Don’t look now, but the Aussies in 2020 are rivaling all of your favorite American independent country artists, and are outright running circles around all those clowns in the mainstream when it comes to churning out quality records. With folks like Roo Arcus, Arna Georgia, and others already in the clubhouse with top notch projects, here comes James Ellis and the Jealous Guys out of Melbourne with some serious heartbreaking throwback honky tonk stuff on their new album Country Lion that’s begging to be spun, and spun again.
Let’s just get what’s the greatest signifier of James Ellis and his music out of the way here first. Unlike a lot of country artists from outside of the United States who either roll off their native accents or outright put on an American one—whether it’s Roo Arcus from Australia or Harmonica Sam from Sweden—James Ellis is all Down Under in the way he sings, not trying to fool anyone. It’s a refreshing approach, even if initially his voice may come as a bit of an acquired taste for some of those Stateside.
Nonetheless, even if the voice of James Ellis is a little foreign to your ear at first, subsequent listens reveal it as one of his greatest assets. Hell, hillbillies have been poked fun at for singing through their noses for going on a century. All the early greats of the genre had to have a distinctive voice to sing country, and James Ellis satisfies that requisite. As the name of the first album from James Ellis and the Jealous Guys released in 2018 states, “It Ain’t Texas (But It Ain’t Bad).”
Meanwhile the music is all so familiar in a warm-feeling and reassuring way. It’s classic, and studious of the traditional forms of country, and executed with fine precision and care. Whether it’s the hard country two-tone bass and twangy Telecaster of “The Sun Will Rise Again,” the steel guitar and fiddle of the upbeat “Forever Close,” the Jim Reeves-style Countrypolitan moments found in the heartbreaking “Take Me Back In Time,” or the more folk-influenced “Records With Our Friends,” it’s all so familiar and universal in sounds and sentiment, it’s appeal crosses borders, and hemispheres.
Country Lion feels perfect for listening to on a road trip through the country, or oozing out of a jukebox in a roadside diner or honky tonk. Transformative of time and place to a dusty, sepia scene where the moments are simpler and popular music was so much better than it is today, this is music you play to forget bad times and remember the good ones.
Written solely by James Ellis, the words are both steeped in country music style and lore, while also resonating within the modern soul and avoiding fuddy-duddy put-on’s and tropes. The music of the record rises to the occasion at every turn, even as Ellis asks for a bit of flexibility around the traditional country foundation in a few songs.
The album was recorded mostly in Australia, but produced by Margo Price keyboard player Micah Hulscher, and Alex Muñoz who also works with Price. Micah Hulscher also appears on the recent (and great) record from David Quinn, and similar to that title, Country Lion takes advantage of all the tasty parts of the East Nashville classic country influence, while leaving the bad tendencies like putting style before substance, and turning in fuzzy-sounding recordings by the wayside.
One of the challenges of traditional country music is how adhere to all those tried and true traditions, while also asserting something unique to both keep it spicy, and separate yourself from the massive catalog of classic country songs already sitting on shelves. By bringing an authentic Australian perspective to the music, James Ellis and the Jealous Guys inject a distinctive flavor to a familiar and beloved music form.
1 3/4 Guns Up
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