Sunday, April 26, 2009

Elvis Perkins in Dearland

Artist: Elvis Perkins
Album: Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Rating: 4 out of 5


When you hear the name Elvis, it's hard to imagine a rustic sound with a melancholy grace that hints at old funeral dirges. It's hard to imagine a man who takes those funeral tunes and turns the music into an act of catharsis. It's hard to imagine a tangle of saxophones, the picking of a banjo, and a pump organ. But, it shouldn't be hard to imagine a musical king. 

Many simply refer to Elvis Perkins as a singer-songwriter. Yet, he "loathe[s] the term singer-songwriter, because it reminds me of open-mic nights and coffee shops and lazy chord structures," he'd much rather be referred to as "a recording artist."  Whatever you choose to call Elvis, one thing is clear, the man IS an artist.

Elvis Perkins put out his first album shortly after the death of his mother in 2001. His mother died in the terrorists attacks on September 11, flying on the fated American Airlines plane that crashed into the twin towers. Almost nine years early, his famous actor father had died from complications from AIDS. Elvis Perkins knows misery. What's more, he took that misery and spun it into the moving music that makes up Ash Wednesday, his first album. The name comes from the Catholic traditional day just before lent. Religiously, Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful. The priest takes the ash from a palm leaf and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead while reciting the words "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That line is felt in almost all of Perkins' lyrics, he reminds us that life is short, life can be beautiful or hard or sad or soft or happy, but it's life and you have to live it.

Time has passed since his first album, and Elvis Perkins has a proper band behind his lyrics and has produced a solid, yet soft and eloquent eponymous album, Elvis Perkins in Dearland.  The band includes multi-instrumentalists Brigham Brough (bass,vocals, saxophone), Wyndham Boylan-Garnett (organ, harmonium, trombone, guitar, vocals) and Nick Kinsey (drums, clarinet, vocals), Perkins, himself, wrote every track on the album.

Dearland, a magical place with lyrics begging the question "I don't let doomsday bother me; do you let it bother you?" The track begins with a slow trumpet echoing the feeling of slow night in the small latin quarter of New Orleans, but as soon as the drumming begins you are told that doomsday isn't just one event that happens to the world at once, but instead, it's a reoccurring event in the daily lives of those just working at living. Elvis really taps into the ghost of Buddy Holly on this track and you feel at once as if you are in the past and the present and maybe just a hit of the future, but don't let that bother you, he never does.

The record opens with a windy howl and a slowly picked guitar line before an organ joins in. This gives way to a swirl of keyboards and drums and there you have “Shampoo.” With  a conglomeration of loud reggae and quiet poetry. The attention to detail in regards to the instrument selection and usage shows the maturing of Perkins' musical style. He sings so clearly, "Sweep up, little sweeper boy."

“Hey” begins with the feel of gospel music turning into a jaunty folk pop, and Perkins' modern voice turns into an old time croon.  At one point, he sings with “If it was up to me I would leave it all up to you” and while you can't see him, you get the clear impression that he is smiling on this one. 

Elvis Perkins has been compared to Leonard Cohen and on the tracks “Hours Last Stand” and “Send My Regards to Lonelyville” he echos that Cohen-esque ache.  The songs are beautiful and heartbreaking, asking "how's forever been baby?" Is it a bitter question? Is it a forgiving question? Is it a question with or without an answer? Whatever it is, it illustrates the gifted lyrical style that is uniquely Elvis and uniquely gorgeous.  

Ash Wednesday was one of those stark and sharp debut albums that took so much emotion to compose and produce that you were left wondering if this was all the soul that Perkins had, and he had just poured it all out in one shot. It's hard to imagine that he had anything left to offer or give. It was fueled by tragic events, and as the only person working on the album, it was a study in isolation. But then you listen to Elvis Perkins in Dearland and he still has soul, he still has poetry, he still has heart, he still has everything that made you fall in love with him in the first place, but this time, this time he reaches out his hand and invites you along for the ride. I have no doubt that this album will end up on many a critic’s “top ten” list for 2009.


Pseudonymous High School Teacher said...

The blog world, and especially you, is helping me get back some knowledge of music beyond 1990. Thank-you.

Rowena said...

I'm just like Pseudonymous. I should let you be in charge of my musical development. That was good.

Anonymous said...

One thing I love about the internet is how it connects us to things we wouldn't otherwise know. Thanks.

jomama said...

i really liked ash wednesday and haven't listened to dearland very much. only a couple of times. you've inspired me to give it some more listens!
by the way, did you know that elvis perkins' famous actor father is actually anthony perkins, of psycho fame? makes his music even a bit more eery to me!

little miss erika said...

Loooooved this album; looove the review! =)