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Elvis Perkins – Ash Wednesday

08 Feb 2008 · 1 Comment

I really should have found the time to write about this album two days ago, but oh well, life is full of missed opportunities. I also missed my opportunities to hear Ash Wednesday in the year of its release, else it would’ve been shortlisted for the best-of set.

I try to avoid Neutral Milk Hotel as a point of comparison, not least because it sets a standard that’s insanely difficult to live up to. To say an album isn’t as good as In the Aeroplane over the Sea is criticism so faint as to be useless. Jeff Mangum used an intensely personal vocabulary of metaphor and symbolism to make a singular and complex album that retains emotional directness in spite of lyrical content that is sometimes willfully obscure (and sometimes seems to deflect personal connections through historical vehicle of Anne Frank).

Comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel also often strike me as fundamentally misguided. Colin Meloy of The Decemberists (for instance) is also an obviously literate songwriter with a similar vocal timbre who sometimes uses similar arrangements. I don’t think The Decemberists are much like Neutral Milk Hotel in terms of their artistic approach or goals (or, really, the level of artistic achievement). I don’t mean to slight Meloy’s outfit too much; “I Dreamt I Was an Architect” is clever, pretty, and despite an intrinsic preciousness it’s not emotionally unaffecting. But “Two-Headed Boy” is deeply weird — the lyric is weird, Mangum’s melody and phrasing are weird, the very sparseness of it is weird. But it’s also compelling, because Mangum inhabits the performance completely; there’s something almost scary about the way he sings and plays the song.

Like The Decemberists, Elvis Perkins’ Ash Wednesday shares many superficial qualities with Neutral Milk Hotel: a timbral vocal similarity, arrangements centered around an acoustic guitar that marches doggedly along through the songs, often picking up other instruments along the way, sometimes including a saw. But as unfair as the NMH comparison may be — Ash Wednesday was in the upper percentile of 2007 releases, but probably not of the decade — it also seems apt, both thematically and because one of Ash Wednesday’s hallmarks is the intensity of Perkins’ performances.

Ash Wednesday also evokes another classic album it can’t quite live up to. Like Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, Ash Wednesday is a record that seems to be fueled by deep and nakedly evident pain. It wrestles with age-old questions like “why do bad things happen to good people?” and “what am I doing here, anyway?” (Given the details of Perkins’ biography this is scarcely surprising.) When Perkins sings “No one will survive Ash Wednesday alive,” he really sounds like he means it, and his intensity is compelling and maybe even a little scary.

Perkins’ artistic approach isn’t merely diaristic; the opening “While You Were Sleeping” piles a Dylan-esque torrent of fable-like events upon its sleeper over it’s 6-minute span:

The heavens fell/The earth quaked/I thought you must be/but you weren’t awake/You were dreaming/You ignored the sun/You grew your power garden/For your little ones/And you found brides for them/On Christmas Eve/They hung young Cain/From the Adam tree.

“Sleep Sandwich,” (which would’ve been my mix-pick) is full of oddball but evocative imagery, like, “Last night was the science fiction/Movie with you and me/You in your velvet space helmet/Me in my rainbow hat,” and the even better, “You write the Bible/And I’ll read it off my eyelids.” Even a pair of songs (”It’s a Sad World,” “Good Friday”) that skirt the “sleep with me ’cause I’m hurting so bad” cliché do so with unusual sublety and ample conviction. Thanks to some truly gorgeous harmonies, they’re also among the album’s strongest (Perkins’ stable of backup singers includes Shana Levy from Let’s Go Sailing and Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond).

Producer/arranger Ethan Gold makes an enormous contribution to the excellence of this record. Throughout, his choices support and enrich the songs without overwhelming them. Allmusic doesn’t list any prior production credits for him, but I just can’t believe this is a debut recording effort. Gold seems to have chosen not to use pitch correction software on Perkins’ vocals, a choice which I applaud. Perkins pushes his voice out of his range and beyond his technical chops, but it adds to the honesty and immediacy of his performances.

Tags: 2007 · acoustic · alphabetical · folk · indie rock · p · xl recordings

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Laura // Mar 16, 2008 at 09:30

    Hi. For some reason the lyric ‘they hung young Cain from the Adam tree’ lept into my head this rainy Palm Sunday morning. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know what the Adam tree was. Is Perkin’s making a associative link with the Judas tree? Is it something else entirely?… Anyway, I googled the phrase, and your little bit of writing came up. It didn’t answer what I’d been looking for, but I’m so glad I got to read it. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling to chance upon someone linking three of my favourite bands like that, and it doesn’t happen often enough. In fact, rarely do I hear mention of NMH at all. I know what you mean about nothing being able to compete with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I’d never thought to compare Perkins with Milk Hotel, lyrically. It reminded me of something that happened last week, when I made someone listen to The Broken Family Band; he told me the singer reminded him of NMH, I agreed, but I didn’t think there was too strong a connection. later that day, I discovered that The Broken Family Band actually covered King of the Carrott Flowers. I guess they also felt the connection. I’ve rambled and strayed, but I guess what I wanted to say was thanks for making me open my eyes that bit wider.

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