Readers of this blog should know by now where Mark Erelli rests in my personal pantheon of singer-songwriters, so singing his praises would probably be redundant. That being said, his eighth release, Little Vigils, dropped last week and suffice it to say, he’s long overdue for a review at this site. Head to the jump to read the review and career recap.
Now two decades into a career he never thought would last this long, Mark Erelli is sitting comfortably. A proud father and husband, he recently concluded a European tour as a multi-instrumentalist in Josh Ritter’s band, opening up for the likes of Ray LaMontagne. The road to get there however, was certainly not easy.
Erelli emerged onto the roots circuit in 1999, in support of his self-titled debut, which was made shortly after he won the Kerrville New Folk Festival, an honor bestowed upon the likes of Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Ellis Paul and Lyle Lovett, to name a few. Though the disc didn’t sell well, its successor Compass and Companion did, due in part to the title track, a duet with country crooner Kelly Willis. After taking some time off to deal with a collapsed lung, he returned with a vengeance and penned The Memorial Hall Recordings, a covers project that tackled some of the Northeast’s most underrated songwriters. As Erelli went to work on a new project, Vance Gilbert and Ellis Paul had taken notice, using his then-unreleased song “The Only Way,” an ode to 9-11 resilience, on each of their respective albums. His lungs would eventually give out again, collapsing three times, resulting in surgery. After taking some time to recuperate, he penned Hillbilly Pilgrim, an homage to western swing that showed Erelli’s near-limitless range.
2006’s Hope and Other Casualties was his first project to garner serious momentum and choice cuts from that include “The Only Way,” “Passing Through,” a song co-written with Catie Curtis, and Ron Sexsmith’s “God Loves Everyone.” A homemade disc entitled Innocent When You Dream, came out in the latter part of 2006 and was comprised of choice covers, including the likes of Wilco and Tom Waits. Erelli and Curtis’ “People Look Around,” a song written about the Hurricane Katrina aftermath would net the tandem a grand prize at the International Songwriting Contest, and shortly thereafter, Lori McKenna, a stalwart on the Boston folk scene, asked Mark to join her band in 2007 as they toured arenas across North America in support of Faith Hill.
That time on the road paved the way for Delivered, a grassroots effort that relied on fan donations, but also found Erelli charting new waters musically. The disc also marked his first record with Josh Ritter bassist Zach Hickman, and his last with Signature Sounds. The partnership with Hickman only intensified and shortly thereafter he found himself in Royal Albert Hall, opening for LaMontagne.
His latest disc, Little Vigils, was recorded in a farmhouse in Maine with Hickman and some of Erelli’s closest friends. An ode to simplicity, the disc is a tightly packed collection of his finest work to date. Album opener, “August,” is a timeless paean to the joys of life, while “Everything in Ruin,” is an homage to spring renewal. “Kingdom Come,” and “Mother of Mysteries,” two tracks from the Darwin Song Project are also included, with the former being the most memorable. “Basement Days,” a nostalgic yarn about high school is a driving roots-rocker that uses classic rock phrases and song titles to string together verses, while “Hemlock Grove,” goes after something far darker.
With the exception of the self-indulgent, “I Took the Moon for a Walk,” an old-time, vocally-driven waltz, Little Vigils is a deeply engaging disc that finds the Boston singer-songwriter at the top of his game. As with all of his prior releases, his voice is the anchor that keeps each one of the songs grounded. Backed by a veteran band and deft production, the disc is a veritable home run for an artist who seems to never disappoint. Perhaps the best part of Little Vigils is album closer, “Pauline,” a haunting and woozy romance ballad that channels the likes of Ritter and LaMontagne. The song is a new direction for Erelli, harnessing the power of just his voice and a few ethereal effects. It’s a profound step forward and the promise of another sterling record on the horizon.
Now 11 years in, Erelli shows no signs of slowing down. And for that very fact, music listeners of the world are forever grateful.