Blurt (FOR A SONG)
"For A Song isn’t the kind of album that grabs you by the throat. Yet these songs need not stand in anyone’s shadow. Rather they make their case calmly, eloquently and with assurance, though without ever speaking above a normal tone of voice."
Mark Erelli has spent his fair share of time in other artists’ shadows, as a back-up musician for Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter and Paula Cole, and a songwriter for Vance Gilbert, Ellis Paul and others. No surprise then that his latest album has a certain reticent self-assurance, the kind that comes from knowing you’re good and recognizing that very few people will ever notice.
Erelli’s tunes are soft-spoken and lightly embellished. Filigreed picking and a wry, whispery voice carry most of the weight, though Sam Kassirer contributes some lovely atmospherics via organ and other keyboards, and a few of the cuts are augmented with small ensemble vocal harmonies. There is a noticeable acoustic rhythm section on a couple of the tracks, and “Wayside” most likely rocks live (it sounds a little like the Wallflowers, to me, trad but rowdy). And yet the primary mood is quiet, contemplative, rueful and, at intervals, achingly pretty.
Consider, for example, the lead-off “Oklahoma,” the first of several songs to delineate the essential loneliness of travelling. The song moves steadily, unhurriedly, placidly forward through its verse (which bears a melodic resemblance to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”), a workable tune, nothing remarkable. But then, the chorus turns unexpectedly beautiful, just in the way that the drawn out “Oklaho-o-o-o-ma” lilts upward and blossoms in close harmonies.
Erelli is a storyteller, deftly sketching characters like the elderly repair man of “Analog Hero,” the artist Michelangelo in “Look Up,” the street musician in “Netherlands” with minimal but telling details. As is often the case, these artfully drawn vignettes stand on their own as tales but also seem to resonate with Erelli’s own experience. “An analog hero in a world full of zeroes and ones,” describes the weathered handyman but surely also the folksinger in an age of auto tune. The weathered accordion player in “Netherlands” gets passed by indifferently, not so different from a songwriter on the road in the 21st century.
The best song on the disc is “Look Up,” where a bemused artist, never named, ponders the sheer hardness of creative work. “Four long years, I’ve bent my back, painting every plaster crack, the hand of God and Adam’s sin rain down,” he sings, and that and a few other references hint that we’re talking about the Sistine Chapel. Even so, he doubts, he questions, he struggles. “Above me now the canopy, the stars and all their majesty, remind me of the master I will never be,” Erelli sings. The melody is pristinely simple but heady, as Paula Cole, who once dueted with Peter Gabriel on “Don’t Give Up,” adds similarly otherworldly harmonies.
For a Song isn’t the kind of album that grabs you by the throat. Its appeal is subtle and slow to take hold. Yet these songs need not stand in anyone’s shadow. Rather they make their case calmly, eloquently and with assurance, though without ever speaking above a normal tone of voice.
by Jennifer Kelly