Before I had read Elvis Perkins’ bio, I had just assumed his name was a stage moniker, a memorable and snappy homage to ’50s rock `n’ roll heroes. Turns out it’s actually his real name; Perkins is in fact the son of actor Anthony Perkins (and presumably no relation to Carl) and photographer/actress Berry Berenson. So it’s probably not coincidence that his name bears the mark of showbiz, though it may be coincidence that he went into music, rather than the family business of acting. Based on the lovely, rustic folk-rock numbers on his debut album, Ash Wednesday, however, his choice was definitely not a misguided one.
Rather than swivel into the blue suede shod rockabilly of his namesakes, Perkins plays a wistful, ruminative brand of Dylanesque folk-pop, most closely resembling the rusty strums of Neutral Milk Hotel. Perkins’ voice even affects the similarly imperfect charm of Jeff Mangum, though his own voice rarely breaks into any crackly wailing. Unlike Mangum’s ramshackle marching band arrangements, however, Perkins often opts for a moodier, low-key sound. Supposedly a result of around four years’ work, Ash Wednesday is a crisp, yet downcast collection, its permeating melancholy some attribute to personal tragedy, namely the death of his father and mother, who succumbed to AIDS and the September 11 attacks, respectively. But there’s no explicit depression or hopelessness here; rather, it’s a thoughtful and emotional affair, one that juggles its ups with its downs.
Building over six minutes with numerous verses and a heavenly melody, “While You Were Sleeping” opens the album, wondrously and magically. Perkins strums gently and steadily, laying out a lengthy series of surreal, yet touching scenarios, like “you were dreaming, you ignored the sun/ that powered gardens for your little ones/ and you found brides for them on Christmas eve/ they hung young Cain from the Adam trees.” The jazzy, upbeat “All the Night Without Love” comes afterward, another outstanding example of Perkins’ talents. The first single, it shuffles along an insistent rhythm, backed with upright bass and violin, easily the catchiest track on the album. However, the silly, bouncy “May Day” also has its share of singalong moments, not to mention that it’s the lone electric “rock” song on the album.
The pretty “Moon Woman II,” which was featured on the soundtrack to Fast Food Nation, sounds like an outtake from The Decemberists’ Castaways and Cut-Outs in its romantic wistfulness. “It’s Only Me,” meanwhile, is a simpler, yet more harshly played ballad, pulling back toward a Dylanesque sound, particularly in his lyricism: “sometimes I don’t know why/ tears come to my eyes/ and what if I go blind/ as they flow out of my mind…it worries me.” From there, Perkins maintains a steadily laid back pace, gliding slowly through “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky” and the title track, eventually coming to a more intricate arrangement on “Sleep Sandwich.” No less gradual, yet more elegantly layered, it breaks up some of the starker arrangements nicely.
Elvis Perkins is the type of artist who can easily create an album of simple, unadorned acoustic songs, and make it sound elegant and memorable, while bringing a tear to your eye. He also happens to know how to touch up each of his songs with the subtlest and most affecting of details, never overbearing in his arrangements. It’s no wonder this album supposedly took so long to make—albums this delicate need to be treated with the utmost care.
The Decemberists – Castaways and Cutouts
M. Ward – End of Amnesia
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.