Every era needs a singer-songwriter to capture the spirit of the age. In this unsettled moment, in which news is noise, truth is relative, and romance all but reduced to a cell phone app—this may be the time that discerning listeners are drawn to Mark Bates.
The Los Angeles-based Bates, a native of West Virginia, is self-releasing his second album, Night Songs. The only constant in these 12 classically crafted, emotionally charged pop-rock tunes is the inevitability of change and a yearning for connection in a world in which sanctuary is hard to find.
Night Songs was produced by the multitalented Eric Liljestrand, who first heard Bates' demos in the summer of 2011. "I was immediately struck by two things: his honesty and his economy," says Liljestrand, who has won a Grammy Award as engineer/ mixer, and was co-producer of the Lucinda Williams albums Blessed and Little Honey. About Bates, he says: "He can convey an enormous amount with very few words." Liljestrand cites as an example the opening line from Bates' song "Rosie": "Charlene became afraid, so she left, and I just stayed." Liljestrand says, "I'm immediately hooked: What's the story? What happened?"
There is a lot more mystery in Night Songs. One of the most compelling tunes is called "Ghost Tonight," though phantasms and apparitions can be vividly felt in the haunting ballad "No One There" and in the jaunty rocker "Simple Love," on which Bates channels the spirit of one of his favorite artists and albums, "Wildflowers"-era Tom Petty.
The point of view shifts from song to song; even within the same song, the singer is sometimes participant, sometimes observer. He can be direct and sarcastic, calling out a former lover's "accidental 6 a.m. phone call" on "Fool;" smitten on "How Good You Look Tonight;" homesick on "West Virginia and You."
The combination of unforgettable melodies and rich emotions makes Liljestrand marvel. "Some of the songs sound like they've been coming out of your car radio forever, and others reveal themselves in repeated listening," he says.
In addition to writing his own music, Bates has worked with prolific film composers Tommy Coster Jr. and Klaus Bedelt. Bates recently cowrote a song featured in the forthcoming film " The Philly Kid" with Ian Honeyman.
— Wayne Robins
Wayne Robins is a longtime music journalist who lives in New York.