With "The Full Catastrophe" William Lee Ellis has created a tasty musical smorgasbord from the long and varied traditions of American music. So, for the price of a single CD you get a bit of rockabilly, a bit of bluegrass, and a lot of roots, blues and gospel. Ellis sings in a pleasant voice, and certainly knows his way around an acoustic guitar. He utilizes his talents, in the company of a range of guests, to make a good fist of each of the individual styles he tackles.
Ellis, the son of bluegrass banjo player Tony Ellis, starts the album with "Dark World Coming" wearing his rockabilly hat in the company of legendary guitarist Paul Burlison, and Memphis' Reba Russell. Like much of the album, the lyrical content is fairly dark and brooding. The musical mood changes radically for the ensuing "Paratrooper's Blues" which is a solo acoustic tune.
It is as well to be prepared for a series of changes of pace and direction, because they come along pretty thick and fast. There is much to be admired here, however. The variety of material makes it particularly difficult to pick out a best track. The solo instrumental "Darkness as the Noonday," the only cover on the album (Josh White's "Lord, I Want to Die Easy"), and "Bouncing Ball" are all deserving of special mention, each for different reasons. The poignant closing track "Trouble I Once Knew" gently draws the album to a close on a more positive note. Ellis, who started out backing his father brings things full circle on this one, with his father providing accompaniment on a 19th Century fretless banjo.
"The Full Catastrophe" is a very good album, which stylistically fits somewhere on a line that runs between the likes of Steve James and Chris Smither. If the album does have a failing, it is the diversity of musical styles on offer. It does not give me any cause for concern, although it will almost certainly give radio programmers and record store owners a headache in deciding where to position it. At the end of the day, however, "The Full Catastrophe" should be recognized for what it is: a collection of very good music, very well played, and nicely sung from start to finish.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.