The aural effect of a warm blanket on a stark winter morning.
Now more than 30 years into their career, listeners largely know what to expect from each new Innocence Mission release. Their approach has varied little since the late ‘90s following their brief dalliance with success on the back of the single “Bright as Yellow,” featured on the Empire Records soundtrack as well as the band’s 1995 release Glow. Sparse, ethereal guitars, shuffling snare and mid-tempo ballads dominate their catalog, falling in nicely with the after-hours, laidback indie-folk/dream pop vibe of their contemporaries.
But unlike any other group navigating similar waters, the Innocence Mission have the haunting, singular vocals of Karen Peris gently guiding each song. Still childlike and seemingly unimaginably fragile, hers is a voice so unique as to be potentially polarizing; you either fall instantly in love with the sound of her voice or you find it cloying, overly affected and ridiculously twee. Those who fall into the latter category will be best served to simply stop reading now and move on with your day. For the former, Sun on the Square offers yet another enchanting collection of quietly contemplative folk songs.
“Records from Your Room,” the album’s opening track, carries with it a similar quality to that of “Tomorrow on the Runway” which kicked off their Badman Recording Co. debut Befriended 15 years ago. It’s a stylistic through line that, rather than sounding derivative, helps tie the band’s entire catalog together. The most apparent different between these two tracks (and albums, for that matter) is the increased warmth in production. They’ve somehow managed to sound even more intimate, Peris’ voice coupled with husband Don’s gently finger-plucked guitar combining to give the aural effect of a warm blanket on a stark winter morning.
And to be sure, it’s a cultivated aesthetic that has served them well for the majority of their career, Sun on the Square being no exception. “Look Out from Your Window” augments the formula slightly, incorporating strings and, most strikingly, a gently propulsive drum kit which, left low in the mix, manages to be a positive addition rather than notable distraction from either Karen’s voice or Don’s guitar work. It’s these little touches here and there that keep the acoustic trio (including bassist Mike Bitts) captivating despite the somewhat limited range of their sonic palette. “Shadow of the Pines” again strays ever so slightly from the mold, adopting a rather spritely waltz tempo in its closing moments laid out beneath a hypnotic string arrangement.
If one complaint can be leveled at the group – and it’s difficult to do so without feeling as though you’re dumping hot tar on the most fragile of lilies – it’s that their tonal variance is so slight that many songs eventually come out sounding rather indistinguishable from the next. The other factor working against them (if it can be considered as such given the appeal associated with it) is Peris’ voice, an instrument that, while precious and able to wrap itself around a melody like warm honey, possesses a minimal range. One almost feels bad saying as such – as if plucking the wings from a butterfly – but its somnambulant quality, while lovely, can be somewhat tiring for those already suffering from a personal energy crisis.
In other words, Sun on the Square, like all Innocence Mission records, should carry with it a warning with regard to its potential to cause drowsiness. Still, it’s a comforting familiarity that ties the whole of the group’s recorded output together. “Light of Winter” or “Sun on the Square” could just as easily have appeared alongside “Where Does the Time Go?” or “I Haven’t Seen This Day Before” on 1997’s Birds of My Neighborhood, arguably the demarcation point when they pared down to a trio format and stuck largely with acoustic instrumentation. There’s certainly something to be said for the comfort of consistency in these increasingly uncomfortable and inconsistent times.