"American Jukebox Fables"
Jack Kerouac, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Charlie Chaplin, Marc Chagall, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Lenny Bruce, Woody Guthrie, football hero and friendly-fire battle casualty Pat Tillman -- "American Jukebox Fables" alludes to so many people it should come with an index.
Singer-songwriter Ellis Paul often invokes their presence to create a sense of time, place and individuality, or in the case of the Tillman-dedicated ballad "Kiss the Sun," to pose a serious question: "I'm just a sentinel, just a sentinel / Fighting an oilman's war / And I need to know, I need to know / Is that what Pat Tillman died for?"
Unfortunately, the strategy sometimes backfires. The CD's centerpiece, "Jukebox on My Grave," which finds Paul dropping the names of some of the aforementioned singers, as well as referring to Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash and the Beatles, is so flower power silly it's hard to get past the opening verse: "When I'm gone / On my judgment day / Please put a jukebox on my grave / Don't want no headstone, no cold tears / Just a jukebox to say / A music man lays here." It's enough to make anyone appreciate the eternally quiet benefits of cremation.
Like his heroes Guthrie and Dylan, though, Paul does have a knack for writing narrative ballads. "Bad, Bad Blood," a vividly drawn tale about a crime spree out west, is one of his finest, its dramatic tension increasing right down to the inevitable shootout. There are other well-constructed songs, too, some reminiscent of Steve Forbert's work, that invite repeat spins. In fact, when everything clicks, which happens more often than not, "American Jukebox Fables" has a lot to recommend it -- certainly more than a just a roll call of familiar names.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Sunday at Jammin' Java.