Perri's first album initially sounds like coffee shop fodder, but reveals itself to be nothing so timid and plain.
Tiny Mirrors, Sandro Perri's first full-length release under his own name, could sound right at home coming out of the overhead speakers at Starbucks. It sounds, on first listen, pleasant and maybe even tame. Lucky for us, and for Perri, the album reveals itself to be something much more compelling than barista-numbing, coffee shop fodder. Surrounded by countless talented musicians, Perri uses Tiny Mirrors to not only reinvent himself as a singer-songwriter, but to make a record that sounds like a collective effort. The contrast between the band's intricate sound and Perri's subtle isolation as a front man make for a lush, solid record from front to back.
Before Tiny Mirrors, Sandro Perri was known primarily for his work under the moniker Polmo Polpo. The one record he released under that name, titled The Science of Breath, was an experiment in electronic instrumentation. The album was full of long movements, waxing and waning to create a sound that was beautiful, tidal. And while there is little in common sonically with that album, Perri has carried over his feel for texture and mood on Tiny Mirrors, opting instead for more organic elements, trombone, clarinet, lap steel, euphonium, to supply the many layers in these songs.
What makes the album seem initially simple is that the elements are so subtly interwoven. Even Perri's voice, always a high, faint warble, wafts into the songs rather than introducing itself with authority. The kick drum buried in the mix on opener "Family Tree" sets the barest of foundations on which Perri's lightly-plucked guitar, wafting pedal steel, and keys scant enough to evoke Bill Evans, come together to make a sound much fuller than their parts. It seems that each instrument here plays the bare minimum amount of notes, but when combined together, there isn't a hole to be found.
But no matter the work the musicians around him do, it is still Perri's burden to carry this record on his shoulders, and he delivers. His fragile interpretation of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" renders the song as more heartbreaking than Harry Nilsson's version. Perri slows the song way down, leaving time for every line of the song to sink under your skin until you, just like Perri, feel isolated from everything going on around you.
There is also a solid variety to Tiny Mirrors. Though the instrumentation rarely changes, and the volume level is consistently hushed, the band manages to move through a number of genres. "Double Suicide", a standout track, is a fine touch of tropicalia. "The Mime" sounds like 60s pop folk. And "White Flag Blues", perhaps the best track on the record, manages to move from avant-garde folk into something far more soulful. It is his best vocal performance on the record, as he lets his voice lilt a few beats longer and, set against far-off guitar harmonics, the song becomes a microcosm for the juxtapositions in sound that run through the whole record.
Sometimes, though, the lush instrumentation isn't enough to make some of these songs run together. The combination of "The Mime" and "You're the One", which immediately follows "Everybody's Talkin'", sound formulaic and a little flat in comparison to the better material on the first half. Closer "Mirror Tree" is an instrumental track, and the closest he comes to sounding like Polmo Polpo here, but the quiet track pushes past subtle and into the realm of barely-there, making the album peter out more than it fades away.
But, with Tiny Mirrors Perri's move to singer-songwriter is a success. With earlier projects, he proved himself as a solid producer, but here he shows that he can be a performer too, and a convincing singer and front man. While it sounds like a coffee shop soundtrack with its calm surface, one hopes that Tiny Mirrors doesn't end up with such a fate. It is an album that demands more attention than that, and one that rewards the listener for taking the time.