Ellis Paul on The Alternate Root
April 15, 2010
Throughout his two decades as a performer and writer Ellis Paul has been documenting the human condition and giving us his unbridled view of the changing American landscape with a body of work that places him among the greatest songwriters of his or anyone else's generation. Ellis Paul's beginnings are rooted in the folk revival of the early 1990's that re-established Boston as the "thinking songwriter's" capital; a revival that brought us Patty Griffin, Bill Morrisey, Dar Williams, Tracy Chapman, Martin Sexton, Jonatha Brooke and Catie Curtis among others. The electricity was palpable and the exchange of ideas between these gifted musicians made them all the better for the experience of rising together.
'The Day Everything Changed' is Ellis Paul's 16th album, including live and retrospective collections, and by most accounts it is perhaps his finest to date. Like all legendary songwriters Ellis Paul applies the changes of everyday life as learning experiences and by default gets better with age. His approach to songwriting is to find the common denominator in a story and make his narration one that evokes his listeners to see his songs in a mutually shared context. There are parts of all of us and our experiences through life in Ellis Paul's music. Perhaps that's why he shares such a rare bond with his loyal- to-the-core fan base. That fan base responded with financial support that made his latest project possible. When you discover Ellis Paul you stay for the duration.
The album, while spiritually true to Paul's folk roots, is musically more intense than the acoustic guitar and a stack of brilliant lyrics folk music purists will lament. That said, Paul's trademark acoustic guitar and piano skills still permeate throughout the collection. The album's opener, 'Annalee,' is a tender look at the age old problem of a guy trying to convince a girl that she really won't hate herself in the morning. "I know this about tomorrow, we're filling it with sorrow. If we let tonight just end." he pleads. Think of it as a more sophisticated play on 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light.' Unlike the Meatloaf version of the story however, Paul leaves the ending to the imagination. That theme re-appears in "Once Upon a Summertime" not as a night of love but more as a season. Again it's Paul's way of taking a familiar story, summer love, and filling it with a photo album of images to compliment the memories. "We waited on the sky. Dusk, on the 4th of July. You kept my hands from crossing the line. And when the fireworks exploded. That night it was recorded like a movie. I play it back in my mind...do your eyes still shine? Like it's summertime." The blend of Paul's beautiful piano arrangement with the pulsating rhythm fills by percussionist Jason Collum and bass player Tony Lucido create an ebb and flow to the music that compliment the story like a good movie soundtrack. That's one reason you will find Ellis Paul's music underneath pivotal scenes in films like "Me Myself and Irene" and "Shallow Hal." Director Peter Farrelly's reference to Ellis Paul as a "National Treasure" might be another.
A man gets laid off from his job. His immediate thoughts are of failure and embarrassment followed by fear and insecurity. Faithfully, his wife comforts him with love and a reminder that they have each other. A story familiar throughout American society that, at certain times, becomes more poignent than others. Many have told the story through song. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen each stimulated by their own view of the world around them at the moment in time when the words arrived. That story, prevalent today beyond any time since Woody Guthrie, will be told through the words of Ellis Paul's 'Rose Tattoo." A true ode to everyman, perfect lyrically, perfect musically, concise and painfully vivid, "Rose Tattoo" is the strongest song on the album and the rest of this album is pretty damn strong.
The most intriguing and maybe most interesting moment on "The Day Everything Changed" is the arrangement of "Walking After Midnight/Change." It's the most imaginitive version of the Patsy Cline classic I've ever heard complete with a 2/4 backbeat reminiscent of John Mellencamp's 'Rumble Seat' and harmonies between Ellis Paul, Thad Beaty and Annie Clements that made me instantly think of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds from the days of Rockpile. The song breaks in the middle with an urban folk rap about Main Street USA and how much things change while staying the same from generation to generation. "Well them same little girls, they went working in the stores. And them same little boys, they got sent off to war. And when they got home, all the jobs had gone away. To the places they were fighting, so far away, things change." The things you see and the thoughts you have when you're walking around town at midnight, funny that.
"The Day After Everything Changed" might be seen as the rusting of the American Dream or the resilience of the American psyche. I guess it depends on where you're at or, as Ellis Paul put it to me, "...what kind of shit you're going through at the moment..."
I met up with the gifted musician and equally gifted human being Ellis Paul at radio station WERS in Boston. I'm better for the experience for sure. Here's a couple songs we recorded for Alternate Root TV and brief part of an interview for The Alternate Root magazine. Enjoy.
by Reb Landers, The Alternate Root