. It’s the track which very firmly asserts her own presence across the ten tracks of I To You, were that in any doubt, although anyone who has heard this much of the album will already hold both Tawny and her songs in quite some regard by this point. “Dear Muse” is a real highlight though, a softly handled ballad that’s given an added depth by some softly unobtrusive strings. Finally, “I Don’t Want To Fight” is a very different kind of song to much of what has preceded it, folk influenced, its echoing drums and swaying rhythm a notable departure from what are the mainly country sounds of the rest of the album, and it ends the album on a memorably strident note.
There’s an invention and depth to Tawny Ellis’s music that might surprise anyone. Her songs consistently surprise and captivate with their blend of lyrical realism and resonant instrumentation, and Tawny’s voice is that of an accomplished and evocative interpreter of her own words. I To You is an album that does, I’ve decided, contain a story at its centre, and it’s also almost the perfect album for one of those bright, warm late summer days that always end sooner than they should.
I To You Album Review
The one thing not surprising about a new Tawny Ellis album is the reminder of just how much she can surprise us all over again. She can rock it; she can pull it right back down. Previous albums Shelter and Evolve or Die showed the range. In I To You she's back doing what she does best: yoking intimately haunting ballads of love's trials and life's glories to soaring melodies that somehow raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Her voice goes from husky to plaintive in an instant. It's a pure, pitch-perfect voice that can quiver and twang, soaring to delicate heights, swooping to a rich, guttural fullness: what holds it all together is always Ellis's heart-wrenching presence at the emotional center of the song. With her stark arrangements and sweeping melodies she speaks of love, loss, doubt, heartbreak, running away and whiskey. It's wistful, it's yearning, and then suddenly it's all "I will not be fucked with." But it maintains an unflinching honesty, even when, as in the title track, that honest self-revelation is all about fragility, about turning points and teetering on the edge of the abyss.
In Erase You we hear touches of the great Lucinda Williams in the way that the soaringly sweet harmonies harbor darker ironies within. From the floating orchestration of All My Life to the sweet optimism of Alive and Well to the more intricate complexities of the densely-layered I Don't Want To Fight, Ellis holds tight the reins - the album always feels coherent, as if we're privy, in listening to it, to the emotional geography of a very singular voice. Tonight I Drink Whiskey melds a plaintive tale of tough-girl strength and resolve, barroom style, with a classic old-school country beat. And then One More Cup of Coffee is a terrific re-imagining of a classic, as if Ellis had somehow vocalized what Scarlet Rivera did on violin in the original, her voice taking on those mournful intonations until she reveals the song, stripped back thus, in its true form: that hymn to the imminent loss of the unattainable one. (Rivera, by the way, appears on this album.)
In Dear Muse, the singer apologizes for delusions, distractions and procrastinations, as well as retractions, bad decisions and intoxications. On the strength of this album, though, it's hard to imagine that Ellis's muse feels badly done by.
(Acclaimed Poet & Author of “Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction”)
SANTA FE WEEKLY April 2010: One of the best things about being located between Los Angeles and Austin (kind of) is that Santa Fe can funnel all the best acts on their way to South by Southwest. One of those acts is Tawny Ellis, who brings her sweet yet tangy, pure yet soulful melodies to Santa Fe the day after her birthday. Ellis has always listened to country music, so while she has explored everything from tear-jerking blues to rock ’n’ roll, she always comes back to her roots. Her latest album, Evolve or Die, ranges from the title track, which boasts a strong bass-drum heartbeat coupled with etherial backing vocals under Ellis’ strong singing, to a syrupy ballad like “Come On Back to My House” to an old-timey swinging tune like “Baby You’re the One.” She’ll play it all, and don’t let her forget to blow out the birthday candles. (Chloe Davis)
August 19, 2009
Tawny Ellis, evolver
The L.A. singer/songwriter (and Savannah native) goes country
How did Tawny Ellis pull it off? Because she’s very, very good. Evolve or Die (think a goth Patsy Cline, or the Emmylou Harris/Daniel Lanois collaboration Wrecking Ball, and you’ll get it) brings the Los Angeles resident to Savannah Friday night for a performance at the Guitar Bar.
CONNECT SAVANNAH: (link for article)