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Verse-Chorus-Verse: the innocence mission

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Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Where Does the Time Go?” - the innocence mission
Written by Karen Peris
From Birds of My Neighborhood (Kneeling Elephant/RCA, 1999, a remaster was reissued by Badman Recording Co., 2006)


Whether entranced by the intricately-balanced poetics of Leonard Cohen, the artful turns-of-phrase of Smokey Robinson, or the PhD-in-lonesome of Hank Williams, I always seem to fall in love the hardest with songwriters who carve out their own distinctive place in the tower of song (to cop a Cohen phrase). If one counts their 1986 limited-edition debut EP, the innocence mission, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based group, has been making singularly lovely records for over 20 years. It’s a damn shame that their primary songwriter, Karen Peris, although well-loved by a loyal fan base and countless musician/songwriter peers, is not yet heralded far and wide as one of the most gifted pop/rock lyricists ever, because she most undeniably is. A poet at heart, Karen Peris’ lyrics are achingly beautiful, and she delivers them in a sweet and wise voice that is somehow both familiar and otherworldly at the same time.


“Where Does the Time Go?” is the opening track from the group’s fourth album, Birds of My Neighborhood, which introduced the stripped-down acoustic-folk sound the group has thoroughly explored for the past 10 years. The instrumentation is a delicate calibration of shimmering guitars, acoustic bass, and quiet-in-the-mix churchy organ, which lends the song a hymn-like quality. This musical framework is set in a lilting light-waltz tempo, a perfect pocket for the first few lines of Peris’ first verse: “We will walk on a hill / Red hats and blue coats / And everything still / Snow will cover until / We can’t tell the sky from the ground.” The chorus creeps up soon after, mantra-like in its insistent simplicity and repetition: “Waiting for you to arrive / Where does the time go? / Where Does the time go? / Where does the time go? / Where does the time go?”
  
The arrangement stays sparse and transparent as the second verse deepens the melancholy vibe of the first verse, adding detail but remaining shadowy in intent: “Friends have moved away / One tree has come down / Another one flowers and sways /Miri was lost for five days / From upstate at school / One friend writes, ‘Everything is changing while the day sky turns blue.’”


Peris’ vocal here is wondrous. Her phrasing of the lyrics is not as rhythmically simple as one would assume, reading the lyrics out of a CD booklet or on a computer screen. As a matter of fact, Peris sometimes evokes no less a singular vocalist than Bjork, with whom she shares a knack for unpredictable melody, a distinctive sense of prosody, and a wholly unique voice, in every sense of the word. Beyond these technical skills, Peris’ vocals also impart an intimate and completely un-ironic sincerity, which colors each word she sings and resonates in each line. A close listen to any of the innocence mission’s songs makes it literally impossible to mistake Karen Peris’ work for anything less than the real thing.


The last verse of “Where Does the Time Go?” is ostensibly hopeful: “Balconies of flights and wooden stairs / Down to the water at low tide / I will carry you, and we will walk in the light”, but the song ends on the repeated chorus meditation query, for which Peris offers no answer. The overall effect of the song, and perhaps the innocence mission’s sound in general, might best be described as one of emotional transport, or passage. Via the minimalist instrumentation, Peris’ words, and the images the group chooses to pair with the music in the album art, the listener is transported into an unnamed world where glimpes of the past, present, and future all live, concurrently and side by side. It’s little wonder that indie-folk wunderkind Sufjan Stevens, an artist also known for inhabiting a unique, folk-inspired sonic world,  recently chose to cover “The Lakes of Canada”, another Peris masterwork from Birds of My Neighborhood. I’m sure Stevens recognized a kindred spirit of sorts in Peris, and it’s encouraging to think that the success he had with his cover helped direct attention to the innocence mission.


It’s been ten years since the initial release of Birds of My Neighborhood , and all the while, often under the radar of mainstream pop music consumers, Karen Peris and the innocence mission have continued to record and release new work, with each piece solidifying their unique place in the tower of song.

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