Sunday Night Journal, July 23, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, July 30, 2017

52 Albums, Week 30: Befriended (The Innocence Mission)

Week30-Befriended

I'm once again digging into my old music posts for this series. This one is from July of 2004, only seven months into the life of this site. Before deciding to post this, I listened to the album for the first time in quite a few years, and would not have been surprised to find that my opinion of it had changed a bit. I remembered that I had been very enthusiastic about it, and wondered if I might be less so now. No, I'm not. The six months mentioned in the post turned into thirteen years, but if anything I find the album more deeply moving now than then.

This is the original post, with only a few minor changes. A few years later they released a new and similar album, We Walked In Song, and I liked it just as much. I haven't heard it for a while.

*

I was not at all prepared for the most recent album by The Innocence Mission, Befriended. The Innocence Mission have been around for some time, their first album having been released in 1989. The only one I’ve heard extensively is the second, Umbrella. It’s a good, well-crafted album, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me, and except for a few tracks from Glow (1995), I had not heard any of their later work. Listening to Umbrella again now, I think it’s better than I gave it credit for being. It has a dense, crowded, sound, and although all the elements are excellent I wonder if some brutal excision might have helped the overall effect. I don’t know much about recording, but I have the sense that certain frequency ranges are crowding each other, and that the guitar and voice parts are competing for my attention more than they should do. The songs are complex and intriguing, both musically and lyrically, although a bit diffuse.

But however good Umbrella is, Befriended seems to be in another class altogether.

Before I say anything else, let me admit that my first impressions don’t always last, and that I have been known to retreat from initial enthusiastic judgments, especially where music is concerned. In six months or so I’ll revisit my opinion of this album and find out whether I still concur.

With that out of the way, I must say that Befriended has gone immediately into a very select group of pop music works which affect me so deeply and engage my attention so completely that I can’t listen to them in the car, which is where I most often listen to music, having a daily thirty-mile (each way) commute. Pop aficionados will get a sense of the company in which this places Befriended if I say that other albums in this very small group are Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Emmy Lou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, and the best of Nick Drake’s work.

These are all very different artists, but what they have in common is the ability to evoke something which I find myself calling “transcendence” without really knowing exactly what I mean. This is a word we abuse, I think, often meaning merely “very very good.” But what I mean here is something different, and “submergence” would do almost as well: it’s a sense that the work puts us in touch with the most essential core of our souls, which is, paradoxically, the point where we are most directly connected to the literally transcendent—i.e., that which is above, beyond, out of reach, but nevertheless what we most want and need. I’ll venture to suggest that the emotional power of these works arises from the fact that they are able to make us aware, equally and simultaneously, of both the object of our desire and its unattainability. They give us almost unbearable joy and almost unbearable sadness: a yearning which is more desirable than most pleasures.

It would of course be impossible for me to explain exactly what it is about Befriended that produces this effect in me. It’s also certain that it will not produce this effect in everyone. But I’ll make some attempt to describe the music. It might be described as light, almost minimalist folk-pop. The basic texture is one voice and a couple of acoustic guitars, only lightly embellished with electric guitar and a touch of strings (or string-like synthesizer) or piano. Some tracks have a very restrained acoustic bass. There’s very little percussion. Terms like “wispy” and “gossamer” come to mind, only to be immediately discarded, because in spite of its delicacy the music seems to have a deep core of strength. “Sparse” is perfectly accurate, though, and all is done with immaculate taste and restraint, leaving the listener with a sense that absolutely nothing is out of place, superfluous, or absent. I can in fact imagine a critic complaining that the music is a little too controlled, though I wouldn’t really agree with him.

The songs are full of gorgeous and affecting melodies. And as is the case with all first-class pop music, the lyrics are indispensable. Karen Peris, the singer and main songwriter, showed, on Umbrella, a level of skill and care with words that is far beyond that of most pop songwriters, and she has only gotten better. There are fewer words here, and simpler, but they somehow cut much deeper. Most of them are firmly rooted in very ordinary things:

When Mac was swimming
I was running late
Walking around New Orleans
Looking for a birthday cake
It was a great surprise to him
So many people came

Some of the lyrics leap from these humble things to mystical heights; some (like the one above) remain very much down to earth but still refer, by implication and gesture, to the heights, sometimes in the simplest possible way, as in a song called Beautiful Change:

The snow is here
The light is bright
Bright

Of course it's the tune that gives that most of its effect.

