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Album Review: Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins in Dearland

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Maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s Jeff Mangum, but the tunes of Elvis Perkins have attracted me since his 2007 debut, Ash Wednesday. Though the album wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, or anything truly mind-blowing, it brought back a side of indie folk that appeared to have been lost for some time. Since In The Aeroplane Over the Sea hit the world way back in 1998, channeling Jeff Mangum has become a pretty common thread in the indie folk scene. Though Collin Meloy basically owes the man a percentage of his profits and bits and pieces of Mangum’s genius are seen strewed about Will Sheff’s lyric sheets, the elusive frontman has been absent from songwriting for an unbearably long time. Not until Ash Wednesday, however, had I found an artist who almost convinced me that Mangum had been steadily working on new material behind our backs.  Wait –put down the knife, (or maybe that’s just a singing saw you have out) and calm down: I am in no way equating the two. All I am saying is that after a first or second listen to Perkins’ “While You Were Sleeping” and much of his debut record, it would be difficult to argue that the two sound nothing alike. The resemblance is uncanny.  At first glance the record sounded like a Jeff Mangum solo project ghostwritten by a Neutral Milk Hotel fan.

For better or for worse, Perkins seems to have shed a great deal of the Mangumisms on his second effort, and first with a proper band (Dearland). Needless to say, the addition of a large scale backing band provides more energy and a fuller sound.  Perkins is in good company, with like-minded musicians helping him convey his thoughts.  As he strums his choice of electric or acoustic, his harmonicas hum, bass drums pound, horns blow, accordions sparkle, organs drone, and we have a sort of Americana/folk-rock ensemble on our hands. Whereas Ash Wednesday seemed to stay spacious and low key, Dearland is noticeably louder and bigger. After some atmospheric carnival sounds from the first few seconds of “Shampoo”, loud drums explode into a powerful tune. Right from the start, textures are a plenty throughout, and that raises the bar overall. The guy (Mr. Perkins) even takes some sonic leaps with the electric guitar rocking “I’ll Be Arriving”; loud chains clank cinematically over a church organ, and fuzzed out vocals all get closed out by elephantine horns.  While this is the most obscure and varied that the album gets, it certainly shows that Elvis and his new group of mates are willing to take some risks, however small they may be. This is only one unexpected track on a group of otherwise pretty conservative tunes. Of course, the voice that once brought Jeff Mangum’s pipes to mind still sits behind the mic, though not as obviously so. The vocals sound a little different on each track.  They almost take on a Celtic feel on “I Heard Your Voice in Dresden”, and with each subsequent song it seems that they seem to have found their own, dare I say, unique qualities.

Lyrically, things seem to have taken a step back from the whimsical and unintelligible –honestly, what was “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky” about?– and have ventured into more coherent and clever territory.  Perkins sports his wittiness with lines like “some maps said our love is lost, but I swear I know my way from here.”    Perkins also shows he can be equally poignant and funny on songs like “Send My Fond Regards to Lonelyville.” “Doomsday” provides a comical look at the apocalypse with hilarious lines such as “And though you voted for that awful man, I would not refuse your hand on doomsday.”  While most songs are somewhat straightforward, Dearland doesn’t stray completely away from the cryptic, providing for an equally easy and challenging listen.

As Perkins ventures into Dearland, both figuratively and literally, he becomes less lonely. He can tone it down at times, but more often than not, songs are bursting with energy, and seem to be more optimistic than not. Even as he sings about mourning, Perkins seems cheerful: “I love you so much more in death than I ever could have in life.” It’s a fine sophomore effort from a guy who seems to have come out of nowhere, (another reason for my original Jeff Mangum suspicions), as a forlorn folk connoisseur. Elvis Perkins in Dearland is exactly what you would expect if you were told that Elvis Perkins was getting together with a band for his new record. It’s not shocking in the least, but it does turn out to be a good listen. With a group of friends at his back, Perkins takes his folk based rock to the next level.  Loneliness can work well for some, and happiness equally for others, but for Elvis Perkins and his new set, both seem to be playing their part.

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