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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1433

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Mark Erelli: Hope and Other Casualties
by George Graham

(Signature Sounds 1296 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 0/0/99)

Some performers are notable for their consistency. They develop a distinctive style and stick with it. Others tend to be musical explorers, altering their sound and trying different stylistic directions. The latter is obviously a riskier strategy for an artist. There is always the fear that one's fans may be lost by doing something other than what they have come to expect. But ultimately, the exploring artist is one whose music can be more rewarding and may well have longer staying power than someone whose consistency may lead to stagnation.

This week, we have the latest recording by a New England based singer-songwriter who has taken up a somewhat different sound on each of his albums over the last few years. It's Mark Erelli, whose new sixth recording is called Hope and Other Casualties.

If Mark Erelli's approach to music is a bit academic or perhaps evolving, it's because he holds a master's degree in evolutionary biology, but decided to put that career path aside to go the route of the folksinger, releasing his debut recording in 1997, and beginning to attract to fair amount of critical praise by his second release, and first natinoally distributed CD in 1999. On his following release, Compass and Companion is 2001, he established himself as a significant artist and an astute songwriter. Following that, he began his explorations with an album called The Memorial Hall Recordings, released in 2002, and featuring a mix of originals and traditional songs recorded essentially live in a Civil War-era hall in Central Massachusetts. In 2004, Erelli made a CD in a style he has always enjoyed, Western Swing, called Hillbilly Pilgrim.

For his latest recording, Erelli draws on the traditions of the 1960s folkies, and indeed, the CD cover art is a simulation of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a Changin'. Lyrically, the CD also has much in common with the so-called folk music troubadours of the period, with several songs of social consciousness, and two about historical events. And there are the obligatory love songs, though not without a twist or two. Erelli is as articulate as the folkies of yore, and like some of the best protest singers, can make his point by framing the events in question in a kind of timeless manner, and often makes his strongest statements by assuming the persona of a kind of detached observer. In that way, he can cat his message without being quite as heavy-handed as some of today's other protest singers.

On Hope and Other Casualties he is joined by Boston-based drummer and multi-instrumentalist Lorne Entress as co-producer and player of about half the instruments -- the half that Mark Erelli did not play himself. Entress' association with Erelli goes back to Erelli's second album, and they work well together again here, with a sound that is folk-based but does is not reluctant to get electric or go in other directions. There are a few guests on the CD, such as fellow singer-songwriters Lori McKenna, Peter Mulvey, Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault providing backing vocals.

The CD gets under way with a song that goes straight into the state of the world, Here & Now, which frames the issue of homelessness in an appeal for a better day. It's nicely done, with the harmonica hinting back at the 1960s. <<>>

The song Imaginary Wars is a protest song, but its not about what one might think from the title. It deals with the encroachment of real estate development into a beloved wilderness area. It's a nice mix of the contemporary with elements of the past. <<>>

As a resident of the state of Maine, Mark Erelli not surprisingly includes references to winter in two songs. Snowed In is a light-hearted love song influenced by old soul recordings. The premise of the song is a romantic tryst in a snowstorm. <<>>

Also about love and winter is Seasons Pass which looks forward optimistically to the arrival of summer. The track similarly has a kind of retro sound. <<>>

The events of September 11 are the subject of The Only Way which could hardly be described as a protest song, with its generally positive message, though not without some commentary. The sound again hints at an old Dylan album. <<>>

The strongest protest song on the CD is Seeds of Peace, which takes up the Iraq war with the kind of fervor that Vietnam evoked among folksingers in a previous generation. <<>>

The album also contains two songs based on historical events. One is Hartfordtown 1944, about a tragic circus tent fire. Erelli gives the song an appropriately traditional style treatment. <<>>

One of the most memorable tracks for its classic Sixties folk sensibility is Passing Through which harkens back to the old seemingly quaint -- in this day and age -- hippie idea of leaving the world a better place for your children. It even has a sing-along chorus. Erelli enlists a bunch of his fellow New England singer-songwriters as the background vocalists. <<>>

Mark Erelli is an artist who has been trying different musical directions on each of his recent albums. The cover of his new CD Hope and Other Casualties looking as it does just like Dylan's The Times They Are a Changin' provides a hint of his current direction. It's a fine album in the 1960s folk tradition, though it's more musically eclectic and the arrangements are generally more sophisticated than back then. He creates some memorable songs, nicely performed, and keeps the album interesting through his diversity of lyrical topics and sound of each track.

Our grade for sound quality is a B. The CD suffers from the usual bugaboo of ham-handed sound compression that makes everything the same volume and gives the recording a flat two-dimensional quality. Erelli's vocals occasionally show bits of distortion. But the overall mix has everything in good proportions.

For those who remember the time when folksingers had something to say about the world, Mark Erelli's new CD is a reminder that the tradition is far from dead.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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