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Ellis Paul

Review-The Bluegrass Special

The Blue Grass Special

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

by David McGee

'Do You Have Faith? Do You Believe At All?'

Ellis Paul Studies What Becomes Of the Broken-Hearted

By David McGee


Ellis Paul

Black Wolf Records

Ellis Paul is not alone, but like many a solid, affecting singer-songwriter, he works below the radar of a mainstream media focused on transitory things in our culture. The MSM's ineptitude has become a running theme in, but all you need to do is watch the primetime Grammy broadcast to know how barren commercial music has become. This truth makes artists such as Paul, whose craft serves the human impulse first and foremost, certifiable treasures in 21st Century America.

So much for the soapbox. These thoughts are prompted by a wonderful, deeply moving and illuminating new album from Paul, The Day After Everything Changed, his first new long player in five years, which turns out to have been largely, if not completely, financed by his fans—his mailing list apparently boasts some 20,000 names, and in his notes to this disc Paul writes: "People, one by one, came out of the blue to show support financially, far beyond our initial goal."

Folks, your money was well spent.

Five of the 15 tracks were co-written with Sugarland's Kristian Bush, but after some 15 CDs since 1993's Say Something debut, Paul's focus as a writer has shifted a bit. In recent years his focus has turned increasingly to populist issues, which has found him variously participating in a Woody Guthrie tribute tour, setting unpublished Guthrie lyrics to music ("God's Promise"), even being named an honorary citizen of Guthrie's birthplace, Okemah, Oklahoma.

Paul hasn't left that streak behind on The Day…, but he's more concerned here with one-on-one politics, the games people play, the damage couples inflict on each other and how the partners recover from it while finding their ways apart. The terse piano-based ballad "Hurricane Angel," though, is the moment when Paul turns an angry eye on our current economic and political malaise, using the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to lay out a specific indictment of a world gone completely haywire, and few of the major culprits escape being name-checked for being complicit in the horror: the President (we automatically assume it's Bush, but in fact Obama has visited New Orleans fewer times than did his predecessor), Exxon (a stand-in for all oil companies), banks that have jacked up credit card rates and farmed out their customer service to India ("There's a man in India wondering where the money went/But I can't pay"), health insurance providers, and their faceless bureaucrat foot soldiers in Delaware. Paul's character is one of those forgotten thousands left abandoned in a trailer "with sixteen refugees," but behind his gritty voice the music—a blend of piano, organ, trumpet and trombone—ascends with a gentle, exultant spirituality, and Paul beseeches the angels for a healing sign, even says to the Almighty, "Lord, Lord, Lord we haven't spoken in many a day" (as if to say, Why hast thou forsaken me?), and in the midst of the turmoil suggests, however ambiguously, the triumph of the soul we've seen down there: "Hurricane Angel/I'm lifting my eyes over Baton Rouge/Lift up your wings/Let me hear your voice singing/Can you turn these/Black skies to blue again?" It's a dominant, haunting moment, one of the most powerful songs anyone's offered yet as a precise summation of how deep in the mire we have fallen as a nation.

Again, though, Paul the songwriter has other things on his mind here. The result is, arguably, his most striking work yet in his explorations of the heart's deepest stirrings, for better or ill. The album kicks off with a rousing, soaring celebration of a different kind of angel he looks for in New Orleans—in "Annalee" the object of his affection emerges from a skinny dipping dive at river's edge and leaves Paul gasping at what he regards as a Heaven-sent vision. Over a jittery, country-inflected backdrop, Paul cuts loose vocally, and though his exuberance suggests salvation, a quintessential Ellis Paul finale articulates the, shall we say, fierce urgency of now: "What tomorrow brings God only knows/I know this about tomorrow/We're filling it with sorrow/If we let it tonight just end." Paul never really bets on the higher power—not even in "Hurricane Angel" does he do that--but he's on intimate terms with his own heart. That same urgency, framed in topicality, informs the next song, the graceful, lilting "Rose Tattoo," which may well be a later chapter of the story begun in "Annalee." Here, though, the couple is married, struggling, with one baby and another on the way, awash in debt, shopping for essentials (including clothing) at Walmart, but even though "the economy's crashin'," and problems thus mounting incrementally, they "put Van Morrison on the stereo" and lean on their love for each other as their bulwark against all outside assaults on their union. Paul's warm croon, and the soothing melody and harmonium underpinning, exude optimism and fortitude—and who but Ellis Paul could observe, "Sure there's trouble in the boardrooms/Trouble in the factories/Trouble in the alley out back," and then declare, "But we've got love in these patterns"? Who else would put it quite like that?

You go all through The Day Everything Changed being struck by these lightning bolt lyrics. In the title song, a shattering chronicle if love arriving and then departing, full of angry rushes of keyboards and thumping percussion alternating with soft, fragile, tense melodic passages, he observes: "I'm falling in where I stop and you begin." In "The Lights of Vegas," another song wherein urgent, roiling ensemble charges give way to soft, keyboard-and-vocal whisperings, the artist seems to view Sin City as a place where debilitating memories of "all the love you left behind" will be salved by a gamble on good fortune there—except when all this has been declared with unambiguous certainty, Paul takes a hard left on us again and asks, "Do you have faith/Do you believe at all?" It's especially bracing, then, when Paul kicks back and fully enjoys the good in his world. "Heaven's Wherever You Are" is one of the most gripping of those moments, with its taste of honky tonk piano, backwoods, plunking banjo, kinda goofy (in a good way) trumpet incursion and a carefree rhythmic stomp in service to an unalloyed love song, as cheery as it could be, right down to its final sentiment: "I can't think of a better way/To kick off some better days." "Dragonfly," with its delicate, fingerpicked guitar and lovely, understated accordion, is a tidy, wonder-filled exultation of love remembered, maybe even recovered, its mystery remaining. The one out-and-out cover is clever indeed: a pairing of Patsy Cline's first hit, "Walkin' After Midnight," with Sam Baker's "Change," that doesn't attempt to occupy any ground familiar to that occupied by each song's original practitioners, but instead rocks steadily onward, fueled by a stinging slide guitar, pounding drums, a robust trumpet/trombone horn section and keyboards. Not sure that we wouldn't have been better off with another Paul original here instead, but so be it.

Towards the end he offers a funky, countrified take on a Confederate Colonel's Civil War endgame, as he looks forward to returning home where "I'm gonna build some cradles/I am tired of laying coffins and graves"—it's a denouement, the story of a man who has nothing left to give to any cause save his own after "this thousand mile parade." And so it goes: the two following song are a mid-period Tom Waits-like ballad, "Paper Dolls," is a piercing, anguished reflection on the abject loneliness known only to the broken-hearted, its ambiance funereal, its spirit conflicted; and then a fitting closer in the simple, plainspoken guitar and vocal gem, "Nothing Left to Take," its title telling at the end of this journey, its text anticipating, actually, the bleak inner landscape so plaintively evoked in "Paper Dolls." It's a long way to travel, from the ebullient, rising hopes of "Annalee" at the start, to the subdued introspection and dashed dreams at the end of this journey. But, as Paul has told us so many times, not only here but throughout his body of work, in the darkest times hope can arise once you get your bearings straight. In the final verse of "Nothing Left to Take," then, he gives us this: "There's healing time, killing time/Time will take its time/And its only crime/Is what you let it steal from you. Time, time, time." He repeats the chorus one more time, reminding us that "the ache won't stop/until there's nothing left to take from you," but it's gratuitous. We already got the message, big time.

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