Andrea Perry: Two

Andrea Perry
Trust Issue

Objectivity is a difficult task, made even more so when fondness for an artist might cloud one’s perspective. Still, I am compelled to gush when speaking the praises of the chronically shy Andrea Perry, who might be one of the most pleasant musical surprises to come my way in many a moon.

Two is the aptly titled sophomore effort from the multi-talented Perry, who delivers again on the promise first heard on her debut Saturday Morning Sweet Shoppe with a dozen newly intriguing musical gems. Perry’s complex rhythms and deceptively spare arrangements fall a refreshingly far distance from the mainstream. Her soft voice lulls you with its sweetness, at times hiding the swirl of inner portent her lyrics convey.

This is smart, quirky pop with a difference that appeals even more because of that difference. In addition, Andrea Perry is a natural in adding just the right amount of nuance and musical texture – you get a voice slide here, an unexpected guitar fill there, even a xylophone when necessary.

Perry knows how to structure songs. She has wonderful middle bridges, and never overstays her welcome (the longest song here is 4:28). She gets to the point and marries the music, its rhythms and its words. Her songwriting talents are only half the story here – as a performer she excels, whether on guitar or keyboards or bass or vocals (and believe me, she uses vocals as another instrument). The only thing she doesn’t play is drums, and those are ably handled by the masterful Chris Searles.

Spending her formative years in Austin, Texas as the daughter of two accomplished pianists, Perry grew up in a musical household (mostly classical, although the Beatles and some Danny Kaye children’s albums also made the cut). Piano lessons didn’t go well for her, the result of laziness and/or a learning disability. This, coupled with horrible stage fright and the rationale that the Beatles had had no formal piano training, led to quitting. Instead, she played the way she wanted to, deciding by age 10 that she wanted to write songs and make records.

As she grew older she went from a love of radio and its “top 40” music to a devotion to the album rock of The Clash, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Lou Reed, The Police, and The Pretenders and then onto classic rock radio through the remainder of high school. After graduation, Ms. Perry began to make her first four-track recordings, and solidified a conviction that this was what she wanted to do with her life.

Her college career was peppered with musical milestones (University of Southern California – gets first keyboard; Hampshire College – gets a Strat and eventually learns to play guitar). She joined a band (The Ice Weasels) as keyboardist, along with Paul Melancon, Aaron Tucker, Montgomery Knott, Peter Altman and the late Billy Greene (to whose memory this new CD is dedicated).

After college, Perry convinced Tucker, Knott and Altman to join her in testing Austin’s thriving music scene. With new drummer Mike McElhaney rounding out the roster, the band Wax Elephant developed a strong following in the early ’90s, but ultimately broke up. Since then, Ms. Perry found work writing for video games and CD-ROMs, and learned to play the bass, all of which has helped sharpen her creativity en route to this more recent solo career.

Two opens with the misleading cheery bounce of bass and piano that helms “Bursting Through the Clouds”. It’s really more a plea for better times in the midst of dreary weather, everlasting rain and repetitious lonely days. Perry’s sunny voice and surprising counter-harmonies handles it with aplomb: “Blown about in darkness / Lost forevermore / I don’t know what’s behind me and I can’t tell what’s in store / I just long to see the sun bursting through the clouds.”

Perry’s use of unusual rhythms and complex song structure often conjures up understandable comparisons to XTC and Sugarplastic. Yet Perry at times runs even more contrary to expectations. For instance, strong bass propels the slightly jazzy funk of “Oh No! The Day Is Dawning”, which at first seems more of a nightmare warning against some type of Armageddon, a call to watch one’s back, slip out, protect one’s self. Suddenly, near song’s end, it’s as if someone has let the air out of this balloon — the song shifts gears as simple voice and organ declare the refrain “I’ve come to treat you well / now that we live in the same hotel”.

Sometimes her rhythms dominate the songs, as if the feel of the words convey more than the words themselves. Such is the case with “Time to Say Hello”, which is a primer in how bass lines can dominate a song effectively. The bass walks down as Perry says “I know that you’re ready, I know that it’s time” and the catchy chorus reiterates the title.

Similar is what Perry does with the short song “I Think of Nothing” — complex rhythms and countering guitar serve as equal partners to the conflict of the words (“find me a way to turn far away from you / I think of nothing but you, there’s nothing”). In both of these examples, what could be a simple song is not — extra touches, voices, sounds all complement the whole in a very impressive way.

The stutter-step energy of “Make the World Go ‘Round” is as close as Perry gets to a traditional love song, a lament about lost love and wanting it fixed: “Losing you by leaps and bounds / Your goo goo eyes are daggers now / And “I love you” is just a sound / Day upon day / Slow to anchor, quick to fly / Don’t know what you’re afflicted by / You close me off I don’t know why / You turn away.” Her vocal work is impressive here.

A most infectious melody is at the heart of the pretty yet bittersweet “You Broke the Spell”, another farewell in the face of a failure, realizing “all the money in the world won’t put it back together now”.

Influences that were apparent on her first CD seem to have been joined by new ones (e.g., some Kate Bush in Perry’s “Slide Out”). In particular, the song “Bye Bye” sounds as if it could have been sung years ago by the heralded pop chanteuse/songwriter Margo Guryan.

A snare drum leads the parade of sounds and different textures (including xylophone) that comprise the enjoyable treat of “Light Up the Underworld”, a call for magical protection before major party time. “Getting’ to Know You” is another unique Perry twist on conventional love songs.

Just when you think Perry is all about cleverness, she floors you with a gorgeous song of enormous emotional power. Such is the case with “All Alone”, a quiet confession of being ripped apart inside and out that is perfectly captured: “I don’t think I’m gonna sleep for awhile / I was thinking about the way you waved goodbye” and “I guess my skin will thicken, my heart will harden, the pain will soften, but now I can’t imagine / All alone”. Similarly, the piano-driven song “Higher” is another quiet reflective gem.

The closer “Across the Water” shows that Perry’s lack of piano lessons hasn’t hurt much in the long haul. This is a beautiful song of piano and organ (a la Procol Harum) and expressive vocals that starts slowly, but builds a head of steam as it closes out the proceedings.

I can’t say enough about the inimitable Andrea Perry. Her songs have an honesty and confidence, her words are evocative, she is calculating and precise in her arrangements and production (Andy Sharp helped with the mixing), and she performs well on each instrument track after track.

There is not a bad song here (nor was there on her first CD) and the complexity of the songs demand repeated listens. While stage fright continues to prevent her from developing a following through live performances, this quirky perfectionist of a singer/songwriter deserves a larger audience.

My suggestion to you: go to her website and sample some of these wonderful tunes. She’s different from most — hear if you like that difference. I know I do. Andrea Perry’s Two remains uniquely original at a time when legions of soundalikes seem to rule the media airwaves. And while my objectivity might be a little skewed, viva la difference!