“Geranium Lake: live performances, demos and unreleased songs from Glow” (library lion records)
By Eleni P. Austin
We can agree that the phrase “ride or die” is kind of played out. But honestly, I can’t think of a more accurate way to indicate the undying loyalty I feel for musicians like Syd Straw, The Williams Brothers, Jonatha Brooke The Balancing Act, Freedy Johnston, The Rave-Up’s and David Baerwald. They aren’t household names, they haven’t sold a million records, but their music has sustained me spiritually and emotionally for decades. The innocence mission has commanded that same measure of fealty from me since they released their eponymous debut, waaay back in 1989.
Don Perris (guitar), Mike Bitts (bass), Steve Brown (drums) and vocalist Karen Perris (ne’ McCullough) originally met performing in a Catholic school production of Godspell. They formed a band playing small clubs in their hometown Lancaster, PA. By 1988, they secured a deal with A&M Records.
Their landmark debut and equally adroit 1991 follow-up, Umbrella, were produced by Larry Klein. Initially best known as Joni Mitchell’s husband, the talented bassist also earned his keep behind the boards, producing everyone from Cher and Peter Gabriel, to Don Henley and Tracy Chapman. It’s to his credit that neither record is cloaked in the cloying synth sound that dominated albums released during that era. He added deft production touches only enhanced their painterly sound. While some myopic critics lumped them with other female-centric artists like The Sundays and 10,000 Maniacs (and later, Mazzy Star), they managed to garner positive reviews and nurture a passionate fan base.
Their third long-player, glow, was produced by Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven, Throwing Muses, Concrete Blonde). Glow was a watershed. Lean and unfussy, it exudeda new-found confidence even as it maintained their signature dream-pop aesthetic. It was an artistic and commercial breakthrough. The first single, “Bright As Yellow” was featured in films like Empire Records and hit TV series like Party Of Five. The band toured extensively behind the album, headlining small venues and opening for Emmylou Harris on her Wrecking Ball tour.
Fast-forward three years later and the band winnowed down to a drummer-less three-piece, following the departure of Steve Brown (who became a chef). They also amicably parted ways with A&M Records, releasing the self-produced Birds Of My Neighborhood. For the next several years, music took a backseat as the co-commitments of family and parenthood took precedence. Still, they released a surprisingly cohesive odds and sods collection: Small Planes: Lost And Found Songs 1996-2001. Plus, the trio would occasionally reconvene in Don and Karen’s home studio, creating aural banquets like Befriended (2003), We Walked In Song (2007), and My Room In The Trees (2010). A couple of tracks slipped through the cracks, an EP of hymns, Christ In My Hope in 2000, and a collection of standards and lullabies, Now That Day Is Done arrived four years later.
The second decade of the 21st century saw the band upping the ante a bit with albums like hello, I feel the same, Sun On The Square and see you tomorrow in 2015, 2018 and 2020, respectively. As easily as they toggle between upper and lowercase album titles, Don and Karen have managed to release a few solo efforts, in the midst of band commitments. Now, they have plundered the innocence mission audio vault and come up with an archival release: geranium lake, which includes live performances, demos and unreleased songs from the glow era. The album opens with the buoyant bliss of “The Forrests And The Trees.” Strummy guitars lattice flinty bass, a spooky organ refrain and a kinetic, percussive pulse. Lyrics limn the insecurity and certitude of childhood from the backseat of a family road trip; “Things will be different, you know things will be better, you feel stronger already, you feel stronger.” On the break, Don unleashes a swirly guitar solo that’s equal parts spiky and modal. The record is doted with demos from the “glow” sessions, beginning with “Keeping Awake.” Corkscrew electric guitar notes are supplanted by spidery bass, graceful piano underpinnings and a hi-hat kick. Karen’s trilling vocals comfort and cocoon as she describes a cozy family tableau; “In the house, in the heart of paper vines, Junie runs into her room next to mine. Dancing. And we are all in for the night, talking is coming, coming up over the stairs.” The arrangement gathers speed on the chorus with a sugar rush of guitars that swoop and crescendo on the break before the song shudders to a close.
Then there’s “Spinning.” A crashy, cacophony of cymbals give way to thready bass, a tick-tock beat and meandering piano. Longtime fans might wonder, how many times does a guy named “Harry” pop up in different innocence mission songs? Lyrics attempt to console him, before comically conceding defeat; “I know nothing about so many, too many things, I see I have come to the wall, come to the ending of me again..” Spectral guitars shimmer across the break before the conversation continues; “I don’t know, I…no. What are you saying, why don’t you just- isn’t this, isn’t this funny, Harry? All of this: I know nothing about so many, too many things, I see I have come to the wall- around now, I’m turning around now, I’m spinning around.”
“Bright As Yellow,” was, of course, their commercial breakthrough, peaking at #33 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. In its embryotic state, a drumstick count-off kicks it into gear. Drowsy guitars sleepwalk across vroom-y keys, angular bass and a slipstitch beat. Longing lyrics drift toward the light, emotionally and spiritually; “And I do not want to be a rose, I do not want to be pale pink, but flower scarlet, flower gold, and have no thorns to distance me, but bright, bright, bright as yellow, warm as yellow.” Missing is Don’s stratospheric solo on the break, but an extra refrain is tacked on to the end.
