[14 January 2010]
The backing story to Ellis Paul’s The Day After Everything Changed is enough to make even the most cynical of musical consumers feel a bit of warmth in their hearts. The acclaimed Boston-based folk singer-songwriter’s own fanbase contributed vigorously at venues and concerts and gave Paul’s bank account the numbers needed to produce this latest work. In that sense alone, the real spirit of the folk scene comes alive. At a time when the idea of “folk” has been diluted to the stereotypical “open mic night” at some vegan café with a myriad of hipsters just wanting to be seen, it’s nice to see an artists truly rely on a grassroots campaign in order to deliver. The display of symbiotic relationship between artist and fan shown by Paul is one of the best executed in recent memory.
Interesting enough, Paul’s latest album sounds like it’s being geared more toward Nashville than Boston or even Austin. The fact that the album carries five songs cowritten with former folkie-turned-Nashville-superstar Kristian Bush only cements the fact that The Day After Everything Changed is essentially Paul’s very own This Is It. Like Jack Ingram’s “sellout” album, Paul’s rough, even rowdy edges have been carved away and dulled down for a more straightforward sound and spit-polish production that only sometimes works with Paul’s passion-trumps-pitch vocals. The fact that he would clean himself up so immensely for an album funded by fans who happened to like his organic sound just fine is completely confusing at best and ultimately disheartening at worst.
Even when Kristian Bush’s name isn’t attached to a song, Paul still sounds like he’s trying to sing a Sugarland song. The opening “Annalee” features lyrics about moving to college and hearing a mandolin jukebox behind production so loud that it forces Paul’s already limited vocals to attempt to rise above the music. If Paul possessed the pipes of Jennifer Nettles, this wouldn’t be a problem. Nettles has carved out a niche in modern country by singing imagery about young American life (particularly the college life) behind a hybrid of ‘80s rock and slight country flourishes, but Ellis Paul’s production choices and vocals have always been intimate, never lush, and raw, never refined. The attempts he makes on Day After rarely work in his favor. On one of the pieces Bush cowrites, “River Road”, Paul painfully attempts to sing slightly above his range and completely strains it during the would-be hook, “Would you like to know how it feels?”. His effort at a falsetto turn on the title track is an utter embarrassment.
The quality of Paul’s lyrics has also decreased significantly. Once one of Boston’s most vernacular-based lyricists, Paul made a name for himself by writing about minor details that revealed major plot turns in his narratives (see “Paris In A Day” or “Words”). So to hear the songwriter relying on clichéd and trite imagery—like a scarecrow highway on “River Road”, the lights of Vegas on a song of the same title, a morning sun on the terrible “Heaven’s Wherever You Are” (doesn’t the song title just give it away?), or the equally banal “Sometime, Someplace”, which features a pointless laundry-list of mixed metaphors that belong in a freshman composition class—only leaves the listener scratching their head.
Only on one song does the real talent of Paul’s pen shine through. The should-be bland “Once Upon A Summertime” reveals that Paul hasn’t completely lost his sense of self. The song contains this sincere, humorous verse:
At the drive-in we’d meet
In the Buick’s back seat
And find the Cracker Jack prize in the dark
Back home, your father would come out
He’d say, “What was the movie about?”
I said, “A ghost”
You said, “A great white shark”
This kind of thoughtful colloquialism has earned Paul his fan base over the years, and it’s almost completely absent from his latest outing.
The real shame in the whole ordeal is that after all the dedication to the singer-songwriter, the best he could come up with to offer his fans is The Day After Everything Changed. Ellis Paul better hope this album is able to help him break into a wider audience, because after one listen to his egregious cover of “Walking After Midnight”, he may not have many original fans left.