Minor 7th's Review of "Speed of Trees"
Monday, September 1, 2003
The blurb on Ellis Paul's last studio album, "Translucent Soul", described it as "intimate." "The Speed of Trees", we're told, has "a new sonic edge." Ellis Paul has brought in producer and multi-instrumentalist Duke Levine, but the changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Some hooks are beefed up, as in the Beatlesque chorus of "Sweet Mistakes". Levine effectively uses familiar instrumental cues: viola for pathos ("If You Break Down"), mandolin for nostalgia ("Eighteen"). There is a whole band sound at times: a Rolling Stones-like arrangement for the touching "Roll Away Bed", a radio single structure for - irony intended - "Breaking Through the Radio". But Paul has given up none of the qualities that have made him a major figure in the world of original folk. He has retained the unique vocal style. Listen to the way he attacks the word tonight in "Eighteen," stratospheric soaring where few venture with such ease. Far from being trimmed to three minute anthems, most songs are expansive, offering plenty of time for Paul's trademark storytelling. In "The Ballad of Chris McCandless," lyrics rich in detail and authentic in empathy - underscored by Levine's atmospheric electric guitar - will surely make you wonder if Paul really did hitchhike with the doomed but resolute subject of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. Paul partners with his hero Woody Guthrie, whose image he wears permanently as a tattoo, in the album's highlight, "God's Promise." Having unearthed and edited Woody's music-less take on an old hymn, Paul (and Levine) have placed it in a gorgeous setting. It's poignant Guthrie wisdom and passion expressed in the face of Huntington's Chorea's devastation. Paul has not sacrificed intimacy. The album brims with characters trying on new personas; Paul understands. The final cut, completely stripped down, shows the singer at war with his desire to live at the speed of light while firmly "planted square down on my knees... asking for the speed of trees." The ultimate strength in Ellis Paul's work is compassion for himself and everyone who grapples with choices in a life where things happen to us while we're busy making sweet mistakes. -- David Kleiner