Album of the Week: Mark Erelli – Blindsided

Posted by Greg on Apr 22, 2020 in Music |

If you browse this blog long enough, you will notice a bevy of posts about Mark Erelli, and that’s no accident. For as long as I have listened to music critically, his music has been part of the journey. His self titled debut, released in 1999, helped make sense of the high school to college transition. Similarly, 2000s Compass and Companion helped usher in those all too exciting and ephemeral college years.

When 9/11 took the lives of many close family friends, the Memorial Hall Recordings offered hope, solace and respite. As our nation wrestled with an all-too upsetting invasion of Iraq, Erelli tried to make sense of it with Hope + Other Casualties. When the Obama years attempted to steady us, Erelli released Delivered and Little Vigils. Arguably his strongest set to date was 2016’s For a Song, an undeniably sturdy set that mined the likes of Paul Simon and Marc Cohn. Interwoven throughout these releases have been a bevy of passion projects, each of them compelling in their own right. Hillbilly Pilgrim paid homage to the halcyon era of Western swing, Innocent When you Dream offered lullabies to his then-newborn boys, Milltowns paid homage to Bill Morrissey, one of Erelli’s favorite songwriters and Mixtape, a nod to some of his heroes over the past 40+ years.
Ultimately that leads us to April 2020. While the world grapples with a ruthless pandemic, Erelli has released Blindsided, his 13th album and first in Soundly Music. Released last month it is a bright, bursting meditation on love and the various forms it can take.

Album opener and title track “Blindsided is warm, winsome and welcoming.” Though it feels misplaced as an opener and title track it serves more as a sonic thesis statement for the album. Replete with lush strings, a swelling chorus and an air tight rhythm section it is a huge leap forward for an artist who up until now had mostly composed folk albums. That supple sleeve of familiarity has been ripped off and replaced by something much more rich, robust and rewarding.

For those that prefer Erelli’s folksinger side there’s the traditional “Lost in Translation,” an homage to his prior canon. If this is the song that speaks to you, please use this as an invitation to dive deep into Erelli’s discography and spend time with albums like Innocent While You Dream, his self-titled and the Memorial Hall Recordings.

The high water marks on Blindsided though are the songs where Erelli makes a sonic leap into new and welcome waters. “Stranger’s Eyes” has tinges of R+B and soul and features swelling strings and heart-wrenching vocals. “The River Always Wins” finds those vocals pushing deeper territory and Erelli’s white-hot session band in a groove that leaves one eager to press Repeat seconds after it ends. “The Western Veil” features dulcet vocals complimented by a veneer that feels distinctively Tex-Mex, or maybe Arabian. With serpentine vocals and a ghost-like trance it is equal parts hypnotic, hymnal and halcyon.

Many reviews have cited “Rose Colored Rearview” as a standout and it’s hard to argue against it. With lyrics that hearken back to simpler times it features gorgeous piano work, a nimble lead guitar and more self-assurance and confidence than we’ve heard from Erelli probably ever. That sense of renewal also teems on the rousing and rollicking “I Cant’ Stand Myself,” a full-bodied and lively romp that might be one of Erelli’s strongest sonic achievements to date. In short this is a session band clicking on all cylinders and firing with a piston’s efficiency. The easiest way to describe the effort is to imagine Paul McCartney sitting down with Dave Cobb or Chris Stapleton for a roots album.

In the decade since Hope and Other Casualties, Erelli has grown leaps and bounds not only as a songwriter but also as a producer and arranger. Erelli would be quick to give close friend Zach Hickman all the credit but in short it is Erelli and his relentless pursuit of greatness that makes Blindsided shine. Having worked alongside the likes of Josh Ritter, Lori McKenna, Paula Cole and Jeffrey Foucault for the better part of a decade has indeed proven to be Erelli’s greatest asset. Those days as sideman, producer, composer and co-songwriter have made Blindsided this bursting, buoyant and utterly brilliant record.

From start to finish Blindsided is immediate, accessible and wholly engaging. The record is loose, limber and lush. More importantly though the album feels well-worn like a pair of threadbare jeans or a favorite sweater. That is to say Blindsided feels comfortable, relaxed and inviting. Make no mistake these are Erelli’s songs but the sonic oomph these session players have added is what makes the record so darn rewarding. As we all strive to stay sane during this pandemic, do yourself a favor and listen to Blindsided. Trust me. You will be glad you did.

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