When you pick up an album from a band with a name like the Innocence Mission, you pretty much know you’re not getting heavy metal. Yep, this Pennsylvania quartet (featuring husband and wife songwriting team Karen and Don Peris) has been chugging along, mostly under the radar, since the late ’80s, sticking faithfully to their established blend of smooth, dreamy, inoffensive guitar pop and the occasionally pseudo/occasionally blatant Christian lyrics.
The Innocence Mission’s ninth full-length album, My Room in the Trees, is an acoustic affair, from the fingerpicked guitars to the double-bass to the brushed drums. It’s quiet, reflective music, perfect for rainy day cooking or reclining in a bay window on a Sunday afternoon with a book. (Starbucks, you should be jumping on this!) Remember when I mentioned the word “inoffensive”? Keep that in mind.
My Room‘s quiet acoustic template is at first intoxicating. The album opens with “Rain (Setting Out in the Leaf Boat)”, a lullaby as delicate as the title suggests, unfolding with simple guitar strums and Peris’ vocal yawns before strings appear, presenting a haunting melodic refrain. By the time Peris has begun echoing the melody by humming along with it, you’ll be swept away in the leaf boat, too.
“The Happy Mondays” has a melody so lilting and familiar, it’s hard not to keep wondering where they accidentally stole it. Peris’ instrumental backing is so tasteful and well-placed, every nuance has maximum impact, from the charmingly poor drumming to the timid piano flourishes. In the words department, it’s hard to imagine finding lyrics more “innocent” than: “The happy Mondays, we blow down alleyways / In our raincoats, in afternoons / The imaginary dogs beside us are old friends / They will speak to you.” Peris channels the reflections of a Pennsylvania grade school student, and she nails it with a childlike delivery that keeps the gooeyness in check.
So far, so good. But things start to go slightly downsteam with the third track, “God Is Love”. It has nothing to do with the Christian lyrical themes — if anything, Peris’ religious outlook is refreshing in the often nihilistic view of indie music — but it does have something to do with the fact that the lyrics are boring: “God is love, and love will never fail me,” sings Peris in the song’s chorus. That’s pretty much the gist of it. And that’s one of the problems of Christian pop music — coming up with a unique and/or interesting way to repeat the same message over and over again.
Peris’ voice still sounds like a curious combination of Björk and Natalie Merchant, and the success of these sparsely arranged songs often rests on her unassuming shoulders. Unfortunately, she’s never quite as compelling during the album’s second half as she is during those early moments. As the album coos along, the arrangements get more and more samey, and instead of eliciting a feeling of wanting to give yourself a hug, the sound embraces the nagging desires of sleep. My advice: don’t listen to the album while driving.
More mood music, less Pure Moods, please.
This is why iTunes exists, I guess. Pull out that gift card and purchase the first two tracks. The rest? Ahh, save ’em for a rainy day.