Laura Ellis – Broken, Lovely – Album Review
If there’s one thing that my eyes have trained themselves to see – it’s a cover of “Bring Me To Life” by Evanescence and the infamous wasted-talent of Amy Lee’s legacy. I’ve been more than critical of such an incredible talent sitting on the sidelines after having had such an amazing impact on a whole entire sea of musicians, bands and artists to follow in her wake – and that’s probably not ever going to stop until she chooses to rise to her full potential or until I hear a few less-thousands of covers of the one song that put her band on the map permanently. I’ve always left this situation in Amy’s capable hands.
So believe me…before I even pushed play on Laura Ellis’ new album Broken, Lovely – I certainly noticed the suspect title only two tracks deep into the record’s official lineup. If you’re a regular reader here…you already know that I’m not holding this against Ellis pre-emptively…she’s as welcome to cover any song she chooses as anyone else is. What noticing that title DID do for me early on, was tell me to have a good read through the credits of this record to see what else might be in store for us – and as it turns out, I think many of these songs are actually covers despite not being familiar with all of the titles. I see many names I recognize…I also see Ellis’ name on one of these tracks too, which I’m assuming is a bonafide original…and as I started the Broken, Lovely album…I realized that most of what I’m hearing from Laura – if not ALL of what I’m hearing – reflects her true love of singing. She has a tremendous mix of soul, R&B, pop & jazz working in her favor…and what I certainly loved about this record was that no matter what song I heard – right up to and including the infamous Evanescence track – Laura Ellis made each and every one of these songs a brand-new and heartwarming experience to listen to.
With that jazzy & theatrical attitude she gives her vocals, she sets herself apart. Keep in mind – Laura’s voice tone-wise could easily match Sarah McLachlan’s note-for-note…if she wanted to. Thankfully, she’s given us much more than being any kind of copy all throughout this record by really putting her own stamp onto the sound & songs you’ll find on Broken, Lovely. Not even a McLachlan cover in the whole bunch…and I would have naturally thought that she would have at least taken on one track from an iconic artist like that with such similar tone and grace…but Ellis has truly taken a much braver path here on this album and pulled from all-points of music’s history for a very eclectic and entertaining list of covers. She’s put herself, her music and her genuine sound/perspective on these songs expertly – I really admire that the track-listing of Broken, Lovely includes many different artists, styles and ideas – and again, what I love even more is that Laura’s has really brought each of these songs into her own world and made something really extraordinary, unique and smooth to listen to.
I’ll put it to you this way…”He Needs Me” the album’s opening-tune is credited with a ‘Nilsson’ tag…and if you look up Harry Nilsson, you get results that refer to Shelley Duvall’s turn as Olive Oil singing a song with the same title in the movie Popeye. Any other similarities seem to end there…and so did my venture down the rabbit hole. It’s a song I’m not familiar with to start…but not a single set of lyrics other than the title of “He Needs Me” seemed to match that other version. So maybe there’s another song out there that Harry Nilsson wrote that is also called “He Needs Me” – or maybe it’s a different Nilsson altogether…those are possibilities. What you do get for certain, is a gorgeous turn on the piano and a fantastic introduction to the beautiful, angelic tones of Laura’s voice as the album begins. She sings with real thought and emotion attached to the words and she’s paced this out perfectly in a waltz/jazz style that sways and swings sweetly in your ears. You can already hear the professional in Laura, right off the bat in this first song, just by the way she approaches each and every line in the song with yearning understanding. She brings these words to life in a way you can truly feel them.
So…don’t get me wrong…I certainly acknowledge the power of Lee’s Evanescence-anthem and career defining track “Bring Me To Life” – it’s massive, bigger than big, dynamic – it’s all that. And I recognize that any singer that can hold their own in her arena is certainly worth their weight in salt – but I do think that the song itself has potentially been fully exploited throughout the independent arena and I’m not convinced it’s quite the spring-step for artists that it once had been. We now, as a general public, almost expect at some point that the bands and artists we’re listening to are at one point, going to cover this song; as recognizable as the title itself – it’s become a standard choice. That being said – I do like the piano melody replacing the music fully here on Laura’s cover…the addition of smooth bass, subtle percussion and trumpets help reset the mood to reflect her own style. She takes the rock-edge out of the music, but makes sure to preserve the bold-emotions and big-tones in her singing that made the song fantastic to begin with…and I think it’s a valid cover. I cannot tell a lie and say that I’m not completely worn out on the song itself, which isn’t Laura’s fault…but every time the chorus comes around I feel that weight of a song that I’m all too familiar with – but that might not necessarily be everyone’s reaction. She does the songwriting and singing justice.
