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Mark Erelli

The Telegraph (Milltowns)

If, like me, you are a sucker for a good story song, then you will love Birches, a moving composition about the complex nature of marriage and long-term relationships, which appears on Mark Erelli's new album Milltowns. It is the opening track on an album of 13 wonderful songs.

Erelli used Kickstarter to raise funds for Milltowns, a 'tribute' album to the late Bill Morrissey (1951-2011). Morrissey is not well known in the UK but he was something of a mentor to Erelli, and it's not hard to see why.

There is a literary quality to his songwriting and the observations in his songs are shrewd and tender – and funny. There is a song called Morrissey Falls in Love at First Sight, which is a witty tale of romantic fantasy. Letter to Heaven also shows off Morrissey's playfully ironic sense of humour, even with the darkest subjects, as he name checks Elvis Presley, Charlie Parker, Bing Crosby and a famous assassinated President:

'And old Abe Lincoln is a happy boy
’cause he finally got to see the end of the play.'

Treats abound, from Handsome Molly, which has lovely guitar accompaniment and deft production, to the haunting Night Train and the vivid These Cold Fingers.

Erelli has a sweet and plangent voice but there is a touch of mid-Sixties Bob Dylan in his delivery of 23rd Street. And this fellow son of the American northeast brings out the best of songs steeped in American blue-collar angst, and often accompanied by stark images of the landscape of industrial New England in winter.

Morrissey, who died at the age of 59 from heart disease, had his problems, not least with alcohol, and there is a real melancholy to the song She’s That Kind Of Mystery:

'But you’ve known from the start,
You’ll never write the song that makes her stay.

The last of 13 tracks, the title one, is the only Erelli composition, and it's good enough to sit with the 12 other songs:

'Now I'm driving through these milltowns,
Down empty moonlit streets,
Where the vacant storefront windows
Look like missing teeth.'

As well as being a terrific piece of music, the album is also a testament to the way individual creativity and hard work can survive in the corporate digital world of modern music. Erelli recorded the album in a marathon session in his own basement and then layered on harmonica, bass, mandolin, percussion and drums himself over the next six months. Only at the end did he bring in talented musical friends – of the calibre of Anais Mitchell, Jeffrey Foucault, Rose Cousins, Kris Delmhorst, Sam Kassirer and Peter Mulvey – for additional backing contributions.

It would miss the point to see Milltowns as a routine covers or tribute album – this is a musical love letter to the importance and joy of fine songwriting,

by Martin Chilton

updated: 1 year ago