First, an apology. Mark Erelli’s Blindsided deserves better from me. But, as sometimes happens, I couldn’t find the stream of words needed: the more I wrote, the further into the weeds I got—a feat considering there is still a foot and a half of snow outside the window. Finally, I stopped writing and considered what I had. I then deleted most of it, and ended up here. Give Mark the benefit of the doubt: the album is much better than my writing would lead you to believe.
Now, the evidence:
I had my lede for this review semi-sorta-written last week, and then the shutdowns, states of emergency, and all other variety of shite hit folk across North America…
Talk about blindsided! To be an independent artist releasing a new album this month? Like Spotify hasn’t killed revenue streams sufficiently. While Mark Erelli’s “Blindsided” is a love song, out of context his lyrics are fitting elegy for these strange times.
A terrific light-feeling, positive, and empowering song from Billie Holiday, capturing the joy of environmental sounds, if we just took a moment to listen.
This month, I started to develop a thesis—Mark Erelli, the Billie Holiday of folk-based Americana: no matter what he sings or who he performs with, the music created is spellbinding, memorable, and emotionally impactful.
As thesis statements go, I realize it is challenged.
Comparing Mark Erelli, a white, northeastern musician closing in on mid-life to Billie Holiday is a wee stretch. But trust me, if Billie Holiday had been raised on The Band, Bill Morrissey, Faces, and Long After Dark… What I mean is that Billie Holiday was individual, immediately identifiable, and—in most ways—reflective and representative of her time. For those in the know, so too is Mark Erelli.
Erelli, who has worked with some of the best—Josh Ritter, Rose Cousins, Lori McKenna, Rosanne Cash, and Jeffrey Foucault—has long taken a home-hewn approach to his artistic arc and career trajectory. Independence sorta demands such a hands-on tract.
From his earliest songs like “Do It Every Day” (from both his debut albums) and an incredible duet with Kelly Willis, “Compass & Companion” —a high watermark of turn-of-the-century Americana—Erelli has provided wisdom in meter and rhyme. His voice has gently evolved with time; he modulates it without assuming affectation. His writing has similarly matured—becoming more personal and simultaneously more universal as marriage, children, and social responsibility have impacted his life.
All Erelli albums—and depending on how you count, we’re up to seventeen, I believe—contain songwriting gems, and—as essentially—each album offers something a bit different. Hillbilly Pilgrim is as strong a set of country and western songs filtered through the folk songbook as one can hope to encounter, Hope & Other Casualties shares more than a cover homage with early Dylan, and Innocent When You Dream is comprised of lullabies. Mixtape highlights his lighter side of inspiration, the Barnstar! albums are pure ‘grass, while Delivered and For the Song are plainly stellar masterworks of song and performance.
“Hartfordtown 1944.” “Analog Hero.” “By Degrees.” “Basement Days.” “Columbus Ohio.” “Kingdom Come.” To hear these songs is to be taken into company of songs and songwriting of a quality rarely encountered.
Which brings us back to Blindsided.
Without losing his personality, touring with Josh Ritter may have allowed Erelli to absorb a little something, most noticeably here on “Lost in Translation,” co-written with David Godowsky; another especially strong song is the modern power pop anthem “Her Town Now,” co-written with Chuck Prophet. “The River Always Wins,” (co-written by Susan Cattaneo) with the plaintive refrain “down from the mountain” is inspirational. “A Little Kindness” and “Can’t Stand Myself” are pure rock ‘n’ roll brilliance of the Steve Forbert school.
“Rose-Colored Rearview” (co-written with Luther Child) demonstrates understanding that reality and nostalgia are not necessarily synchronized.
There was a time, we all watched the same screen
Springsteen was mainstream, everybody had a Hungry Heart
There was a time, we weren’t rich but you could make a living
A forty hour week and a two day weekend could get you pretty far
Indeed, I can attest to all the above, and the rest of the song. Separating this song—the album’s latest single—from the false memories of many bluegrass ‘yesteryear’ songs and—the worst offender—“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘bout the Good Ol’ Days)” is crystalline acknowledgement that things only seemed better depending on which side of the social divide on which one stood. Were things better in the past? I don’t think so, and Erelli similarly questions our collective (and coloured) recollection of nostalgia, national allegiance, and equality.
More than half the songs feature a string quartet: who the hell does that in these days of roots penny-pinching? Mark Erelli, that’s who, and the album is all the stronger for the depth and colour Annie Bartlett, Sasha Callahan, Kate Goldstein, and Mina Kim offer. Celia Woodsmith (Della Mae) sings on a pair of tracks, “Stranger’s Eyes” and the lead, title number.
And what a band. Jamie Dick (drums) and producer and frequent Erelli collaborator Zachariah Hickman (bass) lay out the rhythm, with Kai Welch providing a variety of keys including Wurlitzer and Hammond organ. Sadler Vaden comes through on the guitars; Erelli limits himself to the acoustic, but there is no end to memorable guitar parts. A true band recording, balanced and true.
You like the guitar licks? Investigate the codas to “Her Town Now” and “Blindsided,” Bo Diddley/Buddy Holly echoes on “Can’t Stand Myself,” the Van Morrison-redolent notes of “The Western Veil,” and the fiery “Doubt My Love.” Impressively, the album closing “Careless” is a beautifully arranged song. As strong as the album is lyrically, it is indubitably as appealing to those more instrumentally disposed.
Mark Erelli’s Blindsided. Don’t tell me you didn’t see it coming. Most highly recommended.