Outside the Box 

Guitarist Lauren Ellis uses blues as a foundation for exploring broader roots

Guitarist Lauren Ellis uses blues as a foundation for exploring broader roots

Lauren Ellis

Feels Like Family (Silverline)

At first glance, everything about Lauren Ellis implies the blues. She's a slide guitarist with a sizable collection of vintage instruments. She covers a Muddy Waters song and cites Duane Allman as an influence. The cover of her new album, Feels Like Family, due out Tuesday on Silverline Records, is a black-and-white shot purposely overdeveloped and roughed-up to convey grit. She even refers to herself as a blues musician.

Feels Like Family starts right there, too, with a deep blues riff on the shuffle "Dry as a Bone," an indignant commentary with sexual overtones about how Ellis feels after splitting with her lover. From there, though, she breaks with the formulas that blues-rockers too often follow. Although her guitar work always has a blues feel, her writing and arranging draw on folk, adult pop and Hawaiian steel guitar music, among other things. The result is an 11-song collection with a breadth that shows a creative restlessness rare in this age of genre-conscious music-making.

A guitar restoration expert, Ellis moved from Los Angeles to Nashville five years ago. She's built a solid reputation among leading musicians in town—her album includes contributions from Tony Joe White on harmonica and Viktor Krauss on bass. Well-regarded drummer Rick Lonow appears on most tracks, with Nashville legend Kenny Malone replacing him for a couple of songs. That's impressive company for a relative unknown, but Ellis' slide—liquid one moment, stinging the next—not only keeps up with her collaborators, but often gooses them into inspired performances.

Ellis' musicianship no doubt attracts her peers, but it's her songwriting and arranging that will take her beyond the audience that subscribes to guitar magazines. Most of her material deals with the end of a relationship and the illness of her mother, and she probes love and family with nerve and honesty. The title song, for example, examines the unifying effect of her mother's health problems—"Now it's just us three / Finally acting like a family"—while "Setting Son" discusses a friend's suicide. Several other numbers—"Shades of Blue," "End of Our Line," "When I See You" and "Livin' in a Dream"—deal directly with a breakup and the struggles with independence and yearning that follow. It's an interesting juxtaposition, the thoughtful lyricist inside the tough guitarist, and it gives Ellis a hybrid musical personality that has drawn comparisons to Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt.

That said, Ellis' album doesn't achieve everything she wants. Her cover of Muddy Waters' "Just to Be With You" lacks the swagger of the original, and Ellis' voice doesn't have the range to communicate the emotional nuances of some of her acoustic songs. This isn't to say she isn't a capable singer; her smoky whisper is reminiscent of Amy Grant if the Christian star had spent a decade trying to cut through loud, cigarette- and whiskey-steeped rooms. Ellis' tone grows grittier when she's rocking, and that's when it works best, as on the Cream-inspired "Setting Son" and the jubilant strut of "Extra Mile."

Ellis' voice might need some work, but her guitar playing dazzles throughout. Like the six-string obsessive she is, she cites the different instruments for each tune, whether it's the Hawaiian lap steel on the instrumental "Oahu Song," the National Steel on "Dry as a Bone" or the Mosrite electric Dobro on "Livin' in a Dream." Like-minded guitar fans will enjoy the DualDisc DVD on the flipside of the CD, which includes details of Ellis' instrument choices, the stories behind each of the album's songs and an interview about her work as a songwriter, performer and a luthier (restorer of vintage stringed instruments).

During the interview, Ellis cites the lack of female role models she had when learning to play guitar. Feels Like Family suggests that she's ready to join those who are now filling that role—and to show that the current generation of roots-music guitarists need not stick to one box.

—Michael McCall

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