by Ann M. Colford and Ted S. McGregor Jr.
American Jukebox Fables FOUR STARS
Ellis Paul's songwriting chops are as strong as ever in this latest collection of stories set to music. Irish producer Flynn (one name only, please) brings an edgier Euro-pop-rock feel to some of the tunes, but Paul's trademark spare, folksy style still shines through. Paul is a roaming troubadour whose keen observations of contemporary American experience cut straight to the heart. Each of his songs is a tiny novel, whether he's singing from the perspective of a highway in the rockin' opener, "Blacktop Train"; of an American reservist in Iraq in "Kiss the Sun"; or of a long-lost lover on the poignant "Time."
As a performer, Paul has turned his vocal limitations into a strength, a la Rod Stewart. His high, thin voice captures the raw emotions of his lyrics. His American landscapes can be bleak, profound or magnificent - and sometimes all three. Like his hero, Woody Guthrie, Paul questions structures of power while reveling in the joy of love and simple pleasures. So go ahead and drop a coin in this jukebox. It won't disappoint. -- Ann M. Colford
Songs for Silverman FOUR STARS
You can at least say this about Ben Folds: His music doesn't sound anything like what's being churned out these days. For nearly a decade, he's been recording compositions for piano, drum and bass. You'll notice I didn't mention guitars -- he doesn't use them, thus his unique sound. His big, bombastic songs will remind you of Billy Joel, but his lyrics are more obtuse.
On Songs for Silverman, he's sounding more literal than usual, especially on tunes like "Gracie," an ode to his baby daughter. He continues his fascination with suburban America on "Jesusland." "Landed" is the CD's hit single, and the DualDisc format gives you a different version of it on the flip side of the CD. (In fact, all the tracks are presented in surround sound for playback on five-track home theater systems.) But for me, the tribute to the late, great Elliott Smith, "Late," is the standout here. If you like musicians who break the mold, you'll appreciate Ben Folds. -- Ted S. McGregor Jr.