Elvis Perkins’ debut album, Ash Wednesday, feels both lived in and lived through. He combines emotional intimacy with a warm-hearted studio sound that recalls Nick Drake and Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison. Perkins deliberately circumvented the digital route, making demos at home before gathering a small group of fellow players and friends to cut these tracks to analog tape in a Burbank studio and at a Victorian house in L.A. They helped Perkins flesh out material in which he transforms the at-times extraordinary circumstances of his personal life into compelling, dream-like songs with lyrics that teeter between the specific and the surreal.
For the last year and a half, Perkins has been doing club dates around the country to increasing acclaim; touring with such acts as Okkervil River, Dr. Dog, Matt Costa and the Pernice Brothers; appearing at events like Seattle’s Sasquatch! Festival, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits; and performing on radio stations like Seattle, Washington’s influential KEXP and L.A.’s KXLU. As Perkins became more visible with his three-piece band – bassist Brigham Brough, keyboardist/guitarist Wyndham Boylan-Garnett, and drummer Nicholas Kinsey, known collectively as Elvis Perkins in Dearland – his reputation has grown, along with the size of his audience. The enthusiasm of online bloggers helped After seeing him at the Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the folks at Stereogum declared, “We were sold on the spot – fuss-worthy folkies just don’t come easy...Double bass, harmonica and strings color these lyrical laments, but the man’s easy melodicism is the real charm.
Dearland is very much a family affair. Wyndham is one of Perkins’ oldest friends – in fact they are godbrothers. While he doesn’t play on Ash Wednesday, he was present at the sessions; Nick and Brigham did contribute performances. The live quartet continually experiments with Perkins’ repertoire, tinkering with the arrangements, playing around with tempos and varying the instrumentation. Among the tools of their trade are marching drum, harmonium, trombone, organ, piano and all sort of literal bells and whistles.
Perkins cut Ash Wednesday with his actor-musician brother Osgood on drums and friend Ethan Gold arranging and producing. Like Perkins’ show, the recording was very spontaneous in approach, and much of the album, including the vocals, consists of live takes. Veteran drummer Gary Mallaber, who appeared on Van Morrison’s Moondance, was enlisted to guest on a few tracks and got right into the spirit of things: he heard “While You Were Sleeping” for the first time as he performed on it. Astral Weeks was a touchstone, in terms of feel and sound, with its evocative mix of folk, rock and jazz and its naturalistic flow of words. “We wanted to make a human-sounding document,” Perkins says of their decision to record in analog. Ash Wednesday conjures a powerful mood, with horn arrangements reminiscent of the brass bands that play both mournfully and joyfully at New Orleans funerals and snatches of elegant, understated strings (which Gold was often dreaming up arrangements for right on the spot). Perkins divides the album into two distinct “sides,” with the title track as the metaphorical side-two starter.
Perkins has indeed been known as Elvis since birth; it’s not a moniker he pointedly adopted a la Mr. Costello. His father was the late actor Anthony Perkins; his mother Berry Berenson, an actress and noted photographer, whose work appeared regularly in Life magazine. Perkins was raised in Los Angeles and New York and took to music at an early age, perhaps an inevitability if Elvis happens to be your name. He briefly learned the saxophone – very briefly, he emphasizes – before picking up the guitar in high school and taking lessons with Prescott Niles, one-time bassist for the Knack. While he played in rock bands, Perkins also developed an interest in the classical guitar, and began to compose music in both idioms. He wrote poetry too, and that gradually morphed into lyrics. After a short stint at college, he began to cultivate the idiosyncratic, highly personalized style that distinguishes Ash Wednesday.
“It’s been a long journey, long in the coming,” Perkins admits, when he discusses the album, and it took a serious detour on September 11, 2001, when his mother, a passenger on the ill-fated American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, perished in the attack on New York City’s twin towers, a day before the ninth anniversary of his father’s passing. Ash Wednesday has been shaped in part by this tragic event and its aftermath, but Perkins hasn’t single-mindedly fashioned a reaction or a response to it. He prefers the poetic to the polemical; his lyrics often have a whimsical quality, their melancholy aspects counterbalanced with an undercurrent of hope. He repeatedly returns to images of sleep and dreams and flight, as if we might all wake up at once and find ourselves in a far better place. One needs no knowledge of his family history to appreciate --- and empathize – with these haunting songs.
The title track, Perkins explains, “represents the dividing line between the songs written before and the songs written after the dark day.” That song occurred to him literally on Ash Wednesday, February 2002, six months after the World Trade Center disaster, when he was in L.A., supervising, of all things, the fumigation of his parents’ house: “I found it significant in some way. And the words Ash Wednesday were intriguing for what they mean in the whole colorful mythology of the church.” For Catholics, Ash Wednesday marks the start of the forty days of Lent, a somber time of penance and reflection. Perkins says that his mother, who was raised Catholic herself, loved the iconography of the church and kept religious paintings and statues in her homes. (“Only the chicest ones,” he adds, with a smile.) Perkins’ ends his disc with a hushed, hymn-like ballad named after Good Friday, the culmination of Lent, a day of mourning that precedes the celebration and resurrection of Easter. A secular prayer about the solace found in a song, it was written for himself but meant for us, a gentle way of reminding, as so much of Ash Wednesday does, that we’re all in this together.
-- Michael Hill