But let’s also face facts – I’m here in the independent music-scene for a reason…I try to avoid the hits that dominate the radio…and the radio altogether. The detachment gets easier and easier over the years and the rise of quality independent artists like Laura and others that has risen to a completely professional level and answered the call-to-arms to deliver unique music the public really wants to hear. So for me…it wasn’t the big-hits of songs like “Bring Me To Life” that impressed me as much as lesser-known songs like “If You Want Me” from the movie Once…or at least I think that’s where I heard it from myself. This cover from Ellis doesn’t deviate too much from the original in its flow & melody…instrumentation-wise certainly, but other than that – she keeps this one largely recognizable and intact. With her thick & rich, beautiful tones – you can certainly recognize Ellis’ voice at every turn – and as Broken, Lovely continues I find myself appreciating her defined & refined sound more and more. I thought she did an exceptional job of bringing out the longing/questioning of emotions in the writing of “If You Want Me” and created an early highlight on this record through this version she’s created.
If it’s different that you’re looking for however…if you’re after that proof that Ellis can really set these songs into her own sound & style – then look no further than the sweet surprise of Pat Benetar’s hit-song “Fire And Ice.” What I can’t admit to being, is a Pat Benetar fan myself…while I admire and respect her contribution – her songs just never did it for me personally. Reimagined in this form, in this new version and spin that Laura has applied to it – I think I actually love it. The bass is wonderfully played, the percussion is again perfectly subtle and Laura soars playfully alongside the rhythm & groove with precision and passion that you can hear. Her approach made all the difference in the world to me personally as far as “Fire And Ice” is concerned – one of the biggest surprises on the album for me, I wasn’t expecting to like this tune nearly as much as I did but I think Ellis really makes this version work.
She gives a truly soulful sound to “Guilty” as well…a song written by Randy Newman and also made famous by the incredible Bonnie Raitt – and ladies and gentlemen…I believe Ellis has truly hit her stride right around this point in the record. Seriously impressed by the last three that I’ve heard and I think she’s outdone expectations on “Guilty” – that’s just a flat-out perfect performance on a great, great song. The piano is beyond-good…it’s played with insightful emotion that matches the rhythmic-groove and depths of the feelings outlined in the lyrics and vocals stunningly – and that solo! Absolutely loved “Guilty” – I could listen to Laura sing this song all day, every day – it’s a gorgeous cover.
I think that real tone of McLachlan and that signature-break in her vocals can be heard most in Ellis’ voice on “Is It A Crime?” by Sade. As a result…it still has that Sade feeling of mysterious/sexy melody in the atmosphere, but like Laura is in another inspired-zone and new style that perfectly adapts to her ideas and perspective on the music. The light-jazzy nature of this music has been a growing pleasure to listen to – and I think the talent of Ellis and her surrounding support sounds fantastic once again on “Is It A Crime?” The guitar gets a chance to shine with solid solo-work, great string sounds and trumpets fill in the background – and Ellis pulls out a real winner here once again with a sleek & sultry performance that captures the essence of the original while still being extremely identifiable to her passionate vocals, ideas for this record and overall sound.
Some of these songs lead you down incredible paths to other great music if you follow them to their roots. For instance, “Almost Lover” is credited to be written by Sudo…but I ended up finding it done by Jasmine Thompson and A Fine Frenzy…not quite sure where Sudo comes into play – but odds are, a song with powerful dynamics like “Almost Lover” was written by a crackerjack Nashville songwriting-ace and then found its way to another artist to perform. Ellis does an absolutely magical job of this tune…the violin & string sounds work majestically and Laura’s vocals sparkle beautifully with power and range on “Almost Lover.” With a slight Americana/Country melody subtly drifting into her vocals, the overall idea is executed with bold confidence and a performance that really resonates and demonstrates the impressive talent in Laura’s vocals. She nearly steps into Florence Welch territory from about two & a half-minutes and forward at times, ending this one on brilliantly confident, solidly melodic-tones as the music gently fades out in behind.
