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Elvis Perkins

Elvis Perkins In Dearland

Rating: 4.0

Label: XL Recordings

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Singer-songwriters with a folkie bent like Elvis Perkins walk a precarious line between finding new ways to reinterpret a quaint and staid musical genre and making listeners want to grab their guitars from their dexterous little fingers and smash them like Bluto Blutarsky. Add a penchant for aping Basement Tapes/John Wesley Harding-era Bob Dylan to the mix and you’ve got a potential recipe for a disaster of Donovan proportions. To Perkins’ credit, he’s mostly managed to avoid these pitfalls; debut album Ash Wednesday was an engaging if frequently dark effort that offered songs of both loneliness and implied promise; tracks like “Good Friday” and “While You Were Sleeping” existed in that gray area between utter desolation and the faintest glimmers of hope. Though it wasn’t a flawless album – “It’s a Sad World After All” flirted with exposing the worst traits of a musician armed only with a guitar and a heavy dose of sincerity – it was a solid initial effort.

Elvis Perkins In Dearland mines similar lyrical territory to that debut effort, but also marks a noticeable shift in both instrumentation and mood. Though the songs mostly remain rooted in an acoustic sensibility – most of them start with guitar or piano, and the harmonica is busted out on more than a few tracks – a small army of horns, strings and various squalls of sound are incorporated to give the album a more frenetic pace. Dearland sounds more like a cohesive band album than a singer-songwriter record with session musicians; bassist Brigham Brough, keyboardist/guitarist Wyndham Boylan-Garnett and drummer Nicholas Kinsey provide nice assists that give that album a definite vibe and consistency.

There’s an impressive range of musical styles to these tracks. Songs like “I Heard Your Voice In Dresden,” “Chains, Chains, Chains” and “Doomsday” all incorporate horns reminiscent of a grand mariachi marching band, while “Hours Last Stand” veers in the opposite direction; built around a bluesy piano melody, Perkins practically croons the lyrics. Those who suffer nervous twitches at the first reedy puff of a harmonica would be best served to avoid this album, with songs like opener “Shampoo,” “Hey” and morose closing track “How’s Forever Been Baby” prominently featuring the poor man’s harp. Other songs offer unexpected shifts in both style and instrumentation: the gently strummed guitar that opens “Send My Fond Regards to Lonelyville” is eventually swallowed up with more horns and harmonica, the song transformed from a dryly humorous folk ballad into something far more pounding and raucous. Only on the distorted vocals and strangled horns of “I’ll Be Arriving” does this approach ever really fail; the song is entirely inaccessible and, with its unintelligible lyrics, essentially subverts the album’s vocal approach and remains the album’s weakest track.

Perkins occasionally crams a pile of words into some fairly small spaces. He doesn’t quite walk a tightrope like Elvis Costello, but the songs are sometimes lyrically dense. Though it’s difficult not to view these songs in light of Perkins’ biography – he’s the son of actor Anthony Perkins and 9/11 victim Berry Berenson – the album frequently dwells on farewells, ghostly voices, memories, and glimpses into the past, usually with a mixture of sadness and affection. Perkins’ lyrics are subtle and nuanced; any sense of nostalgic contentment is tempered with an equal sense of loss. “I love you more in death/ Than I ever could in life,” he sings in “1 2 3 Goodbye,” a conflicted sentiment that surfaces throughout the album. Similarly, the stomp and bounce of both “Doomsday” and “Hey” is offset by a dark sense of humor, with Perkins mentioning in the latter song the “cemetery of the century/ But hey, what a starry day…” The stark piano and guitar arrangement of closing track “How’s Forever Been Baby” fits the regretful lyrics; it’s the album’s darkest and perhaps most cynical moment, with Perkins looking back at a relationship that’s permanently gone off the rails. These songs offer shades of various emotions and degrees of uncertainty; it’s tempered and mature songwriting at its finest.

Though Elvis Perkins In Dearland contains trace amounts of singer-songwriter folksiness, it’s nevertheless a stylistically diverse album. Its arrangements burst with musical ideas, with horns and strings adding both tempo and muscle to Perkins’ quirky and textured songs. It’s catchy without being too slick, emotional without being maudlin, and addictive as hell, a nearly perfect album that never becomes repetitive or predictable.

by Eric Dennis