Now that we’re long past the age of cassettes, a “mix tape” may somewhat be a lost concept, but it was a great way of making music for people who mattered a lot, or to mark important occasions. Mark Erelli brings the concept to life on this, his 11th album, choosing a broad selection of songs to cover in order to highlight his tremendous, often underrated singing. Erelli says, “I remember taking my time with mixtapes for some special people back in the day, but this is the first time I ever spent 13 years making one.” Mixtape features songs culled from 13 years’ worth of Erelli and friends’ annual Under the Covers shows, performed each December at Harvard Square’s famed Club Passim. Regulars at those shows include several contributors to this album – Lori McKenna, Rose Cousins, Jake Amerding and producer Zachariah Hickman.
The album draws on a wide range of artists over the past 50 years, many of whom were fundamental influences like the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Richard Thompson, and others who are more contemporary like Neko Case and Arcade Fire. The material, for the most part, is challenging. Not many singers can do justice to Solomon Burke, Patty Griffin, and Roy Orbison on the same album. Erelli’s interpretations stand apart from the originals with different arrangements, different meters and creative instrumentation, including bringing in strings and a variety of Sam Kassirer’s keyboards.
Erelli’s vocals range from outright howling to restrained crooning, demonstrating his wide range and superb dynamic control. He kicks off with a string prelude leading into an emotive reading of the Garcia-Hunter ballad “Brokedown Palace.” Right away, you know this is better than a typical cover album. He proceeds to render Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” Thompson’s “I Feel So Good” and the Band’s “Ophelia.” Other highlights include Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells,” Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” Griffin’s “Tony,” and Orbison’s “Crying.”
Erelli provides a narrative about each song, why he chose it and how he tailored it. For example, here’s an excerpt from Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells”: “I read once that this song is about a serial killer who stalked the Northwest, and perhaps that informs the sinister edge to my vocal here. I’m joined on the choruses by Lori McKenna and Jake Amerding, my two partners in crime when we first started our annual Under the Coversshow….A fun fact: what sounds like a guitar solo is actually an overdrive Wurlitzer keyboard, cranked through a small amp that was recorded in the attic of an old house in Maine.”
Although most listeners will be familiar with many of these ten songs, Erelli transforms them beautifully. So much so, that you may begin to prefer his versions over the originals.
by Jim Hynes