The moment I was personally waiting for was “Not This Time.” With an Ellis credit in the songwriting – and the only one I could spot on the record – I felt it was safe to assume that this track would be one that would allow us to hear some of her own ideas and genuine approach. The tremendous amount of skill and professionalism we’ve heard so far on the record has already proven that she can adapt nearly any idea, genre or style into her own world – but left to her own devices, what would she do? I don’t think she disappoints for a single solitary second of the passionate performance she puts into “Not This Time” and the up-tempo vibe in the music suits her well. The hooks in the verse that lead up to the one-line chorus and the way she weaves her vocals in this song co-written by Rodby are executed with rhythm and precision – you can hear the added enthusiasm and exotic flavor brought into this track. I think she’s made a special moment here that she can certainly be proud of – on an album full of tried, tested & true hits, “Not This Time” sounds every bit like it belongs to be there with the rest.
Broken, Lovely continues with “What’s New?” – which might be the oldest song history-wise in origin on this entire record. As far as I can tell…this song became popular in 1939, but already lived an instrumental life even before that point and then known as “I’m Free.” It’s also considered to be one of the real ‘jazz standards’ out there…but believe me when I say this extraordinary performance from Ellis is anything but ‘standard’ unless we’re talking about exceeding them. If it is indeed the ‘standard’ – then chances are Ellis has practiced and played this song much over time – and I think you can tell from the stunning performance she puts in that she knows this one inside & out. Bringing outstanding emotion to the words with another exceptional performance from the piano to match, gorgeous strings sounds and smoother-than-smooth bass…”What’s New?” sparkles with style and real theatrics.
Moving ahead a couple decades to a cover of The Platters “The Great Pretender” – I think this might have been the most stunning moment on the entire record for me personally. Laura could not possibly sound more graceful, more beautiful, more fragile-but-powerful than she does on this song. Here on “The Great Pretender,” Ellis has taken a track many would recognize but not quite place from where…and hearing this is like being reintroduced to a beautiful moment in time you’d almost forgotten to continue to appreciate. “The Great Pretender” still has wonderful instrumentation and musicianship happening – but largely, this tune is completely on Laura’s shoulders to bring to life with each element of the music more minimal than the rest of the tunes and more widespread. Laura rises up to the challenge like she was born for this moment and delivers a heartfelt knockout with her rendition of “The Great Pretender.”
“The Heart Won’t Lie” was a little tougher for me personally…there’s parts I like, other parts I was a little more unsure of…but I do like the idea and the trading/backing vocals here. Wasn’t a song I knew at first…appears to be made popular by none other than Reba McEntire and Vince Gill…so you can take it to the bank that if they didn’t write the song themselves (which they didn’t) that the people that DID write it (Carnes, Weiss) are probably the best of the best or those two gigantic superstars wouldn’t go near it. I think Ellis brings a sweetness to this song that the writing really needs…and I like 99% of the performance…there’s a few spots, tones and notes from the guitar that sound a little jagged at times – but the soulfully-sweet sentiment still comes through clearly.
If you want an inspired ending to an album – Laura Ellis has you covered with an absolutely satisfying version of “Bathwater” by No Doubt. Those trumpets! Give those peeps a high-five cause the brass is sounding mean & lean, tight & right – love that sound. Bringing the extra-drama to the vibrant vocals, Ellis charges through this one confidently – and if you’re familiar with the sound of the original song, you’ll know the second that “Bathwater” starts that these wild ideas will adapt perfectly to Laura’s style.
Alright…I just looked this up even further…because David Pittel – YOU sir…deserve that high-five and real shout-out. I think the music has been more than impressive all throughout this record with a whole massive-list of people that deserve real credit for bringing these songs to life…but I gotta say, Pittel really makes the music come alive at the end on “Bathwater.” Ellis nails the theatrics of the verse with confidence & style…the chorus is a little on the bright & sunny side for me, but so was the original. In any event – I think she’s shown yet another impressive side of her world-class skillset here at the end of Broken, Lovely and really made the memorable impact the album deserved. Fantastic job on this record and a bold, bright & graceful new name to remember in Jazz – great stuff here from Laura Ellis.
Find out more about Laura Ellis at her official page: www.vintagevoicemusic.com