Ellis Hooks – Needle In A Haystack | Album Review

ellishookscdEllis Hooks – Needle In A Haystack

Blues Boulevard Records

13 tracks/49:24

With liner notes offering comparisons to legendary singers Sam Cooke, James Carr, and Otis Redding, the bar is set quite high for Ellis Hooks, who works hard to live up to the lofty expectations. He tears into the title track, his baritone voice belting out the lyrics with the music raging behind him. “To You Have Wronged Me” finds Hooks coming to terms with the actions of people around him, ultimately letting the hurt and dishonesty dissipate in a moment of forgiveness. Steve Cropper co-wrote the song and adds his distinctive guitar work to the mix. The state of human mortality is covered at length on “Time Is A Mofo,” then Hooks encourages listeners to take full advantage of life’s opportunities on “Live The Day”.

Producer Jon Tiven wears many hats on the project, playing guitar, tenor saxophone, keyboards and backing vocals in addition to engineering and mixing the tracks. His wife, Sally Tiven, plays bass as part of a rhythm section that includes Todd Snare on drums. The liner notes also credit eight additional drummers for their contributions. Hooks, Tiven, and lyricist Stephen Kalinich wrote all of the material.  The package includes a booklet with lyrics for each song.“Los Angeles” finds the singer trying to make the most of lines like “I walk in the daytime, go to the Central market. Sometimes I don’t take my car because it’s hard to park it”. The driving “Train To Train” starts off with Hooks informing listeners that “ A plane is nothing but a train that flies….And you may gain speed.” His energized efforts carry the day over the colorless lyrics.

Things improve dramatically on the second half of the disc. Taking a hard look at himself, Hooks digs deep into the unraveling of a marriage on “Now You Know,” singing with an emotional conviction that rings true. The ominous “Put Down Your Needles” is the kind of passionate plea that stems from personal experience. “I Stand & I Scream” is a stirring diatribe of life in the modern age punctuated by Tiven’s horn section. Hooks is a stranger in a strange land on “Another Planet” but he finally takes continued comfort on “America, I’m Coming Home,” acknowledging the nation’s evils while still clinging to the promise of justice and liberty for all.

This is one of those discs that pushes the boundaries of what constitutes blues music. Full of soulful vocals and hard rocking arrangements, it offers little for those who favor traditional blues styles. For other listeners, Ellis Hooks is a skillful singer worth checking out.

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