Mark Erelli,
Mark Erelli
(Signature Sounds, 1999)

Most of Mark Erelli's audience will think of the slight twang in his voice, the strength of his melodies or the unassuming but clever lyrics which define his songwriting. He's been hailed as one of the brightest stars of the folk supernova that is Northampton, Massachusetts, and from what I've heard on his debut album, he certainly deserves the title. I, however, have a slightly different point of view.

You see, I knew Mark Erelli. Well, to say I knew him is perhaps a stretch. We grew up in the same town of Reading, Massachusetts, where my sister was a friend of his and I was a friend of his sister's. I have no clear memory of his face, or any real impression of how he was then. I remember a tall young man with a shock of dark hair unlike his sister's light brown tresses. I remember that he was an artist, a doodler, and that somehow made him different from the rest of the students at school. From the odd pauses in my parents' speech when they spoke of his drawing and creativity, I gathered that there was something isolating, something fragile about his talent.

It was through this fleeting connection to Mark that I first understood that being creative, whether through art or music or simply through different ideas, marked a person. In my hometown, an artist's acceptance into society was less certain. Welcome often shifted to mistrust and led to a cold shoulder where once had been a warm smile.

When I heard Mark Erelli had released an album, I was a little surprised, as I'd never known he was a musician -- though I guess there was no reason I should have. I'd drifted away long ago from my friendship with his sister and from the town of Reading itself. The news, however, made my heart warm a little, knowing that the person who'd been a small part of my own growth into an artist was pursuing and succeeding in a craft that had once been frowned upon as impractical and faintly silly. One of the circle of those misfits of Reading had managed to escape and find his niche.

Well, enough background. I had no idea whether I would like Mark's album, and was pleasantly surprised. At first I was put off by his voice, as my own personal tastes tend away from anyone who has even a remotely nasal tone, but after a few spins of the CD, I was won over. Although mainly a country/folk sound, his debut is full of enough guitars and harsher beats to move into the realm of folk-rock.

Great strength comes from his honest and deceptively simple lyrics. His storytelling voice shifts from matters of the heart to criticism of the media with impressive ease and avoids most of the traps of cliche along the way. His singing also has the quality of a chameleon, shifting from one phrase's pure country twang into an unexpectedly pure, husky tone in the next.

"Do It Everyday" is an energetic ballad of daily routine which feels anything but monotonous. A great opener for the album, to be sure, though the best of the album is yet to come. "One Too Many Midnights" introduces the softer, more contemplative side, defined by the clearer voice and use of fewer instruments.

"Thought I Heard You Knocking" is perhaps the best example of the distinctly country tunes of the album, with its sliding guitar notes, harmonica and rollicking beat. The rhythm of the words manages to capture the start-and-stop energy that comes with bitterness perfectly. This is the kind of song which provokes the listener to stride around the house, swaying with every step, and lose themselves in the force of the attitude.

"The River Road" returns again to the more solitary feel, sounding much more acoustic than the previous selections. As with many images on the album, the song shifts back and forth between vivid images and emotions.

"I Always Return" feels like a traditional country waltz, although the lyrics address a wavering heartache that feels less conclusive than most love songs -- as the song finishes, Erelli admits, "You're the page I can't turn / But I can't bear to read...." This one song very carefully walked the line to avoid being just too pat, but each time his voice seemed like it might get too hokey, Erelli pulled it back into an unanticipated shift in voice or melody.

"Hollow Man" is the message song of the album, critiquing the way the media puts forth its candidates for "hero" or "politician" without giving any consideration to anything but surface identity. There is a great possibility here for a slide into using his music for a mouthpiece, but once again the honesty in the lyrics and the obvious pleasure in the combination of words and song knock away the soapbox without taking the bite out of the story.

"Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained" joins the other love songs on the album as a complex portrait of the balancing act of maintaining a relationship and just how it feels to look back on one that has failed.

"Midnight Train" is, on an album of songs which feel familiar, the most consistently traditional song and therefore lacks the spark of originality that the other songs use to rise above expectations. It's not really a disappointment, but it leaves with the feeling that you haven't heard anything particularly remarkable. Despite that, it's still great fun to listen to.

"Only Wondering Where You Are" finishes the musings on love and loss. Moving with a gentle gait, the song uncannily reflects the familiar ache of a love that is now over but will always remain an inextricable part of the lover. As the chorus reads, "I got this space inside me I just can't seem to fill / Don't you know sometimes it seems I never will / I ain't wishing you could still be by my side / I'm only wondering where you are tonight."

"Northern Star" ends the album with an optimistic ode to longing and comfort. Along with the first cut, "Northern Star" represents the rock-inspired part of the album, and though I did enjoy the quieter songs, it would have been nice to hear a little more of the heavier side.

Mark Erelli's debut did strike a personal note for me, but despite that thread of connection, it was the music that won me over. Not usually a country or pure folk fan, it speaks more toward the strength of the album that it has kept floating through my head and leading me back to one more spin.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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