Thursday, September 26, 2019

Ellis Paul: “The Storyteller’s Suitcase” (2019) CD Review

It has been thirty years since I first saw Ellis Paul in concert, and in the time since then he has performed all over the country and has released several tremendous albums featuring excellent material. He embodies the best of the folksinger tradition. That is to say, in addition to having a distinct and appealing voice, he is one hell of a storyteller. Anyone who has ever seen him in concert can attest to that. And of course it is not simply the stories he tells during performances, but the stories his songs tell us. His new release is full of such stories, full of such songs, and its title directly refers to his vocation as storyteller. Many of the songs that make up The Storyteller’s Suitcase tell of significant and memorable days in his life. By the way, in addition to the regular CD release, there is a deluxe edition of this album which comes in its own little suitcase and contains (in addition to the CD) a poster, a flask, a journal, a pen and – most importantly – a USB containing nearly all his previous releases (I believe the only one missing is the Tree Full Of Crows album, which to this date has only ever been released on cassette). It’s an instant Ellis Paul collection. Ellis Paul has several musicians joining him, including Radoslav Lorkovic on keys, Craig Akin on upright bass, and Ryan Hommel on pedal steel.

The CD begins with “I Ain’t No Jesus,” a song Ellis Paul has been playing in concert for several years now, often opening his shows with it. It’s a sweet song, and it has a gentle and intimate sound here. Adding to its beauty on this recording is the presence of Eric Lee on fiddle. What I’ve loved about this song since I first heard it is the tenderness and also wonder in Ellis Paul’s voice and in the lyrics, particularly in the lines “The only miracle I’ve seen/Is you walking down the aisle to me.” Laurie MacAllister provides some really nice backing vocals. That’s followed by “You’ll Never Be This Young Again.” This version has a cheerful, delightful sound, particularly because of the work on keys. This song should have a lot of appeal, because most of us can relate to the ideas here. Who hasn’t thought his or her life was going to be more magical? Don’t lose that drive to make it happen, for it’s not too late. But, bloody hell, get started because life is short, “The mountain top/Ain’t gonna wait forever.” “You only get so many heartbeats/You only get so many first kisses/So sweet/Dreams don’t come easy/And they don’t come cheap.”

“Kiss Me ‘Cause I’m Gone” is a song I first heard at the CD release show in Boston. It’s a song Ellis co-wrote with Abbie Gardner, and is a song about pursuing your dreams, regardless of what others might say. It’s also a perfect song to add to your road trip play list. “No more waiting for lights/That are slow to change/I’m gone/Chasing the white lines/Down the old highway.” That’s followed by “Scarecrow In A Corn Maze,” another song that he’s been performing for several years, and one he plays on piano rather than guitar. “Scarecrow in a corn maze/Tryin’ to find some way out/Storm clouds are comin’/Take shelter in the bar/Let the twister just spin out.” “Slingshot” has a delightfully cheerful sound, and is another that I first heard at the album release party. I love the positive feel of this one, a song about possibilities. Listening to this song makes you feel empowered in a way, that you can realize your dreams. And the lines “The world could use a hero/’Cause the lunatics/Are running the shop” feel particularly apt these days. “The Storyteller’s Suitcase,” the album’s title track, was written after Ellis Paul had already decided on a title for the album. It’s a song about being a traveling musician. While a lot of songs tackling that subject speak of loneliness, motels, playing in bars, and being away from home, this one takes a lot of those elements and gives them a positive sound. This is not a singer looking for sympathy; he’s not decrying his profession, but celebrating it. “A song is just a skeleton key/That can open any palace door,” he tells us. Mark Dann plays mandolin on this track.

Ellis Paul does not include a lot of material by other people on his studio releases, but here he covers “How You Say Goodbye,” a good song written by Kyle Hancharick which appeared on his 2018 release Breathe. Baseball is by far my favorite sport (though I despise these new rules that remove the human element; pitchers should have to throw the four pitches in an intentional walk), and this song uses imagery from that great game. And no, the Red Sox won’t be in the playoffs this year, but relax, it was only a year ago that they won the World Series (the fourth time in my lifetime, which is incredible). That is followed by “The Innocence And The Afterlife,” one of my personal favorites from this album. This song affected me strongly the first time I heard him play it in concert, and seems to affect me even more each time I listen to it. It’s a beautiful and moving song about explaining death to his daughter. He doesn’t have the answers (no one does), so he tells her the various things people believe about the afterlife. The lines about her asking to come back as a puppy often reduce me to tears. You need to hear them. I would include this song among Ellis Paul’s very best. And this version features some gorgeous work by Mairi Chaimbeul on harp.

“Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July” is a fun song about a day from Ellis Paul’s youth, when the farmhouse caught fire at a family reunion and burned down. No one was hurt, so the song has a pleasant and humorous vibe. As he does with the song in concert, Ellis includes a nod to “We Are Family” at the end. That’s followed by a song that tells of a very different day, when someone was certainly hurt. Ellis Paul has been living in Charlottesville for a while, and so that horrible day affected him perhaps even more than it did the rest of us. The song “The Battle Of Charlottesville” is the result, and it’s a powerful track. “Lives blown out like a candle/The president must love a scandal/He wouldn’t take a side/Though people died/And Heather Heyer got mowed down.” Kyle Hancharick plays guitar on this one.

“Mammoth” is a beautiful song of longing and memory. Ellis co-wrote this one with Seth Glier, who plays piano and provides backing vocals on this track. Jenna Moynihan adds some wonderful stuff on violin. That’s followed by “Heaven.” In the CD’s liner notes, Ellis explains that this song came about when a friend asked him to compose a song for his brother who had died. It’s a beautiful song about goodbyes. The disc then concludes with “Election Day.” The opening lines of this song, “I can feel a new day coming/Change is on the way,” feel particularly right today, when maybe, just maybe we are seeing the beginning of the end of the horror show in the capital. The corrupt scoundrel in the White House is getting nervous. Anyway, it is a great song. Interestingly, this is actually a cover. It was written by Michael K. Brown. “You have tried to keep me quiet/But I have things to say/I’ve got a voice and it won’t be silent/You’re gonna hear in on Election Day.”

CD Track List
  1. I Ain’t No Jesus
  2. You’ll Never Be This Young Again
  3. Kiss Me ‘Cause I’m Gone
  4. Scarecrow In A Corn Maze
  5. Slingshot
  6. The Storyteller’s Suitcase
  7. How You Say Goodbye
  8. The Innocence And The Afterlife
  9. Five Alarm Fire On The 4th Of July
  10. The Battle Of Charlottesville
  11. Mammoth
  12. Heaven 
  13. Election Day
The Storyteller’s Suitcase was released on May 31, 2019.

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