Ellis Paul in a vacuum
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 7, 2003) – Ellis Paul does a lot of things well. He is an adept guitarist and performer who knows how to gain dramatic effects by using the entire dynamic range from a whisper to a shout. His ballads and midtempo folk-pop melodies bounce along for the most part in catchy fashion. He is a warm showman who knows how to make his listeners feel appreciated, and he is seemingly generous with his affection for them. And he writes songs that his fans obviously love, as he was peppered with requests by some while others mouthed along the words while he sang for a packed house at Club Helsinki on Sunday night.
So why did this Maine native and rising star of the new-folk scene leave at least one listener totally indifferent? There is the air of the total phony around Paul, who wraps his ostensibly sharp portraits of hypocritical yuppies and self-centered ex-girlfriends in gentle, delicate latticework, lacking the conviction to execute the lyrical kill that runs from Bob Dylan through Lou Reed to Lucy Kaplansky. His singing, even when it’s at its most whispery, seems put-on and affected, stemming not from some inner emotional memory or trained storytelling technique but rather from a plain desire to manipulate the listener.
This plays out both in his performance technique and in his lyrics. One of his best opening lines goes, “If you could paint her she’d be a Picasso/She’s got a few things out of place.” Not a bad image, but ultimately it is betrayed when later in the song the object of his derision is also revealed to be “a poem by Ferlinghetti.” What began as a somewhat original idea is now revealed to be just one of a stack of cultural signifiers simulating a borrowed, bohemian outlook.
This happens repeatedly, as figures like John Lennon start reappearing in different songs, the lazy man’s way of importing gravity and gravitas. “Citizen of the World,” Paul’s contribution to the ever-growing 9/11 songbook, had the melodic arc of a U2 anthem but turned out to be an empty-headed ode to universalism. Songs like “Sweet Mistakes” were character portraits that indicted their objects but offered no solutions, showed no sense of irony or humor – Paul is no Dan Bern or Vance Gilbert -- and most of all, displayed zero sense of self-awareness. They merely delivered up insipid pieties to listeners primed by their reassurance.
What’s worse, Paul’s music seems to float in a vacuum. He lacks the connection to any organic tradition that helps ground the work of so many of his peers – the pop classicism of Cliff Eberhardt or the blues bottom of Bill Morrissey. He doesn’t seem to have listened below the surface of anything, and if he has, it doesn’t show, as his own songs have an utterly transitory quality. One could never imagine them living on beyond the singer, but even moreso, one is left not knowing the first thing about who that singer is. In the end, there was no one there to speak of.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 9, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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