Forgotten but not gone -- irrelevance is the damning curse of all aging musicians. In a culture that makes no distinction between style and substance, bands and artists often stage outlandish events or egregious shifts in their sound just to remain in the media's and fan's eye. Since their eponymous debut 14 years ago, the Innocence Mission have drifted in and out of the public eye without falling prey to any of these trappings. They have never veered from their ambitions of creating a pastoral brand of folk rock that relies heavily on the child-like vocals of Karen Peris. Early on, the Innocence Mission bounced between major label record deals, along the way releasing their masterwork, Glow, which found producer Dennis Herring using his exceptional skills to present their compositions in the most evocative form of their career. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to the Innocence Mission, as they have become barely a blip on the rock radar. A pair of independent records released at the turn of the century were largely ignored, and the band seemed to have faded into obscurity. That is, until signing with Badman Recordings and recording Befriended, their most poignant and consistent release since their final major label album, Glow.
Befriended doesn't stray from the well-worn style that the band has developed over the course of their career. Peris's voice is still the hallmark of the Innocence Mission's sound while her husband and bandmate Don Peris gently layers acoustic guitar as a melodic backdrop. The first few tracks on Befriended use these strengths to glorious results. "Tomorrow on the Runway" tells the warm tale of enthusiasm for an impending voyage, while "Beautiful Change" incorporates bass by longtime friend and band member Mike Bitts, as well as a brittle, driving percussion. "Beautiful Change" may be the album's crowning achievement, sounding like a lost track from Mazzy Star's superior So Tonight That I Might See. Peris's vocals lose their prepubescent sheen and turn sultry, giving the song a smoldering, bluesy feel.
The main problem with Befriended becomes evident over the album's remaining six tracks. Those unfamiliar with the Innocence Mission's previous work might continue to be enchanted by the ethereal uniformity of melody, production, and arrangements that haunt the last half of the album, but for fans who remember their more successful works, the remainder feels like little more than a rehash of previous and superior albums. Karen Peris's delivery seems to be devoid of emotion and seems to convey the same level of emotional range and investment from song to song. There is no variation in her blasé phrasing of the lyrics on "Martha Avenue Love Song" or in the exquisitely arranged "One for Sorrow, Two for Joy". It seems unreasonable to expect a listener to make an emotional investment in these songs if the singer seems to be ambivalent herself.
Nostalgia also plays a key role in the shortcomings of the closing songs on Befriended. "Sleep Down Early" is a fine piece of ear candy that derives its success from Karen Peris's use of her falsetto during the choruses, but the results still feel hollow and leave the listener reflecting back on the stronger work early in the Innocence Mission's catalogue. This type of rearview listening is a consistent theme throughout many of the final songs. It is clear that the band hasn't evolved in their writing or recording style since Glow, and thus this emphasis on stasis makes Befriended seem irrelevant, which is a sad state since the early part of the album contains some strong material.
With a glut of exciting new releases on record store shelves, there seems to be little reason to purchase this new album by the Innocence Mission, as they are relying on the same dynamics as they did a decade ago when their songwriting and production were at their peak. Instead of being Befriended by this carbon copy, dig through your vinyl collection and dust off their first three records, or head out to the used bins and pick-up some of their early albums. Either way, the reward will be greater and you will be treated to a band making brilliant folk music that made legions of college radio fans care enough to listen.