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Ash Wednesday

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Album Review

Son of actor Anthony Perkins, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992, and photographer Berry Berenson, who was killed in the September 11 attacks, Elvis Perkins has plenty of material about which to write, and plenty, if he wanted, to make his debut, Ash Wednesday, a bleak affair. But while the album is certainly not uplifting, filling its 11 songs with their fair share of heartache and loneliness, Perkins avoids reveling in depression and instead follows the route that other singer/songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Bob Dylan have put down before him, telling detail-driven stories of people and life ("...your cameras caught me crying as I left your gates/...your maintenance men, they caught our last embrace") rather than painful confessions. With a voice that hesitates between David Gray's and Thom Yorke's, he sings songs of desperation and reflection and love and sadness over strummed acoustic guitar chords and slow drums; he's earnest and afflicted but not verklempt, only occasionally rising into an affecting yet controlled cry. Instead, Perkins shows emotion in nuance. He's a careful, studied songwriter, relying on subtlety to convey his meaning, meaning that is revealed better — almost counterintuitively — when he breaks free from the man-with-guitar mold (found in the unmemorable "It's a Sad World After All") and flirts with more complex arrangements, like in the Rufus Wainwright-esque "Sleep Sandwich," which brings vibraphone, trumpet, tympani, and violin to Perkins' steel strings, and swells gently, pushing past folk into lightly orchestral pop. "While You Were Sleeping," the strongest track on the album, slowly adds instruments until the end is only distantly related to the beginning of the piece, and it's lyrically excellent, the singer moving in the A-section to the B-section; from talking to the sleeper to talking about himself ("I'll never catch up to you who sleeps so sound/My yawns are useless, my heart beats too loud") dropping into minor chords to complement the change, to highlight the sadness. But there's a kind of redemption in the face of the sorrow found on Ash Wednesday. "Come lay here beside me/And I'll fear no death/I'll give you my body/And I'll breathe your breath," Perkins sighs on the closer, "Good Friday." It's not an assurance of happiness, but it is an offer of hope, so that despite all that's happened, there's possibility for reprieve. Coming from a man who experienced so much before he hit thirty, this is probably as much an encouragement as we'll get, and that's got to be enough.

Customer Reviews

Don't listen just once.

Quite frankly, it’s unfair that this record has had the impact it has on me. I listen to it in the morning with a cup of coffee, on my way to class in the morning, the drive to and through the smog and work, and finally as I go to sleep. I’ve tried to vary my listening a little; you know, put in the new Shins, Beirut, that sweet whistling ditty by Peter, Bjorn and John…but I can’t get this record out of my head and now, I’m fearing for the rest of my music collection. On Ash Wednesday, I can’t think of anything I haven’t heard before…Perkins isn’t exactly offering anything unique to singing or songwriting—but, then again, no one really asked him to. While there’s nothing necessarily new, the record still strikes you, attacking all the presumptions made against singer-songwriters and the genre. His voice’s character sneaks up on you when you least suspect it; all the little nuances are exactly what make listening to each song such a joy. Nothing is flat and if you’re looking, there’s something new to discover every time you listen. The songwriting is top notch, especially in the title track in which Perkins makes no guises as to what he’s singing about. “Sleep Sandwich” also demonstrates Perkins’ firm grasp on language (“It’s morning in heaven / L.A. is lost in the clouds / so I sing goodbye skylines / and I will sadly sing you off to our next episode”), as well as his vocal talents. Amongst the heartbreak, there’s a playful side to Ash Wednesday in songs such as “May Day !—the black sheep of the record, if I’ve ever heard one. The omnipresent presence of death throughout the album in unavoidable, some psychological and some philosophical and most dark, but despite all of that, Ash Wednesday is not a depressing album. And, finally, I’ve been debating on whether or not to slip in this final bit, but here goes. He reminds me of Jeff Buckley. I know, I know, the mandatory Buckley reference. But it’s not so much a comparison to Jeff’s music or voice as the way both records—Grace and Ash Wednesday—make me feel when I listen to them; it’s the same appreciation and experience of listening to the records. Truthfully, it’s a mostly unexplainable reason I have that Elvis evokes Jeff to me. Both records have plenty of heartbreak and gigantic talent behind them, albeit very different sounds. Elvis Perkins is a gift to music lovers and this debut is stunning.

Lullabies for Philosophers

Elvis Perkins writes melodies for cynical dreamers and emo kids who read Proust. A quirky, eloquent troubadour with one foot in comedy and the other in tragedy. His bearded bordello-style Dearland includes a stand-up bass player, a drummer who strides about the room with a marching band bass drum strapped to his belly and a keyboardist who blows trombone and twiddles some sort of Victorian bellows instrument. Elvis' history may be filled with personal loss, but his songs are brimming with hope, poetry and curiosity. This is an album that you want to keep on repeat.

Original Sound

Although Perkins sings of strangling rainbows, he is clearly in the business of adding beauty to the world in the form of his music. Listen to 'While You Were Sleeping', and realize quickly that this is a mature voice making original music of the highest quality. Amazing debut.


Born: February 9, 1976 in Manhattan, New York, NY

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '00s, '10s

A singer and songwriter whose music is both literate and impressionistic, fusing elements of contemporary folk, Americana, and indie rock, Elvis Perkins seemed destined to follow a career in the arts, though not necessarily as a musician. Born on February 9, 1976, Perkins was the son of actor Anthony Perkins and photographer and actress Barry Berenson, and spent much of his childhood hopscotching between Los Angeles and New York City. Perkins took saxophone lessons when he was a youngster, and in...
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Ash Wednesday, Elvis Perkins
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Customer Ratings