Folkwax Review of Ellis Paul Essentials
Thursday, October 26, 2006
A Stunning Place, (10/26/06)
In a recording career spanning some eighteen years, Essentials apart, Ellis Paul has released a dozen albums. Within the foregoing total are two live recordings, the most recent being the limited edition Live At Club Passim, New Year's Eve 2005, plus there was that early 21st century collection of cover songs compiled with his musical partner in crime Vance Gilbert. In the process of releasing those albums, Ellis Paul has placed a tad over one hundred of his own compositions in the public domain. Essentials, a two-CD career retrospective, features thirty-one of the latter, albeit that two are previously unheard, plus there's one cover song, fittingly, Mark Erelli's "The Only Way." When Erelli first burst on the scene in the late 1990s he was compared to Paul, but via a handful of stunning solo releases Mark has proved he is a totally unique contributor to the contemporary Folk process. Paul's cover of "The Only Way" is the most intelligent post-9/11 assessment of how to move forward that I've heard. It first appeared on Side Of The Road, the Ellis/Vance collaboration. It's also a truly inspired selection.
When it comes to selecting someone's best work, some fans are obviously going to be disappointed because their personal favourite didn't make the cut. In my case that would have been "King Of 7th Avenue" from Stories . The latter is the album that launched my journey with Ellis (one that's still on track) and to me "King Of 7th Avenue" remains one heck of a powerful creation. Like an old photograph (a rather familiar one appears on the rear of the CD booklet and a handful more feature on the inside of the rear tray card) Philo Records has cast the liner artwork in shades of sepia. I guess sepia is the colour of history and that's the principle thrust of Essentials. Furthermore that (plural) word was undoubtedly the pick for this collection title since it possesses a certain sonic synergy with Ellis.
So where do we begin? Seventeen tracks in length, on Disc One, one cut is a spoken introduction. Essentials is launched by the melodically easy-going swagger of "Take Me Down," a tale of travel and parting. It first appeared on the Jerry Marotta-produced Translucent Soul  and later on Live . Based on a real-life event that occurred in Paul's hometown in Maine (although not involving him personally) "Eighteen" is a tale of coming of age and comes complete with an oh-so-eloquent Duke Levine mandola solo. The decade-old "Paris In A Day" amounts to a whirlwind city travelogue. Ellis is supported on the latter by the voice of the divine Patty Griffin, who somehow manages to sound remarkably like Kate Rusby.
Disc One includes new interpretations of five songs that appeared on Paul's most recent solo studio outings; chronologically, The Speed Of Trees  and American Jukebox Fables . Taken from the latter, "Home" is the first revision. Subjectively inspired by a house in Maine that Paul bought, loved dearly, and then had to sell, he found solace in the unavoidable parting by burning the property down in the lyrics of a song. The other studio revisions are the love-affair-conducted-at-arm's-length, "Maria's Beautiful Mess," and the later segue of "If You Break Down" and "Words," all from The Speed Of Trees. Produced by John Jennings, these new interpretations feature J.T. Brown (bass), Dave Mattacks (drums), Don Conoscenti (guitar), and Ellis. In addition, Jennings played electric guitar, keyboards, and piano.
I stated earlier that there were five new versions and Disc One closes with a bare-bones, April 2006 reading of "Jukebox On My Grave," recorded in Ellis' Virginia kitchen. "If She's The One," a new song that takes the seeking and finding of love as its theme, was co-written with Flynn, producer of American Jukebox Fables. Other highlights on Disc One include the superbly surreal "Angel In Manhattan," Y2K's live version of "Did Galileo Pray?" and the almost-new "Snow In Austin," which made its debut on Live At Club Passim, New Years Eve 2005. And finally let's give special mention to "Conversation With A Ghost." The version here, complete with a Patty Griffin's backing vocal, is a heartfelt tribute to a close friend who passed many years ago, and this song rightfully brought the Mainer to the attention of Boston's Folk audiences.
Disc Two also features a spoken intro and it prefaces the closing cut, "God's Promise," an edited Guthrie lyric for which Ellis composed the tune. The second disc begins with "Sweet Mistakes," the title track of the Y2K album Paul recorded in Decatur, Georgia, with producers Kristian Bush and Don McCallister. Next up is his best-known road song "3000 Miles," it remains a firm fan favourite and first appeared on Stories  and later on Live , but it's the remixed Sweet Mistakes version that appears here. The road and locations where it has taken Ellis appear again in the lyrics of "Blacktop Trains," "Midnight Strikes Too Soon" (NYC), and "Alice's Champagne Palace" (Homer, Alaska). "Autobiography Of A Pistol" succinctly delivers its message in the line "You see guns don't kill people, it's the bullets that do," while "The Martyr's Lounge" imagines a bar in heaven peopled by dead Rock stars and other celebrities, some of whom didn't die from natural causes. A deliberately perverse scenario, it raises the question, why are some of them there? In "All Things Being The Same," taken from the Duke Levine-produced Stories, the principle character is a Decatur barfly so Paul grabbed the opportunity to mention Eddie's Attic, which is located in the city and according to the musician is "one of my favourite clubs in America."
The new song on Disc Two is the John Jennings-produced "Welcome Home To Maine." Ellis was commissioned by that state's governor's office to write the song about the state of his birth and was happy to do so. Far from being averse to tackling controversial subjects, in "She Loves A Girl" Paul paints a portrait of a family who disown their daughter because of her sexual preference. The Mainer rarely co-writes songs, but Slaid Cleaves and Jeff Plankenhorn were his collaborators on "She Was," written in the Texas Hill Country on the 120-plus-mile journey from the Quiet Valley Ranch on Highway 16 to Austin, Texas. Originally a track on American Jukebox Fables the version featured here was recorded at Boston's Somerville Theatre during April 2006. In the penultimate song, "The Speed Of Trees," the lyric focuses (poetically speaking) on relationships and faithfulness and was the title cut of his 2002 album. Like the closing cut, "God's Promise," "The Speed Of Trees" was recorded during a January 2006 concert in Paul's beloved Maine. The venue was Boothbay's Opera House.
If you've never visited "musically" with Mr. Ellis Paul, Essentials is a stunning place to start. I retain no doubts whatsoever that you'll rather quickly be totally hooked. As for his long-time supporters, there's enough new material on Essentials to makes it more than just another tired old "Best of..."
Arthur Wood is a founding editor of FolkWax
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