Singer-songwriter Mark Erelli has done all his solo work in the past two decades in his home state of Massachusetts but has managed to make plenty of friends along the way as a sideman for Nashville-based artists. His last year’s “By Degrees” had Sheryl Crow and Rosanne Cash joining him and the song received a nomination for “Song of the Year” at the 2019 Americana Awards. Erelli has long supported Lori McKenna, Paula Cole, Marc Cohn, and Josh Ritter so his reputation in Music City has been well established and that kind of recognition certainly helped. So, this time Erelli decided to make the trek to learn what a change in geography, personnel, and context would do. He wanted to be “blindsided” in a good way, thus the title.
The title track single has already been released, used in the context of a love song, as to be overwhelmed when least expecting it. That upbeat quality also runs through the other single, “A Little Kindness,” a statement true to Erelli’s career of helping so many others. The themes on the record carry the tension between love and commitment, faith and family, disillusionment and hope – common territory for most songwriters. Erelli, though, seems invigorated by a new approach to songwriting and has always had a gift for the melodic, hook-filled rock n’ roll that he delivers here, imbued by his backing crew.
<P>With his best friend and multi-instrumentalist/producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), he sings and plays alongside drummer Jamie Dick (Rhiannon Giddens, Our Native Daughters), guitarist Sadler Vaden (Jason Isbell, Josh Ritter), keyboardist Kai Welch (Molly Tuttle, Kacey Musgraves) and Dan Knobler (Lake Street, Caroline Spence) recording and mixing. He also has a string quartet on half of the songs.
“A Little Kindness” was penned in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting and Tom Petty’s passing. “The night Tom Petty died, I was scrolling through social media looking to commiserate with fellow fans,” Erelli explains. “Singer/songwriter Joe Pug suggested that the best way to celebrate Petty’s legacy would be to stop mourning and go write a song. I know good advice when I see it and wrote this song in one sitting.” The album certainly bears Petty’s influence as Erelli’s muse. The songs are concise, rife with choruses and radio friendly.
Along with those previously mentioned, the amped-up “The River Always Wins” (written with fellow Bay Stater Susan Cattaneo) and the string-laden, more folk-like “The Western Veil” (written with Luther Child as was “Rose-Colored Rearview”) are standouts. On the latter Erelli subtly gets in a dig at the slogans/mantra of the POTUS 45. The song’s final verse looks at how privilege plays a role in how you view days gone by.” “I wanted to land a bit of a lyrical gut-punch to finish the song, and just couldn’t let go until I felt the last verse’s visceral impact,” Erelli says. “Though we certainly have a ways to go to improve things for all colors and creeds, I am fairly certain that longing for the ‘good ol’ days’ is mainly another form of white privilege. I love how this track feels nostalgic and almost like a classic rock song you might have heard before — until you pay attention to the lyrics.” “Her Town Now” was written with Chuck Prophet, memorable for its reference to Dylan’s Blonde and Blonde in the lyrics and Vaden’s surging lead guitar. He sings about the unraveling of a relationship and feeling of displacement in a place that once felt so familiar.
This is a sonic leap forward for Erelli who has long been one of our best songwriters. His contributions have usually helped the artists he’s written for rather than his solo career but he “blindsided” here with relatable, sing-along-with songs that may just change that arc.
- Jim Hynes