Worcester Telegram (For A Song)
"If this album is anything, it’s a celebration of simple things: It’s filled with rustic, down-to-earth music and seemingly mundane characters who have untapped depths… All told, For A Song is a deeply compelling emotional journey, beautifully wrought and resounding with honesty. It’s an album that shows that Erelli is truly a songwriter at the top of his game." -Worcester Telegram
Boston singer-songwriter Mark Erelli spends a great deal of time pondering the concept of “home” on his new album, “For A Song” — where it is, what it means to him. Almost inevitably, throughout the album, “home” is always “elsewhere,” and even when he returns to where home should be, he comes up empty: “Now it’s another new bank,” he sings, on the song “Magic,” “And you’d never know to look/But over there is where I used to buy my comic books/I’d read ‘em ‘neath the covers til the flashlight batteries died.”
Erelli — who will be promoting the album around New England April 28 with a show at O'Shea's Olde Inn in West Dennis, followed by subsequent shows in Cambridge, Northampton, Willimantic, Connecticut, and Dover, New Hampshire — refrains that sense of pain, of something being lost, throughout the album. It’s gorgeous, and a more than a little heartbreaking, but underneath the album’s surface is a shimmering sense of hope that keeps it from getting maudlin.
It’s that sense of being adrift that leads the album on the opening track, “Oklahoma,” where Erelli sings, “I am just a Yankee boy/Born and bred in Boston/Where there ain’t no wide open spaces to get lost in/But out here that’s all there is/And when the wind gets blowin’/It makes a certain sound, almost like the ocean.”
There’s a distance in Erelli’s voice when he’s singing here, and a rough warmth that plays against the bright, easy vibrancy of his guitar playing. The backing vocals by Deni Hlavinka add a touch of softness, and the overall effect highlights the persona’s feeling of isolation. “I’m so far away from home … As the wind howls in from across the great divide.”
That imagery of emptiness and the highway is revisited almost immediately, on “For A Song,” where he sings “Sometimes it feels like church, sometimes like I’m the last man on earth/Just a voice howling out into the darkness” — the sound of playing music to an empty room resembles the sound of the wind blowing across Oklahoma. And indeed, it’s instrumentation that diffuses that sense of desolation, here with percussionist Marco Giovino, bassist Zachariah Hickman and pianist Sam Kassirer. The fuller sound and up-tempo change make the song feel, paradoxically, more personal. It’s sort of a feeling, as though the wide open sky is being obscured, and we’re left simply looking at the persona.
That feeling continues when Erelli turns his lens on another character in “Analog Hero,” where he presents a “fix-it” man who everyone in town both knows and doesn’t know as well as they think: “He used to have a wife but she passed a couple years ago/Someone thought he had a daughter out in New Mexico/Grew up in the Depression, it’s a lesson that he’ll never forget/There’s nothing so broken ain’t life left in it yet.”
It’s that last lyric where the album’s inherent sense of hope begins to shine through, a glimmer that brightens to a flare on the sweet-spirited, upbeat “Wayside,” before the tone turns melancholy again on the smoky “Look Up,” which features vocals by Paula Cole. But even here, amid gloom, “There are angels flying low enough to see.”
If this album is anything, it’s a celebration of simple things: It’s filled with rustic, down-to-earth music and seemingly mundane characters who have untapped depths, such as the aforementioned “fix-it” man and the guy who cleans a Rome church in “Look Up.” In contrast, Erelli repeatedly holds up his own struggles as a musician. It’s what keeps him isolated on the road, and that drive seems to be at the core of the album’s loneliness. But in “Hourglass” he sings, “I’ve been a seeker, I’ve been a scientist/None of that prepared me for this/There’s no secret, ain’t no master plan/I only wanna be your man.”
The music’s bright and delicate, including some lovely vibraphone fills from Kassirer, and it’s marked by a sort of joyfulness that lightens the album’s moodiness, but it doesn’t last long: With the next song, “Netherlands,” the persona is farther away from his nebulous home than he’s been the entire album, associating with an almost invisible old man wandering the cobblestone streets: “Oh but all his Old World waltzes seem to be/In a minor key/To a haunted man lost in the Netherlands.”
We enter the album’s last sequence of songs with the aforementioned “Magic,” and its dredging of childhood imagery — including aspirations of becoming a superhero refrained from “Hourglass.” It’s here, as he shares the comic books he bought at the now-gone shop where a bank stands now with his son, that album’s restlessness finds a sense of direction: I’m looking for the magic,” he sings, “And I feel it coming back around.”
Whereas songs such as “Oklahoma” have Erelli’s persona lonely and apologizing to his family for his absences, the end of the album finds him more at peace, those haunted spaces filled with love and family. The final two songs, “Moonlit Lullaby” and “French King,” show a more mature persona, one more at peace with the demands of his work, and with the things that drive him:
“Roll on river,” sings Erelli, in “French King,” “Restless for the sea/Take this valley wash it clean/Who can say where a soul will find peace/Who will keep the river from the sea/I thought of a shepherd, his flock bedded down for the night/And the eyes of the wolves, moving just beyond the fire light/And my own little child asleep in his bed/As I drove on into the darkness up ahead.
All told, “For A Song” is a deeply compelling emotional journey, beautifully wrought and resounding with honesty. It’s an album that shows that Erelli is truly a songwriter at the top of his game.
by Victor Infante