The Bostonian singer-songwriter celebrates his 30th year as a headlining performer with style, taste and subtlety
Release Date: 9th June 2023
Label: Rosella Records
Formats: CD / Digital
Well – we’ve had the appetizer; now here comes the main course…
Just about a month ago, At The Barrier had the great pleasure of reviewing Gold In California, the second single and sneak preview of the forthcoming album from Bostonian singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. We loved it, and our appetite was appropriately whetted in anticipation of the album – and now, happily – the album is here, and I’m pleased to say that our anticipation is amply rewarded.
As we’ve already reported, 2023 marks Ellis Paul’s 30th year as a headlining performer. His career began back in his college days when he plucked up the courage to step up to the open mic in the clubs and coffeehouses of Boston. It’s a career that has seen Ellis perform alongside the likes of Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin and Vance Gilbert, had him breathing the same rarified air as Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Nanci Griffith and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and which has yielded over 20 albums. Along the way, his songs have featured in TV shows and movies and he’s become internationally recognized as a major standard-bearer to the heritage of Woody Guthrie.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing – not by any means. During 2020, as COVID tightened its all-pervading grip on the world, Ellis, like many, many musicians to grace these pages, retreated to the sanctuary of his home to write, record and perform livestream shows – to keep the music flowing and also to salvage some semblance of a livelihood from the COVID wreckage. Sadly, he also contracted Dupuytren’s Contracture, a disease that causes the sufferer’s hands to close into fists. The impact of the disease to any sufferer is devastating; to a pianist and guitarist, it’s catastrophic. It was the onset of Dupuytren’s that inspired Ellis to write the songs that became 55; in a literal race against time, he had no idea whether (or when) the contracture would become so severe that he wouldn’t be able to play at all.
The tide started to turn in December 2022, when Ellis underwent successful surgery to free the fingers of his left hand, enabling him to form chord shapes once again. He soldiers on and is now looking forward to similar surgery in 2024 to restore movement in his right hand. Not that you’d notice any disability purely by listening to 55; the album is beautifully produced and Ellis’s guitar and piano work is fluent, melodic and expressive.
I’m sure that I won’t be the first, or last, writer to remark on the similarity between the work of Ellis Paul and that of Tea For The Tillerman-era Cat Stevens. The structure of his songs, the instrumentation and, most notably, Ellis’s vocal delivery prompt repeated comparisons with Stevens’ work – here, I found the similarities most prominent in The Gift, Be The Fire and When Angels Fall, just three of the highlights on this excellent album – and such a comparison is surely no bad thing, is it?
On 55, Ellis’s guitars and piano are supplemented by a small, tight and well-chosen band of fellow travelers. Kristian Bush chips in with ukelele, Radoslav Lorković plays accordion and Eric Parker and Mark Dann complete the picture on, respectively, drums and bass. The production is soft and subtle, often laid back, and prominence is rightly given to Ellis’s vocals and the lyrical content of the songs. But, perhaps the ace in the hole that elevates 55 from the level of “good” to the status of “excellent” is provided by the divine harmony backing vocals from Laurie MacAllister and Abbie Gardner of the Americana trio Red Molly, and Seth Glier. Over and over, they add that special seasoning that turns an already tasty offering into something quite delicious.
55 gets off to a rather low-key start. Opening track, Cosmos, is soft and gentle; Ellis sings in a half-whispered voice, his acoustic guitar is discrete, whilst Radoslav’s accordion is so subtle as to be barely noticeable. The intensity is turned up only slightly for the wonderful Who You Are, as dobro joins the mix and we get our first taste of those delightful Laurie/ Abbie/ Seth harmonies.
A capella harmonies provide the intro to the excellent The Gift, one of the album’s true highlights. It’s a poppy number that rocks softly; the harmonies are outstanding and the slide guitar gives the whole thing a bit of a George Harrison feel. The Cat Stevens-sounding Be The Fire is another excellent song, packed with positive messages and advice, such as: “When it’s time to speak, speak with kindness/ When it’s time to laugh, laugh your wildest/ When it’s time to cry, cry to heal it/ When you make a promise, be the one who keeps it,” and, perhaps most poignantly, “The only thing that’s holding you back is the mirror that you’re looking at.”
There’s an interesting blend of precise storytelling and Irish-flavoured instrumentation on Holy, before we once again get to enjoy Gold in California, the second of the two singles to be taken from the album. It’s a song that seems to sound brighter and sunnier with each listen, and the Californian imagery of the lyrics just gets stronger and stronger.
If anything, things get even better with the message-laden title track. 55 was the album’s lead single, selected with good reason. It’s an instantly likeable song, and the lyrics – written as Ellis turned 55 and which namecheck a list of redundant technology such as 8-track cartridges, mix tapes, fax machines and rotary phones – will resonate with any listener of a similar age. And so will the song’s pivotal line: “I’m 55, trying to figure out why I’m still alive.”
Laurie (or is it Abbie…?) takes a share of the lead vocal duties on the intimate Everyone Knows It Now – and her voice is exquisite. The song builds satisfyingly, with strings joining the fingerpicked acoustic guitar, as it reaches its pleading climax, before the pace is notched up a touch, once again, for Tattoo Lady, the first of the album’s two songs that almost cross over into rock territory. The rhythm is solid and the guitars chime; the circus sound effects are, perhaps unnecessary, as the band provide all the drama the song needs, but the reference to Entry of the Gladiators in the song’s outro is a nice touch.
The pace stays rocky for the soaring, life-affirming, Sometimes Trouble Is Good. The strummed guitars are bright and crisp, Eric’s drumbeat is choppy and Mark’s bass rumbles – and when Laurie, Abbie and Seth join in with their harmonies, the effect is stunning. A great track. The gun references in the lyrics to When Angels Fall sound somewhat sinister to my European ears, but I’m assuming that the song is a swipe at US gun laws. It’s a pleasant song nonetheless and the one that, above any other, evokes Cat Stevens.
55 is brought to a gentle close with A Song To Say Goodbye. Things start quietly with acoustic guitars, piano and strings, before the song develops into a slice of sophisticated pop, illuminated for one last time by those album-defining harmonies. 55 is an enjoyable album, and a wholly appropriate way to celebrate a real landmark in the career of Ellis Paul.
Watch the official video to Gold in California – the current single from the album – here: