For some time now, Ellis Paul has been cranking out literate, finely nuanced acoustic music that seemingly has all the bases covered. The writing is there, sure -- Paul' s songs, such as "Conversations With a Ghost," "3,000 Miles" and "Who Killed John Lennon" are closely observed, richly detailed and provocative -- but the performance is equally important. His arrangements are well thought out and varied, avoiding the sameness that drags so much of contemporary folk music down. His albums are well produced, featuring such guest musicians as Tony Levin (ex-King Crimson) and session aces like guitarist Bill Dillon and drummer Jerry Marotta. In short, Paul brings a pop sensibility to his material, but he' s quieter and has better stories to tell. That' s as true as ever on Translucent Soul, his most recent album, which explores America's sexual and racial mores. It's not all hot-button issues, though, and there are some fine, inward-looking songs, too -- for instance, "Seven." There' s a reason USA Today once tagged him a "best bet for stardom."
Joining Paul on tour is John Wesley Harding, who started out as an Elvis Costello wannabe but quickly became his own man. Among his career highlights are his exuberant debut, Here Comes the Groom, and the trenchant, political John Wesley Harding's New Deal, a musical answer to the Republicans' "Contract with America." His latest is Trad Arr Jones, an interesting album that harks back to the days when artists paid homage to their heroes not by contributing a track to a tribute album or covering one of their songs for inclusion in a soundtrack but by recording entire albums of their material. That' s more or less what Harding did here, performing 11 traditional folk songs, some of them dating back more than 400 years, in arrangements by British folkie Nic Jones. Many of the album's tunes are familiar to fans in versions by Fairport Convention, Mary Black and Christy Moore, but they' re pleasures to hear in Harding's versions as well. If the album or the show whets your appetite for Jones' own albums, look for Penguin Eggs, which was reissued on Shanachie in 1994.
-- Daniel Durchholz