The lyrics seem very feminine and somehow domestic. One feels that one is eavesdropping on the inner life of a suburban housewife who also happens to be a mystic.

One slight reservation: Karen Peris has an odd voice. I have tried a couple of times to describe it and failed. I didn’t entirely like it on Umbrella. Whether that was an effect of the style and production of Umbrella, or her voice has just gotten better with age, I don’t know, but on the more restrained Befriended it’s beautiful, rich and warm in the low registers and almost unbearably poignant in the higher. But it may not be to everyone’s taste. She also has some oddities of pronunciation that sometimes obscure the words.

There is only so much a listener’s praise can convey, so: 

 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Comments

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I love this album and I haven't listened to it in a long time, in fact, I forgot it was called Befriended.

I need to figure out where it is.

AMDG

Good plan.:-)

I have a feeling that I would need to listen to the entire album to get into the groove and enjoy her voice. Which sounds a lot like Natalie Merchant's voice, by the way.

I think it's odder than Natalie Merchant's, though I haven't heard that much of her. But I can imagine someone listening to this and thinking it was no better than pleasant.

I was thinking about Wrecking Ball and its sound and groove - the Emmylou album you mention in the post. I don't know that listening to just one or two tracks really does it, you need to experience the entire thing for it to hit you. I love to listen to that CD while driving long distances at night on the interstate (traveling). It is night-time, evening, driving music for me.

Nice to see this review again -- I remember reading it a long time ago and forwarding it to friends. I think that for a lot of people this album was an introduction to the band, or perhaps a re-introduction, as five years had passed since their previous one had come out. That was Birds of My Neighborhood, which I like as much as this one, and has what I think is one of their finest songs on it, "The Lakes of Canada."

I was a big 10000 Maniacs fan back in their early days (I still listen to the first album fairly often) but except for the odd song Natalie Merchant's solo material never did much for me.

There is some sort of Peris-Merchant-Emmylou connection but I don't remember the details.

I have Birds of My Neighborhood but haven't listened to it very much. Not that I didn't like it, just haven't really gotten acquainted with it.

"I love to listen to that CD while driving long distances at night on the interstate (traveling)."

I could say that about a number of albums. It's a great time to listen to music.

Now I want to go get in the car and drive somewhere and listen to the radio. Probably shouldn't do that since I have 18 people coming for Bill's birthday party on Sunday.

Guess who one of the people is.

AMDG

Some other Mac?

Somebody who was born last October.

AMDG

Oh, I thought you were making some kind of reference to the album. Anyway, that's great.

Sat down and listened to Befriended straight through last evening -- I had forgotten just how good it really is. Makes me want to revisit some of their other albums that I haven't listened to in awhile.

Me too. There are at least a couple that I have but am not well acquainted with, and I haven't heard the most recent one at all. I had planned to buy it but didn't get around to it.

The most recent one was a slow grower for me. Was underwhelmed at first but the more I listened to it the more I liked it.

Speaking of i.m., this video never fails to bring a smile to my face.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyRtNLiMHik

"oddities of pronunciation that sometimes obscure the words." Make that "often." It is unfortunate that the words are important, since I couldn't understand half of them, so couldn't get the "transcendence," (which I can with Emmilou Harris." I did find her voice pleasant. Perfect for the kind of music she sings. I listened to the whole thing.

I don't mind sparse, but the relative lack of production variety made it seem almost monotonous. Doesn't the guitarist have any other effects? Also, the instruments were JUST BARELY out of tune, especially the piano. The "monostrings" effect was fine on one or two songs, but it kept coming back.

I'm listening the Now the Day is Over right now, which I like very much. I know the songs, so don't have to strain to understand the words.

You need to buy the cd so you can read the lyrics. :-) But most of When Mac Was Swimming is clear enough, especially the chorus. So if that doesn't move you, the album is probably not for you.

I like the sparseness. Matter of taste I guess. Out-of-tuneness didn't hit me. I don't have a very good ear.

Sweet video, Rob.

"Sweet video, Rob."

