January 25th, 2019 | Album reviews

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Deep Clues

In a parallel universe, Brian Ellis is a top-selling artist, crafting radio hits in high-end studios and schmoozing with record execs and celebrities. In our world, he’s an independent with roots in the modern funk scene and an unabashed love for the look and sound of West Coast soft rock. Sonically, much of his latest record Deep Clues could have come from another era. Fans of mellow 70s radio rock will appreciate Ellis’ guitar work in particular, from the moody chord changes on “Bulletproof” to the dueling leads and shuffling rhythm of “Night Drive.” But Ellis is more than a guitarist. In fact he’s the record’s sole credited performer, composer and producer. Judging from the fluency in funk and jazz fusion he’s demonstrated on previous releases, Ellis seems like the kind of artist who in a different decade might have been burning big label cash to make odd, idiosyncratic pop records. Ellis’ lyrics conjure up visions of cocaine-fueled excess, but at the same time, there are hints that this idealized upscale sliver of the California dream isn’t exactly reality. The record’s central themes—attraction, cruising the highway and sophisticated partying—are part of the push and pull between authentic music of the 70s and Ellis’ reinterpretation of those sounds today. Ellis often deals in reflections—from calling his band Brian Ellis’ Reflection, to 2014’s Reflection LP to his 2017 double album Mirror/Mirror. Similarly, there’s a sense here that all the yacht party imagery could be a 2-D likeness, rather than a rendering of real life. The way Ellis writes in a particular language of 70s smooth is astoundingly accurate and he has a look to match. But at times he parts the veil with moments of humor. Like the gruff question “You married? You got kids?” to the object of his affection on “Brand New Love,” or when he croons, “What you see is what you get / I don’t fuck around / I don’t give a fucking shit!” on the otherwise radio-ready “Here I Am.” These are the moments on Deep Clues when it’s 2019 again, and reality sets in. The music industry today is much different than it was in the era Ellis is referencing, and gone are the days when major labels often bankrolled ambitious—and at times experimental—albums. For Ellis, “major label” probably isn’t a viable mode of musical production. But it can still be an aesthetic choice.

—Joe Rihn