I don’t think it should come as a surprise that the latest album from the duo of Karen and Don Peris, better known as The Innocence Mission, would essentially be an album of lullabies. Karen’s voice is soft and wispy, reminiscent of Over The Rhine’s Karen Berquist minus the grit and edge, and Don’s guitar and arrangements are especially graceful and fluid. Together, they make perfect music for drifting off, and one can easily picture the duo playing these songs for their young children (which is actually the case). In fact, one might even become a little jealous for not having these soft songs are part of their own childhood memories.
Some might raise their eyebrows at some of the track choices. But as the disc continues, it becomes fairly obvious that the duo (along with upright bassist Mike Bitts) are more than capable of stripping a song of any preconceptions and cliches it may have gathered over the years and making it seem fresh and new in the process.
For instance, their version of “Over The Rainbow” (a song that’s been forever altered for me thanks to Save the Green Planet). Karen’s voice seems almost hesitant at times, as if she’s afraid that the answer to “If happy little bluebirds fly/Beyond the rainbow/Why oh why can’t I?” might be too hard to take. And the version of “What A Wonderful World” on this disc is nothing short of revelatory. Aided by lovely backing arrangements, the song takes on a hymn-like quality a la “This Is My Father’s World.” When rendered by Karen’s voice, the hope expressed in a lyric such as “I hear babies crying/And watch them grow/They’ll learn so much more than I’ll ever know” simply sounds too good to be true.
Not all of the album’s tracks are hallowed showtunes. Breakfast At Tiffany’s “Moon River” is transformed into a skeletal piece of sparse piano and acoustic guitar, which only accentuates the lyrics’ longing. Don Peris showcases his deft playing on two classical music renditions, Chopin’s “Prelude In A” and Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 8,” the latter having an especially deep, resonant feel to it. And the band offers up their rendition of what is perhaps my favorite hymn of all time, H.G. Spafford’s “It Is Well With My Soul.” The hymn’s charged words are all the more lovely wrapped up in Karen’s trembling voice, and there’s a nostalgic hint to the piece, as if you’re listening to a Great Depression-era radio broadcast.
At times, the song selections might seem a little trite and precocious. Heck, the same could be said for the album’s concept. One might expect this from the likes of Kathie Lee Gifford, not the Innocence Mission. If you’re a cynical bastard, chances are this review has thrown up all sorts of red flags. But there’s something terribly disarming about the Peris’ presentation. There’s not an ounce of cheese or pretense on this disc, but rather something approaching a hushed reverence for these old standards.