Did you have that strangest dream before you woke?
'Cause in your gown you had the butterfly stroke.
Did it escape you like some half-told joke
When you reached for your plume of smoke?
-- Elvis Perkins, "While You Were Sleeping"
Although tomorrow is Ash Wednesday on the liturgical calendar, today marks the release of Elvis Perkins' Ash Wednesday on XL Recordings. Some readers may recall that, having been fortunate enough to snap up the then-hard-to-find self-released edition of this album last summer, I have already declared it a front runner for the best popular music CD of 2007.
By happenstance, I have recently been listening -- for the first time and almost 40 years late -- to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, which makes a surprisingly good companion to Ash Wednesday. The title song on Elvis Perkins' recording, in particular, possesses much the same sad incantatory depth that is the hallmark of Morrison's song cycle. Both collections reward repeated listening, and the songs on each gain substantially from being heard straight through in order.
- Note as well that both albums bear the initials "AW". Coincidence? Well, yes, most likely so.
Musically, the two albums are not of a piece: nobody sings in quite the way Van Morrison does and the signature sound of Astral Weeks, those improvisations anchored and led by Richard Davis and his upright bass, is unique in pop music. Perkins works in a more straightforward guitar-strumming troubadour vein. More to the point, despite the melancholy that underlies much of it Ash Wednesday has one thing that Van Morrison has never displayed: a sly and sneaky sense of humor that tends to pop up its head when least expected. Only a minority of Elvis Perkins' songs do not have at least one joke secreted somewhere about their persons, either in the lyric ("Can you imagine going to/got-milk-dot-com?" he asks in "All the Night Without Love") or in an eccentric touch in the arrangement (e.g., the slightly loopy "Le Hot Club of Paris"-style guitar and violin outburst toward the end of the same song). In "Sleep Sandwich" he promises:
I'll make the most of my time
machine, and I'll build a theremin
and, soon enough, a theremin appears, sounding not the least bit ridiculous. [I built a theremin -- or more accurately my father did most of the real work in bringing about the building of a theremin on my behalf -- as a school project many many years ago in Michigan, so I have a sentimental attachment to the instrument.]
I have been accused at home recently of incorporating too many embedded YouTube videos into this weblog, but I cannot resist one more. This is one of five (5) YouTube versions of Elvis Perkins and his band, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, performing "Emile's Vietnam in the Sky," a song which asserts and proves that "there's nothing quite like French blues." All five versions were shot and posted by Joe Harvard, who sat in on lap steel guitar on this number as Perkins & Co. were touring late last year with the Pernice Brothers. A cheap digital video camera and the microphone on Harvard's laptop account for the technical roughness. Harvard recorded this performance, which I have selected because it was shot from the closest vantage point of the group, on December 1, 2006, at Proud Larry's, Oxford, Mississippi:
Before he released Ash Wednesday himself, and before he signed with XL, Perkins' former website hosted a generous selection of what must now be deemed demos of songs that made their way on to the final album. I post one of them below.
The current version of this song goes by "Moon Woman II" and is one of the highlights of Ash Wednesday. If the tags attached to the file are reliable, the version below dates back to 2002. "Moon Woman" is more simply produced than "Moon Woman II" -- just Perkins, his guitar and his harmonica. It comes with an extra verse at the end and runs some two minutes longer than its descendant on Ash Wednesday. Both versions are pretty nifty:
- Elvis Perkins - Moon Woman (2002?) [MP3 link]
Thus endeth my proselytizing other than to add that, for the convenience of anyone persuaded by my endorsement, Ash Wednesday is readily available for purchase through this weblog's retail outlet, These Foolish Things.
Astral Weeks, by the way, holds up substantially better these many decades on than does the famous 1979 Astral Weeks essay of Lester Bangs. Bangs probably would have written a heckuva weblog, though, if he were here today.
As it is not generally referred to by that name in this country, readers perplexed by the title of this post may wish to read an explanation of Shrove Tuesday, which commonly involves pancakes.
~ ~ ~
UPDATE [1024 PST]:
Abbey of the Seattle-based music weblog Sound On The Sound has as strong a reaction to E. Perkins as I do, yesterday asking the musical question: "Is My Favorite Album of 2006, Going to be the Best Album of 2007?" In her own 2006 Best list, she said of Ash Wednesday's title song "[i]t’s going to be my generation’s 'Hallelujah…'," which makes at least as much sense as my Astral Weeks comparison. Several other worthwhile links are included in Abbey's post, as is the splendid news that the fine fellows at Daytrotter have an EP session waiting to be posted later this week.