"God's Tattoos" by William Lee Ellis 

Former CA scribe pens loveliest, most expansive album yet, lets guitar do the talking.

God's Tattoos

William Lee Ellis

(Yellow Dog)

God's Tattoos finds William Lee Ellis expanding the definitions of his music. On his last two albums, The Full Catastrophe and Conqueroo, Ellis -- former music columnist for The Commercial Appeal -- joyfully combined the blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, classical guitar, doo-wop, country, gospel, swing, and jug band. The result, a Southern-cum-Americana-at-large gumbo, avoided ever sounding derivative, one reason being that so many of his songs are originals. So strong is the identity of this sound that, in time, it can simply be defined as William Lee Ellis music.

In God's Tattoos, Ellis retains that sound, but he branches into forms he hasn't yet recorded -- the rumba "God's Tattoos" and the straightforward rock of "Search My Heart" -- or hasn't yet recorded this unmistakably -- the rock ballad "Perfect Ones Who Break." The supporting cast also has gone from guest-spot musicians to, on some tracks, a full-fledged backing band. His previous albums' percussion accompaniment has usually been of the washboard variety. But on tracks such as "Snakes in My Garden" and "Search My Heart" he has for-real drumming by Paul Taylor. The other musicians include Amy LaVere, Reba Russell, Jim Dickinson, Rick Steff, Andy Cohen, and the Masqueraders.

God's Tattoos is Ellis at his authentic best. "Authentic" is sometimes a euphemism for unlistenable, but that's not the case with this album. It's an authentic work, documenting man and his struggle to find bliss in a world bound by pain (a recurring theme in Ellis' music). And without compromising that authenticity, it's thoroughly accessible.

Arguably the best track on the album is "When Leadbelly Walked the River Like Christ," an instrumental made, according to the liner notes, "in one take, warts and all, with no overdubs or studio gimmicks." It evinces both brutal melancholy and defiance against it in one acoustic, E-bow breath.

Recorded at Dickinson's Zebra Ranch Studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, God's Tattoos has Ellis more frankly revealed than his previous albums. His sound is now fully contemporary. It's still as informed by the past as ever, but now the past evoked is more explicitly Ellis' own. God's Tattoos is Ellis' best album yet. -- Greg Akers

Grade: A

William Lee Ellis plays a CD-release party for God's Tattoos Friday, July 28th, at the Church of the Holy Communion at 4645 Walnut Grove. Admission is $10.

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