To be a devotee of the Innocence Mission, one must
practice the virtue of patience. The band has been around for
24 years, but they have released only 10 albums.
Bassist Mike Bitts, Drummer Steve Brown, Guitarist Don
Peris and Karen Peris (ne’ McCulloch) on keyboards and vocals,
met as teenagers. All four performed in a high school production
of “Godspell” in their hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
By 1989 the band had signed with A & M Records and arrived
in Los Angeles to record their self-titled debut with producer Larry Klein.
In addition to producing artists as disparate as David Baerwald, Shawn Colvin,
Herbie Hancock and Madeleine Peyroux, Klein is perhaps best known
as Joni Mitchell’s husband from 1982 to 1994.
The Innocence Mission was immediately thrust into some pretty
heady company. Not only was the band recording their debut in Joni Mitchell’s
house, but they crisscrossed the country as an opening act for Don Henley.
Their sophomore release, Umbrella came out in 1991. Also
produced by Klein, the effort hewed pretty closely to the winning formula
of their debut. Innocence Mission had achieved a measure of success, but
they were lumped in with other female-centric alternative acts like
10,000 Maniacs, Mazzy Star and The Sundays.
Perhaps these facile comparisons spurred the band to recalibrate
and change courses. Their third effort, Glow, was produced by Dennis
Herring and recorded in New Orleans. Released in 1995, it was an artistic
and commercial breakthrough.
Songs from Glow popped up in movies like “Empire Records”
and television series like “Party Of Five.” Glow also marked the last
time the Innocence Mission toured behind an album.
Four years elapsed between Glow and Birds Of My
Neighborhood, released in 1999. In that interim Steve Brown left the
band to become a chef. Innocence Mission continued as a trio and
Don and Karen Peris started a family.
Albums trickled down sporadically. Small Plane in 2001
catalogued outtakes leftover from the Birds Of My Neighborhood
sessions. Befriended arrived in 2003, followed by We Walked In Song
in 2007 and My Room In The Tree in 2010.
Innocence Mission music is something truly special. It is at once
spiritual and ephemeral. It’s serious but rarely brooding. Delicate but
never precious. Karen Peris is the band’s primary songwriter. Her lyrics
celebrate the quiet, nearly forgotten moments in life. It’s childhood
bike rides and rainy Sunday afternoons spent re-reading “Little Women.”
It’s easy to imagine the characters in Wes Anderson (“Moonrise
Kingdom”), or Whit Stillman (“Metropolitan”) films listening to the Innocence
Mission. If Charlie Brown has an MP3 player, you can bet he’s consoling
himself with the Innocence Mission after Lucy tricked him with that football!
The melodies of Innocence Mission songs are tender and
evocative. Equally influenced by 80s dream pop practitioners Talk Talk
and quiescent British Folk singer Nick Drake. Most tracks are
piloted by Don Peris’ reverb-drenched guitar. His sui generis
riffs make him the world’s most diffident guitar hero.
For anyone familiar with the band, yearning for
new music, the good news is the Innocence Mission is working
on a new record. The better news is Karen Peris has released
her first solo effort, Violet.
The album opens with buoyant optimism of “Song For
A New Day.” Church-y piano chords ebb and flow as Peris counts
her blessings… “Speechless and full of odd flaws, wonderous to be here
at all/Seeing the world has a sheen, stepping into the pristine beautiful
day.” Don Peris’ plangent guitar parts lend ballast to the feather-
light melody.
It is slightly disappointing that six of Violet’s ten
tracks are instrumentals. But even the most casual fan of the
Innocence Mission will find the instrumentals winsome and
Both “Pascal’s Evening Song” and “Rowing Across” veer
into classical territory. The former is anchored by intricate violin
fills from the Peris’ young son Drew. The melody has a wistful vibe that
recalls the earnest scores from ‘70s Afterschool Specials. The
latter feels like a sideways homage to “Clair de Lune” by Debussey.
On the title track Peris’ hushed vocals are echoed by whisper-
soft brushed drums. The lyrics are a simple reverie… “Today I would have
liked best to walk with a dog through the city, beside the doors looking
up together/ Raising the line, raising the line of the horizon up a little.”
The instrumentals on Violet conjure up a variety of moods and
emotions. “The Blue Rooftops” is bittersweet and melancholy, suffused
with rippling clusters of piano chords.
“Julie And The Universe” threads sunny guitar riffs through a
rich tapestry of piano, pump organ and melodica. Despite it’s ambitious
title, “Wales Because The Sun Would Shine” is spare and enigmatic.
Finally , “Procession” is steeped in the ritual of devotion.
The lyrics on “Sweet William” paint an enduring paean
to the resilient and spicy flower… “Sweet William is the strongest and
the best in and out the garden, also the smallest/ The quietly quietly
strong can be invisible in some ways.” Here electric guitar and acoustic
piano intertwine, cushioned by twinkling percussion.
The album closes with “The Landscape Of Birds.” Both
Peris children shine here, Drew on Violin and Anna on Viola. The instrumentation
unspools with serene confidence, the lyrics rich and vivid, a reluctant
Although this is labeled a solo effort, Violet is very much
a family affair. It’s nice to see the Peris’ extending their musical legacy.
In this over-stimulated, multi-tasking, caffeinated world sometimes
we all need to unplug and decompress. Take some time to appreciate
our surroundings, even if it’s just lounging on the grass looking at the
sky. The Innocence Mission has crafted the perfect soundtrack for these
(non) activities.