The label-provided sticker on the cover of my copy of the first album by Perhapst offers a description of the music contained within: “quirky, catchy, hook-laden indie pop.” As for the genre of music, Perhapst definitely has strong indie-pop credentials—Decemberists drummer John Moen essentially spearheaded the whole project, Stephen Malkmus (who Moen used to drum for) contributes guitar to a few tracks, and the live band features members of The Decemberists, Sunset Valley and the Dharma Bums. The adjectives apply, although I’d add a few of my own – off-kilter, intelligent, and definitely charming. For a side project, Perhapst has the potential to become a band of its own renown.
“Quote,” the opening song, immediately displays the best qualities of this group. Moen’s delicate vocals are underpinned by chiming guitars, thumping percussion just short of hip-hop, sighing harmonies, and organ lifted straight from the 1960s. In fact, the whole song wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Rhino compilation, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. The very next song, “Maryanne,” is even more of a throwback, with “na-na-na” backup vocals reminiscent of fellow ’60s worshippers Fountains of Wayne. And like the best of that group, “Maryanne” is a whole lot of fun to listen to, a song that would’ve been perfect for transistor radios.
The rest of the album continues that balance between the past and the present, melding familiar pop tropes to modern-day sensibilities. Gentle folk tune “Hyper Planets” features Moen wistfully singing over intertwining acoustics, with spacey noises and electric guitar droning buzzing in and out. “Caution” opens with a wailing harmonica reminiscent of Smiths classic “Still Ill,” then turns into a dramatically tone-shifting rocker, urgent acoustic strums and bouncing bass giving way to a gentle lilt that sounds like Merle Haggard’s band put in a brief cameo. “Harbour,” another album highlight, burns with fuzzy-guitar intensity, Moen hitting a nifty falsetto on the chorus as an Attractions-like organ darts in and out and handclaps mark time behind. And album closer “Aren’t You Glowing” also dips into the country handbook, a quiet love song with twangy solos straight from Sweetheart of the Rodeo and a world-weariness that Moen’s gentle vocals are perfectly suited for. For an album of indie pop by an indie artist, finishing with a song like “Aren’t You Glowing” is a nice touch; Moen’s versatility is on full display here.
In fact, it’s not just the final song, but the whole of Perhapst that showcases Moen’s ability to cross genres and moods with ease. It’s exciting to hear poppy rockers and quiet ballads sharing space, and especially exciting when the album’s internal fabric remains consistent throughout. I might not be the world’s biggest Decemberists fan, but I will be looking out for the next move that Perhapst makes.