December 2002

Ellis Paul - The Speed of Trees
Rounder 711242
Released: 2002

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Ellis Paul is an interesting songwriter and a skilled singer, so, during the weeks I have been listening to The Speed of Trees, I have been trying to understand why the disc doesn’t excite me. Most of the dozen tracks are more than four minutes long, but that alone is not the reason -- many great songs are longer than three minutes. I think it is the sameness of the arrangements, the frequent lack of individuation in the instruments and backup vocals, and the effort one constantly hears in Paul’s lead singing to draw just the right nuance from every syllable that drains any sense of spontaneity.

Thing is, some of these are good songs, with concrete details in the lyrics and engaging chord progressions. The opening tune, "Maria’s Beautiful Mess," a sympathetic profile, includes this refrain: "And the world slows, a clock shows / A wrinkle in the flow of time / And she steps close, her eyes glow, / Lips pop open like a bottle of wine." "God’s Promise" has Paul setting to music a Woody Guthrie lyric -- written, according to an ungrammatical letter from Guthrie’s daughter Nora that fills a page of the liner notes, after Guthrie had entered the hospital suffering from the Huntington’s disease, which eventually killed him. "I didn’t promise you / Skyes painted blue / Nor all color’d flowers all y’r days thru / I didn’t promise you / Sun with no rain / Joys without sorrows / Peace without paine / All th’t I promise / Is strength for this day / Rest for my worker and lite on y’r way / I give you truthe when you need it / My help fr’m above / My undying friendship muy unfailing love" (sic). Instruments constantly and distractingly weave about and Paul’s singing is particularly affected here, making it difficult to focus on the painful and profound lyrics.

Paul devotes much of the text insert's introduction to that song. Nora’s letter reveals that Paul has a portrait Guthrie tattooed on his arm. The back cover of the insert shows a guitar, presumably Paul’s, with "ANTI-TERROR MACHINE" scrawled on it -- imitating the sign famously posted on Guthrie’s: "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS."

I find the abundance of Guthrie references perplexing, and of course only one of the 12 tracks supposedly justifies it. I am a lifelong student and fan of Guthrie, having played his songs for almost 40 years, having read about him, and now finding myself enamored of the Mermaid Avenue collections of his previously unrecorded lyrics put to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco. I don’t hear any of Guthrie’s concern for social justice, his long experience of poverty and dust, his wit and whimsy, his humility, or his folk style in The Speed of Trees. I find this CD more reminiscent of Rod Stewart than of any other well-known artist, although less pop-sounding.

However, I expect many people would want to give Ellis Paul a listen in his own right. He possesses talent, even though I find this disc a bit labored and pumped too full of sound.