Later I found this, a new post:

Ha!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUj3u2Vib-I


I don't remember the oddities of pronunciation but then it's been a long time. I don't think it could have ever bothered me. One thing I love about them is that the songs are about their family. This is so unusual that I can't think of another group that does this. Maybe the occasional song, but nothing that nears IM.

AMDG

Yes, Janet -- family, friends, hometown, church, etc. It's all very "place" centered.

I listened to Birds of My Neighborhood last night with lyric sheet in hand, and besides the pronunciation thing, I also noticed something that I had noted previously but had forgotten. The phrasings and rhythms of the lyrics don't always precisely match those of the music like they do in a lot of other pop and folk material. So like in a lot of modern (but not free verse) poetry, there are line breaks, accents, etc., in places where you don't expect them to be, and at times this is accentuated by the musical line. I don't see this as a fault by any stretch, because while it may make the lyrics a bit more difficult to grasp it also helps preserve the songs from triteness and from having any sort of sing-songy feeling.

I'll listen to "When Mac Was Swimming" again. I don't really care to read lyrics while I'm listening to music--even choral music, which is often hard to understand. It changes the experience for me. My hearing ain't good in the first place, though, so maybe it is just me.

It isn't the sparseness that I didn't like, but the relative uniform musical palette. I'm usually a music-first guy, then lyrics--although bad lyrics can ruin a very good musical piece.

Yeah, I generally don't read along, but scan the lyrics quickly as the song starts then put them aside. I virtually never do that on a first listening to a new album however, and usually do so only when I have a question about them or if they seem exceptionally interesting/clever.

I listened again to "When Mac Was Swimming." It was indeed good musically. Reminded me (perhaps unfairly) of "The Girl from Ipanema." I did look at the lyrics while listening. The lyrics are certainly evocative, but are slightly too obscure for my simple tastes.

Bought the new LP reissue of this and listened to it last night. It's always nice to be reminded how good it is, how good all their stuff is, actually.

Innocent Mission are one of the great groups I learned about from this site.

That is a great one.

Was on a three-hour drive this weekend and one of the things I listened to was their "lost songs" collection, Small Planes, from 2001. Hadn't listened to it in a long time, and had forgotten how good it is. It's made up of songs they recorded between '96 and '01 but which didn't appear on any other albums.

I have that one, too, and as I recall thought it was a fairly mixed bag. Some real gems, some ok. But I haven’t heard it for a long time either.

There are a couple short 'filler'-type things on it, but the rest of the songs are pretty strong. There are three on there that are among my favorites of theirs, two of which I'd forgotten were on that particular album (I'd thought they were on 'Birds of my Neighborhood').

Got the Long Beard - 'Sleepwalker' disc in the mail and listened to it last night. On first blush it strikes me as having a very nice feel and attractive sonics, but I didn't find the songs particularly melodic or musically notable. I do plan to give it another listen, however, as it may be the type of thing one has to warm up to. The couple songs I've heard from her forthcoming record seem stronger musically.

I don't recall if I mentioned this one back when I bought it late last year, but the album 'Not Even Happiness' by Julie Byrne is very nice. Mostly guitar and vocal, with a little bit of keyboard and electronic percussion ambience. Begs comparison with innocence mission in general feel, although Byrne's voice is quite different from Karen's.

The bit of Long Beard that I heard didn’t make me especially want to hear more. I hate to damn with faint praise, but it was...pleasant. Haven’t heard or heard of Julie Byrne.

"I hate to damn with faint praise, but it was...pleasant."

I listened to it again last night and it struck me as very background-y, almost, but not quite, ambient. The older group Mazzy Star was like that for me too: enjoyable as wallpaper but not something I'd want to sit and listen to.

A couple representative Julie Byrne tracks:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gdO3qebP5E

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18JY5EF3YsM

I love Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I May See. The very best of “slowcore.”

I had that CD back in the day, but I don't remember liking it all that much. But that was 25 years ago. I'll have to give it a listen.

25 years?!? Really?!? ... yeah, apparently so.

Those Julie Byrne tracks are great. I wouldn’t have thought of IM as a comparison. Somewhat similar in sound I guess but very different emotional territory.

I was surprised by the 25 years as well -- I was thinking it was more like the late 90's. Didn't we just talk about that phenomenon? :)

Yes, I meant the IM comparison to be in the "if you like IM you might like this too" vein. But you're right about the emotional territory -- very different, as is her voice of course.

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