Leading a double life can present problems. Take the case of singer/guitarist Ellis. She fronted the band Bobby Llama in Minneapolis for six years, playing a jam-based version of folk rock that helped the band take first place in Sam Goody's "Best Unsigned Band in America" contest. Even as the band was working up toward that victory, though, Ellis had already released two solo discs on her own Rubberneck Records label. The strong voice of Bobby Llama carried through, but the music and lyrics moved in a direction that dealt with darker, more personal conflicts.
This part of her musical identity hit closer to home, and it eventually became obvious that it expressed her feelings more accurately than the band. As the same time, she was growing disenchanted with the trappings of growing success that she was seeing with her band: audiences of drunken frat boys, label reps who ignored her and paid attention to the men in the band and pervasive resentment for her androgynous looks.
She parted ways with the band in 1999 and later recorded Everything That's Real, her third solo disc, which included at least one song that served as a personal testimony to her position. The new Tigers Above Tigers Below continues in the same tradition, with members of the Ani DiFranco band and the Iguanas fleshing out her acoustic songs. "Looking for the Good" is a piano-based tone poem that rises and falls with captivating results.
Throughout the album, she plays acoustic guitar riffs that sound like she is banging on the strings, feeling the passion of songs like "Freedom," an antiwar song that is one of those rare instances in which the song is as powerful as the message in the lyrics. Ellis' strong voice might invite comparisons to other singer-songwriters, but her lyrics, always the forefront of each track, tap into a candor that few of them achieve.