Singer-songwriter Ellis Paul excels at the kind of small character studies he’s filled this album with, right from the opening "Maria’s Beautiful Mess," which captures the rush of falling hopelessly — and perhaps senselessly — in love. This kind of focused storytelling brings out the best in his high, vibrato-rippled tenor. Too often in the past the combination of his sweet singing tones and his allusive lyrics about emotional and spiritual ephemera have made him seem like a parody of a sensitive folkie.
Producer and guitarist Duke Levine helps keep these songs firmly planted, with gritty sounds and splashes of delay-washed slide guitar that creep through "Sweet Mistakes" and "Breaking Through the Radio," which features Levine’s left-field faux Eastern melody lines. And the album has a positivity that seems to rise out of the spare, cleanly articulated and unhurried arrangements, and from Paul’s airy singing. The disc includes his performance of a previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie song called "God’s Promise"; the lyrics were found in the Guthrie archives, and Paul and Levine constructed a heavenly frame of shimmering guitar loops and colorful, floating tones for them. This song too is full of uplift — which makes The Speed of Trees a balm for troubled times.
(Ellis Paul plays twice at Club Passim on New Year’s Eve. Karaugh Browns opens the 7 p.m. show; Rob Laurens opens the 10 p.m. show. Call 617-492-7679.)