Meanwhile, “Speak Our Minds” is anchored by Mike’s thrumming bass and Steve’s propulsive beat. Pinging keys and sidewinder guitars slither through the mix. Karen’s quiescent vocals illuminate cryptic lyrics that speak to childhood injustices and inequities; “We’re not trying to say it isn’t fair, we are crossed over to the tree side, oh, I am not feeling all that tired, we walk to Mary’s and speak our minds.” Don’s frenetic fretwork speed-shifts through the break, before commanding bass lines power down on the bridge.
The live tracks offer an accurate portrait of the band onstage. They remain true to studio versions, but still find subtle ways to color outside the lines. Take “Our Harry” (See! Who is this enigmatic Harry who inhabits so many of their songs?), recorded at the Tin Angel in Philadelphia. Spare and stripped-down, the song is powered by prickly electric riffs, airy acoustic notes and a shadowy back-beat. It feels sturdier than the gossamer grace found on glow. Succinct lyrics sketch a out a summery scenario; “We squint madly into the sun, waving madly at the camera, Harry standing in front and I will be sitting on his shoulders….He said it is time now he does something, and sent his hope to join the peace corps, I can’t think what I’ll do when my time comes, I cannot see myself standing alone.” Piquant guitars on the break accent the lyrical equivocation.
Conversely, “That Was Another Country,” recorded in Cleveland, Ohio, receives a bold, full-bodied treatment in a live setting. A skittery beat is matched by roiling bass and keening guitar. Karen’s mien is suitably pensive, and the song is suffused in sadness. Lyrics like “Driving home from the bay, and we sang and he was fine, and what’s more he was around, that was another country that was another country/But are you alright, are you alright? You are still my friend, you didn’t go out of my life,” will always resonate on a personal level for me. This song played on repeat as I drove to my friend Kent’s memorial service. (He passed very suddenly from complications related to A.I.D.S.). Seraphic guitar licks ascend between verses, underscoring both the beauty and sadness.
Of course, for me, the best live songs are “Everything’s Different Now” and “I hear You Say So” because they were recorded at shows I saw back-to-back in my Hollywood hometown back in 1996. On the former, recorded at the Beverly Center Borders Bookstore, bendy guitar notes wrap around lowing bass and a skeletal kick-drum beat. The plangent arrangement nearly manages to camouflage the ambivalence that accompanies change; “You say you can’t see yourself out in the world, with your school suitcase, tomorrow-well, you don’t know, you don’t know, we’re coming away, we are coming away, everything’s changed, everything’s different now, everything, even the sun.” A lachrymose guitar solo rises and falls on the break, sidling around the final verses before building to a moodily elegant denouement.
The latter, which was recorded at the venerable Troubadour, blends jingle-jangle guitar, throbbing bass, a thunking beat and a tambourine shake. Here, the lyrics juxtapose the mixture of diffidence and confidence that shadow adolescence; “Say about iron bridges, they rattle, they rattle, but never give way, and the boy who is leaving his home, who is reaching out says ‘yes, I am sure about some things’.”
Along with “The Forrests And The Seas,” which opened this set, two more unreleased gems arrive back-to-back, halfway through the record. First up is the title track, which weds sunshiny guitar, plaintive piano, ethereal keys and sinewy bass to a barely-there beat. Even as lyrics navigate the rocky shoals of a tenuous relationship; “Though the world is tall and wide, when there’s no need to return, should we go another way, some new place you’d rather stay, you will meet me, and we’ll go,” there’s an ache and fragility to Karen’s voice that simply breaks your heart. Meanwhile, the sepia-toned grace of “Film For My Sister,” matches yearning vocals to braided guitar riffs, pointillist keys and a subdued rhythm section. The camera’s going and everyone is waving at Adelaide, in the Highlands. Still, lyrics pine for something outside the frame when she quietly repeats “wishing for you,” like a mantra. Then that same Harry, or a different Harry (Connick? Potter? Styles? Windsor?) pops in and saves the day; “Wait, I stand on my toes and I am lifted, I am safe on Harry’s shoulders.” As the instrumentation washes over a beatific arrangement, Karen’s wistful voice seems faraway, yet so close.
Other interesting tracks include a hard-charging live rendition of “Brave” and a faithful take on the Godspell charmer (that was the original catalyst for the band), “Day By Day.” The album closes with another unreleased track, the piano-driven “Goodnight, Margaret Wissler.” Phased and reverb-drenched guitars are bookended by boinging bass and a hopscotch beat. Supremely catchy and simply irresistible, it’s a heady finish to a heartfelt album.
The music that the innocence mission make is difficult to categorize. It’s almost always spiritual, but never didactic or preachy. It’s contemplative but rarely anguished. As the band’s primary songwriter, Karen’s lyrics conjure quiet moments, almost forgotten, childhood bike rides, picnics by the bay, reading a book in a window-seat on a rainy afternoon, or counting stars at night. Don is their secret weapon, a one-man guitar army, he unspools hushed acoustic solos one minute and reverb-drenched riffs the next. Mike and Steve add ballast to these feather-light songs.
glow was a true touchstone for me, at one point or another, each song on the record became a reigning favorite. The outtakes, demos and live cuts on geranium lake serve to enhance the legacy of that album. Hopefully, the band will unearth similar treasure troves from their self-titled debut and Umbrella.
Meanwhile, geranium lake delivers a set of songs that capture moments of camaraderie, intimacy and affection. A soupcon of sorrow and an abundance of joy, that happy-homesick feeling that makes you ache in all the right ways.