Ellis Paul,
The Speed of Trees
(Philo/Rounder, 2002)

The Speed of Trees was my first introduction to Ellis Paul's music, and I wondered where I have I been. A quick glance at his website shows me that this accomplished and assured singer-songwriter has fans galore. Thanks to this fine album, he can count me among that growing number.

At first I was surprised, given the quietly enigmatic title, that the CD was so, well, big. But trees are big, I suppose, or at least they get that way. That's what Paul's songs do too -- they often start out small and unassuming and then grow to something very powerful and anthemic.

Duke Levine's production, rich with strings, keyboards, drums and lots of folkie guitars and mandolins, builds up the songs to almost euphoric heights at times. Levine himself plays most guitars and keyboards on the album, supported by musicians including Kevin Barry, Paul Bryan and Tom West. John Sands plays drums and Lucy Kaplansky and Jennifer Kimball, among others, provide background vocals.

The songs themselves support the full production treatment. In "Give In, Give Up" Paul pleads "Why, why do we fall so fast" in a gorgeous chorus that is as emotionally true as it is hook-oriented. "If You Break Down" has a similarly beautiful and memorable melody. "The Ballad of Chris McCandless" is exceptionally catchy and radio-friendly. Paul's vocals combine edginess with gentleness and he's always in tune and in the groove. His lyrics are a cut above most singer-songwriters', with lines like "So you've come to a day when you wish the clocks would roll backwards in the cover of night" and simply "bless your sweet mistakes."

Special mention must be made of "God's Promise," Paul's completion of a song written in 1955 by Woody Guthrie. Guthrie's daughter Nora selected Ellis Paul to finish the song, which was one of the last readable writings Guthrie produced while he was battling Huntington's disease. It's a lovely song, a distillation of Guthrie's spiritual beliefs: "All that I promise/is strength for this day/rest for my worker/my light on your way/I give you truth when you need it/my help from above/undying friendship/my unfailing love."

Paul has a portrait of Woody Guthrie tattooed on his arm, and speaks of his commitment to carry on the late songwriter's legacy. In The Speed of Trees we can hear the passion and skill Paul brings to his calling. The world is richer for it ... and I can imagine Guthrie looking down and smiling.

- Rambles
written by Joy McKay
published 28 December 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.