in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.
I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.
the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.
I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song. and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did. and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.
a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.
of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.
as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!
but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.
early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.
“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…
“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”
I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.
when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!
so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…
I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos. tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.
even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…
sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…
as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on. I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.
there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…
their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!
I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.
I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.
try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.
I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.
this is a day for hearing bagpipes
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.
sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me
and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.
I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…
I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…
“I can see you
I can feel you
I can see…see
normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.
“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…
clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”
“clouds in the memory…”
karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !
early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks
if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…
black sheep wall
clear to me
you chase the light
wonder of birds
and hiding away
sorry and glad together
now in this hush
bright as yellow
that was another country
happy, the end
everything’s different now
where does the time go?
beautiful pop heaven playlist…