Ellul: Ellul (2007)
Ellul, the self-titled debut from Joel St. Julien and Joel Brown-Tarman, is a fine feather in the cap for Sounds Are Active helmsman and champion of creative music Chris Schlarb. These ten songs are searching and tender, dark and illuminating, and nothing short of masterpieces of the songwriting craft.
Joel St. Julien's vocals have the soul-baring fragility of English singer Nick Drake at the outset of "Ballet Faces;" an edgy melancholy is buoyed by quietly strummed guitar and Anthony Shadduck's gentle bass, but via a delightful sequence of chords the character of the song shifts seismically, climaxing in a power and drama reminiscent of Radiohead.
Comparisons to Thom Yorke's band could be made explicitly at various points on Ellul, with its shimmering guitars, simple but powerful melodies, atmospheric use of effects, and vocals which confide, implore and lament. Ellul is, however, something altogether fresh and daringsimplicity and grandeur entwined.
Lyrically, the songs are like poems and have a naked, confessional air, confronting universal themes of love and blame, hope and freedom, faith and doubt. At times the words flow like stream of conscious musings, as on "Ballet Faces" ("the cloudy weather and broken wheels") or on "Enamel on Iron" ("the rhubarb was sour, the sound was on mute, kites kept up in conflict..."). At other times the words are as blunt as can be, as on "Blood," a song where Haitian tragedy is alluded to ("who gave us these guns?"). Elsewhere the lyrics tug at the heart ("my one last breath is all for you") or cut to the bone ("who said love was safe anyway?..." "Can you point that finger and touch the truth?")
The sometimes pained singing contrasts with lulling guitar and eerie but haunting vocal harmonies like souls in flight, and the result is poignant and bittersweet. It would be hard to think of a vocal melody more beautiful than that delivered by Joel Brown-Tarman on the line: "something inside makes it so hard to believe," each word birthed with pain and with love on the stunning, anthemic track "Around the Bend."
Pointed religious imagery in the lyrics suggests that Ellul may have taken its name from French theologian and philosopher Jacques Ellul. His chief obsession was the tyranny of technology and the threat it poses (as he saw it) to Christianity and humanity itself. For St. Julien and Brown-Tarman however, technology is embraced tellingly with atmospheric electronics and programming which bears the hallmark of musician/producer Chris Schlarbpulsing, humming static, jangling guitar and siren drones coloring songs which are essentially acoustic. This is soul music for the turbulent 2000s. Ellul, were he alive today, would be hard pushed to deny the beauty and power of this music, technology and all.
If quality equated with sales then Ellul would sell by the bucket-load; failing that, let's hope that a copy finds its way to pianist Brad Mehldau, as he would surely work wonders with material as potent and as lyrical as this.
Track Listing: Ballet Faces; Maniacs Collide; Blood; Esophagus; Listen; Freedom; Swamp king; Around the Bend; Fragrance; Enamel On Iron.
Personnel: Joel St. Julien: guitars, bass, vocals, electronics, percussion, programming; Joel Brown-Tarman: guitars, keys, electronics, percussion, programming; Chris Schlarb: guitars, electronics, percussion; Anthony Shadduck: acoustic bass, electric bass; Adam Garcia: drums.