Monday, April 11, 2011

Elvis Perkins - Ash Wednesday

Rating: B+

I try to avoid reading a lot of background material on albums before I review them, but it was unavoidable for Ash Wednesday, the 2007 debut album from Elvis Perkins.  September 11th, 2001, was a pivotal moment in my life, as it was for many folks about my age, but it was especially tragic for Perkins, who lost his mother in the attacks.  He had previously lost his father (actor Anthony Perkins), so even though much of the album (six of eleven tracks) were written prior to 9/11, death weighs over the album.

Perkins shows a deft touch, not just dealing with the tragic elements of death (as he does on the morose title track), but also whimsy - "Do you wonder where you go when you die? / Emile's Vietnam in the sky," he sings in the Francophilic song of the same name - and optimism - "Someday everyone will know / Who you are" in "Sleep Sandwich."  The crown jewel is opening track "While You Were Sleeping," an epic stream-of-consciousness song-dream that touches on death (hauntingly, "I've made a death suit for life / For my father's ill-widowed wife"), life ("You grew your power garden / For your little ones"), and how fine the line can be between the two ("Anyone who is anyone has that same dream / Were you falling / Or were you flying? / Were you calling out / Or were you dying?").  The tune begins with just acoustic guitar and Perkins' voice but swells with syncopated snares, trumpets, and a musical saw.  Like with many great lyrics, often it's about what sounds great rather than what makes sense: "Found you dreaming in black and white / While it rained in all the colors of the night" is simultaneously incoherent and pitch-perfect.

I can make criticisms of the album.  Musically, it can be all over the place, and while the kitchen sink approach can be charming, it can also be overwrought, as in the cloying "May Day."  Perkins' voice is expressive but certainly not what most would call classically beautiful.  In this way, and in its treatment of death as both tragedy and catharsis, Ash Wednesday can't avoid comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.  But hey, there are worse sins.  And if Ash Wednesday isn't Aeroplane, it's a damn fine substitute.

Elvis Perkins In Dearland official site

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