I don’t know what prompted Ellis Paul to finally team up with his old pal Kristian Bush for an album, but I’m awfully happy they did, because the result — Paul’s 16th release, The Day After Everything Changed — is not only his most consistent record in years, it might be his best yet.
I’ve been a casual fan of Paul’s work for the last 15 years, but I’ve often found that his albums are best taken in small doses. The problem, for me, is Paul’s voice, which is beautiful, but not exactly the most versatile instrument you’re going to hear in the folk milieu. It’s certainly unique, but the things that set it apart — that warmth and pleasantly gruff edge, combined with a thin, sometimes almost keening tone — are the same things that make it hard for Paul to do more than a few things as an artist. He’s one of the best storytelling songwriters working in his genre (and he’s won the awards to back it up), but his albums tend to run out of gas fairly quickly; he seems to have a hard time figuring out what to do with his songs, and the result is a lot of stereotypically same-y New England folk.
With these 15 songs, however, everything has…uh, changed: Paul and executive producer Bush (who also co-wrote five songs and makes a few vocal cameos) have taken care to surround each track with a different musical palette. Paul raised this album’s budget on his own through the good faith (and healthy donations) of fans, and ironically, it’s probably his most commercial set of songs, incorporating anthemic choruses (“The Lights of Vegas”) and smart, sophisticated production and arrangement touches (listen to the haunting, beautifully burnished title track) alongside more traditional fare (“Dragonfly”). Changed also represents some of the most melodically rich, emotionally resonant work Paul’s ever done, giving new listeners, longtime followers, and prodigal fans plenty to love. If you’re any kind of folk fan, or just have an appreciation for smart, plainspoken songwriting, seek out this album today.
(As much credit as Paul deserves for having his name in front of such a stellar album, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say what a pleasure it is to hear Bush’s voice again. Watching him achieve multiplatinum status as the largely silent partner in Sugarland has been gratifying, because it’s always a nice surprise to see someone make it big after slugging it out in the trenches as long as Bush did — but it’s also been frustrating, because I really miss Bush’s partnership with Andrew Hyra in the late, lamented Billy Pilgrim. Until they find their way back together again, or Bush resumes his solo career, I suppose albums like The Day After Everything Changed are a somewhat acceptible substitute.)
Connecticut singer/songwriter Brian Dolzani hasn’t yet built the kind of fanbase it takes to record something as polished as The Day After Everything Changed; in fact, his fifth album, a recently released self-titled effort, is his first to be recorded in a professional studio. Here, Dolzani sounds a little like a younger, less quirky version of Lee Feldman, which might be terrible news for his future commercial prospects, but it’s a welcome development for fans of vulnerable, heartfelt pop music. Brian Dolzani is a slim 36:07 — four of the album’s 11 tracks come in under three minutes — which is not only appropriate, given Dolzani’s modest, down-to-earth songwriting perspective, but also helps keep the listener coming back for more. The next time you’re browsing through the virtual aisles at CD Baby, stop by Brian Dolzani’s section and sample a few tracks — start with the moody, toe-tapping “Trying” and go from there.
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Name your band after a phrase rooted in Beatles lore, and you’d goddamn well better come with some top-shelf poppy goodness — and that’s what Plasticsoul does on the L.A.-based collective’s second release, the aptly named Peacock Swagger. Like a musical Jackson Pollock painting made up of splashes of the Beatles, Michael Penn, Jellyfish, Elliott Smith, Badfinger, and Todd Rundgren, Swagger struts from psychedelia-tinged torment (“Cancer”) to countrified balladry (“You’re Not Free”) to hard-charging power pop (“Cock Rock 101”) to baroque-flavored, Jon Brion-style chamber music (“Champion Tragic Boy”) without breaking its stride. It’s the kind of album that would have been made and promoted with an enormous budget if the record industry had a brain in its head — but as Loudon Wainwright III once quipped, “the world is a terrible place,” and Plasticsoul doesn’t have a label, or even an official e-mail address not ending in “hotmail.com.”
It’s a sorry state of affairs, to be certain, but unlike the members of Plasticsoul, you aren’t cursed with a compulsive need to write and record brilliant pop music in virtual obscurity; all your lazy ass has to do is buy the stuff and listen to it, and believe me, listening to it is perilously easy. If you love pop music and you’ve never heard of Plasticsoul, one listen to Peacock Swagger should be enough to make you doubt the existence of God, because only in a cold and random universe could these guys be shucking their wares on a website that looks like it was put together with Dreamweaver and a migraine instead of trying to see the back of Wembley Arena through the blizzard of women’s underwear being hurled at the stage where they’re playing for 90,000 screaming fans.
Buying Peacock Swagger won’t make the world fair, but it will make your speakers happy. Go get some.
Ellsworth‘s last album, 2007’s American Compost, was a relatively straightforward set of middle-aged roots rock from a guy who sounded like he’d earned the right to make a little noise. This time out, Ellsworth adds a few side courses to his meat and potatoes, and if his reach occasionally exceeds his grasp, his low-key charm is so consistently pleasant that it’s hard to begrudge him the odd foray into ill-advised territory. Even “Saxophone,” which finds Ellsworth clinging to the melody like a blind waterskiier gripping a tow rope, is a good-natured disaster, and Bright Red Road‘s other unexpected moments — like the doo-wop of the title track or the Dixieland polka vibe of “Theme Park New Orleans” — hold together even when you think they won’t.
The overall effect is not unlike a joyride in a crumbling jalopy — Ellsworth may not have been gifted with the best natural equipment, but he knows how to write a song, and Bright Red Road, like its predecessor, has a comfortably lived-in feel that trumps its modest flaws. Fans of Dan Penn’s recent series of home recordings should make Ellsworth’s acquaintance.