Black Music Matters Festival

Lindsay Ell

The Project – 2017 (Stoney Creek)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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CDs by Lindsay Ell

It's odd, when you consider how many singer/songwriters play guitar, how few of them are consummate guitar players. And even fewer of those are ladies. Lindsay Ell knows this all too well, and for years has been applying for a job that is only starting to exist. She's the pretty lady crooning up front and the bandleader. Ell mastered most anything with strings as a teen. The Calgary, Canada native was discovered by fellow Canuck Randy Bachman, who ushered in her earliest recordings while still in high school. In the decade or so since, Ell has been targeting a takeover on American soil. An EP earlier in 2017, "Worth the Wait," is now a LP.

It's fairly easy to describe Ell's music in two words - "John Mayer." Given two more, you might say "Sheryl Crow." That all sounds flip until one ponders how much talent it takes to rise to those challenges (Mayer and Crow together have 16 Grammys). Ell can deftly bury a bluesy scratch inside a soft organ bed ("Waiting on You") or just melt her Les Paul down to the neck with a scorching solo ("Wildfire"). Like Crow, Ell can tweak vocals across borderlines of rock, country and blues. But she does put her own stamp the work, adding a distinctively sweet and romantic flavor. "Champagne," a highlight, has a sexy saxophone groove atop lyrics celebrating her man's attention.

Thematically, this is a happy record. Cynics need not apply. To hear her tell it, there's not much to be bummed about when Ell's boyfriend is opening doors and holding the small of her back. That can work to her disadvantage, though - 2014's "Shut Me Up" had anthemic bite this record lacks. The words to the swooning "Castle" here are flat-out dumb. Songwriting punch is a bit of a weak link, but Ell solicits help wisely (Kelsea Ballerini pitched in with the pen on "White Noise"). And production was overseen by Kristian Bush of Sugarland, who knows something about arrangements and iconic voices. Add Bush to Ell's list of well-connected friends. If you dig smooth guitar grooves, you will dig this "Project."