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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1224

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Mark Erelli: Compass & Companion
by George Graham

(Signature Sounds 1263 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/24/2001)

Massachusetts, and the Boston area in particular, have long been a hotbed for singer-songwriters going back to the 1960s with artists like Tom Rush. And in recent years, there has been a real blossoming of the scene with dozen of outstanding artists including Patty Larkin, Brooks Williams, Louise Taylor and Merrie Amsterburg, to name just a few. Another bright light from the Bay State is Mark Erelli, who has just released his second CD called Compass & Companion.

Mark Erelli, still in his mid 20s, has been gathering a fair number of honors, including winning in the highly competitive New Folk contest at the Kerrville Folk festival. With a master's degree in Evolutionary Biology, Erelli put his academic pursuits on hold to try his hand at songwriting, which he describes as not being "rocket science." He absorbed artists from Bob Dylan to John Hiatt, whom he sometimes resembles vocally, in a wide ranging style marked by literate lyrics and musical directions that run from energetic roots rock to solo acoustic folk to Western Swing. He writes material that has a kind of musical and melodic sureness that always sounds as if that's exactly the way the song should be, and a lyrical style that is lot more direct than many of the famously ambiguous poetic songwriters, but he often makes fairly profound observations.

His eponymous debut album, released in 1999, attracted a fair amount of critical praise, and his new CD, which features many of the same personnel, is an impressive effort that combines Erelli's worthy songwriting, distinctive voice which has been described as a "sandy tenor" with great, thoroughly tasteful musical backing including the much-respected guitar maven Duke Levine, known for his work with Mary Chapin Carpenter. The CD was produced by drummer Lorne Entress, who performed similar duties on Erelli's debut. Also appearing on Compass & Companion are bassist Jim Lamonde from Susan Tedeschi's band and guitarist Kevin Barry, plus some occasional appearances from a couple of the members of the bluegrass band Salamander Crossing. Entress' production is first-rate, with the arrangements varying to reflect the mood of each piece, and the level of musicianship is always outstanding. The accompaniment never interferes with the songs, and yet the two added guitar players, Levine and Barry, both get in some compact but memorable solos. Erelli says that much of the album was recorded more or less live, with several of the tracks being first takes, a fact that helped contribute to the energy and musical honesty of the album.

The CD leads off with Ghost, a kind of love-lost song, with a laid-back roots rock setting. Erelli takes a common lyric subject and breathes some new life into it. <<>>

The title track, Compass & Companion is a vocal duet with Kelly Willis, one of luminaries of the alterative country scene. With some nice turns of phrase describing the night sky, the song turns out to be a sort of roots rock lullaby. <<>>

Another interesting set of lyrics comes on Miracle Man which revolves around the admission of personal limitations in a relationship. Again, the roots-rock setting is nicely handled. <<>> Duke Levine puts in a wonderfully succinct guitar solo that says a lot in just a few bars. <<>>

One of a few stylistic departures comes on the song Why Should I Cry Over You, which is done in a great Western Swing setting. Again, the arrangement seems a natural for the song, and Erelli's vocal rises to the occasion. <<>>

Another direction is taken on the dreamy My Love, a song which could easily have gone over the edge of sentimentality, but instead turns the subject of a strained relationship toward introspection in musical mood. <<>>

Among the album's most interesting tracks is Take My Ashes to the River, an original composition that sounds like one of those very sad old-time country songs about the death of a farmer's beloved wife. The musical setting combines the bluegrass banjo of Salamander Crossing's Dave Dick with spacey guitars. The result is haunting and memorable. <<>>

The lighter side of the album comes out on Little Sister, not the old Elvis Presley hit but an original song of the same name about the consequences of the new economy, while the band rocks in a mostly acoustic bluesy setting. <<>> The lyrics, with their occasional first-person reference take on an interesting twist given Erelli's own academic qualifications and his status as a singer-songwriter still trying to gain recognition.

The album ends with another song that treads close to but manages to stay clear of maudlin sentimentality. Almost Home sounds like the kind of song that someone like Patsy Cline might do, but the performance and musical backing are very tasteful, raising this country-influenced song to its potential. <<>>

Mark Erelli, on his new second album Compass & Companion has shown himself already to be a bright light on the crowded New England singer-songwiter scene. His songs strike a nice balance between lyrical clarity and poetic profundity. You can tell what he's writing about, but he still manages to make statements that transcend the immediate subject. Musically, the album is a pleasing mix of styles from rockers to Western Swing, while the band, including guitarist Duke Levine, puts in some classy playing that nicely enhances the songs, without drawing the spotlight from them. Erelli's voice is not that of your typical sensitive folkie, but he proves to be a versatile singer, handling everything from the sentimental songs to the rockers with aplomb.

Sonically, the album gets about a B-plus from us. The mix is generally good, the acoustic instruments, where they are present, are well handled. But the dynamic range is not what it should be, especially on the more upbeat tracks, where the difference between loud and soft passages is electronically compressed taking some of the liveliness of the performances.

Mark Erelli came out with an interesting quote about his music, when asked if there was some underlying story behind it and what might set it apart from the raft of other singer-songwriters plying their trade. He said "I really don't know what to say. I've never been in jail, I'm not a recovering addict, and I've never lived out of my car. I just tried to write a batch of really good songs." Compass & Companion shows that he succeeded.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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