New Innocence Mission Album: Sun on the Square

Review by Brian Bayer-Larson and Abram K-J

The gap between the last two Innocence Mission albums was five years. Now, a mere three years after releasing Hello I Feel the Same (reviewed here), The Innocence Mission has put out Sun on the Square (Badman Recording Co).

 

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The Innocence Mission (image via Badman)

 

The album begins with two measures of a nylon string guitar arpeggiating a major chord, which quickly turns minor as the vocals enter, instantly evoking a yearning for connection. This first track, “Records from Your Room,” uses piano sparingly and gorgeously. The haunting high-register melody perfectly compliments the lyrics: “I meet you there out in the air // I’m listening.” It’s a compelling way to link this album to ones before it, setting the stage for something new but familiar.

The second track, “Green Bus,” offers an exquisite interplay of guitars—soft and understated, but precise and tight. “I cannot find a thing beautiful enough for you again,” Peris sings. The song’s strings are beautiful, expressing more ineffable longing.

In “Look Out From Your Window” (featuring a Peris kid on viola!) Peris still wants to listen: “All I cannot say I hope you know // All you cannot say I hope I can hear.” There is a theme of disconnect mingled with hope, acknowledging the reality that we cannot achieve ultimate communion with one another, even asbut that we hold out hope that one day we will. It is on this track that there is (at last!) some percussion.

“Shadow of the Pines” is an instant classic, and easily a top 10 Innocence Mission song. The muted piano is as if they decided to use toy instruments and coaxed all the beauty they could out them. The song is like stepping out of the Metro in Paris on a spring afternoon, encountering a fantasy made real. The instrumental closing of the track gives the listener layers of melodic, moving riffs, which—were this any other band—could have built for another five minutes. (The song is a modest 4:01.)

The spare use of electric guitar on “Buildings in Flower” is a nice touch. Don Peris’s guitar is tastefully employed and never over-shimmery (if that’s even possible!). More drums! (But only for the last quarter of the song.) If “And it’s hard to know, now, where we should go” is the call, the response (in question form) is, “Will the lifting of a window let the Spirit in, and then we begin to vividly live?”

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The sixth and title track, “Sun on the Square” is probably the most complex song on the album and maybe one of their most ambitious compositions ever. Loads of string swells as the rhythmic song goes on, which is a great sound for the band. “Let there be more kindness in the world,” Peris sings.

If the next track “Light of Winter” sounds familiar, it’s because a previous version (called “From the Trains”) appeared on a sweet EP called “the snow on pi day.” It could be a Radiohead song. The first version—which we like a little better—had a little more backbone to it—bass and drums where there is piano now. The songs are different enough that renaming it made sense. The new version is still great. The theme of light–and seeing it–continues.

Track 8, “Star of Land and Sea,” is practically brutal in its child-like expression of hope in a dark world. There are echoes of the same two-note, high-pitched guitar riff from the previous track, which ties them together nicely.

The second to last song is “An Idea of Canoeing,” the chords and mood of which are reminiscent of Lakes of Canada. Where else are you going to find a melodica? More wondering: “Will I cross the street to you / in the traffic breaks / in the light of this / in the light of this love / here and now?”

“Galvanic” is a nice way to end the album. She sings in hope, “I believe we are going to see, things will come right this time.”

Overall, this is a very good album (can the band create otherwise?) with a lot to dig into, both lyrically and aurally. The band seemed to write and record this album with a soft touch, not risking too much. But you’ll only find gratitude here for the ways this record returns to the lush notes and tones of My Room in the Trees and Befriended.

As with all their albums there is an undeniable authenticity that comes through in their music. Amazingly, the band’s songs could produce the same emotional response in the listener, whether or not they produce them with multiple instruments. Karen’s voice and heart-rending lyrics come through with every composition. Also amazing is her ability to write so skillfully (and for such a long time now) about such universally human themes as loneliness, disconnect, hope, light, and vision. The hope is uniquely Christian, or at least one that looks up. It’s this—and the unique and always moving music—that keeps us coming back to them.

Check out the album here at Badman or here at Bandcamp.

 


 

Thanks to Badman for early access to the album so we could review it.

5 Years Later… A Review of The Innocence Mission’s New Album

Hello I Feel the Same album cover

 

The last Innocence Mission release was 2010’s My Room in the Trees. I’ve been a big fan of the band since I inquired about my youth minister’s copy of Glow on top of the youth group boombox in the mid-90s. My Room in the Trees, however, stood out to me as one of their best. It featured the amazing “God is Love”:

God is love, and love will never fail me

God is love, and love will never fail me

If I’m driving there today

And I really am this afraid

God is love, and love will never fail me.

I’ve quoted it from the pulpit before and have sung it to myself not a few times.

I listened to that song and album in the midst of some dear friends moving out of our triple-decker community house (“Some birds I know are moving on this weekend”). I needed to hear “God is Love,” because we were in the midst of a major transition: our second child was soon to be born.

Without recounting the entire birth story here, I can simply say that his safe arrival left us in tears–more than the “usual” baby-being-born kind of tears. Some last-minute delivery challenges gave us quite a scare–but then there was baby #2, safely being cuddled by his mom and me. It may seem a small thing to The Innocence Mission to sing, “Stay calm… stay calm,” but that line from North American Field Song carried me through some shared moments of difficulty. I still think that is the best song they’ve ever recorded, and one of the very few songs I would ever consider calling “perfect.”

 

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This Friday The Innocence Mission releases Hello I Feel the Same, their first album since My Room in the Trees.

If you are still, 20 years later, longing for the killer drums of 1995’s “That Was Another Country” (my second favorite track of theirs), or the opening track to 1991’s Umbrella, you will be left waiting again till next time. (Every new Innocence Mission I harbor a secret hope that Karen and Don Peris will ply their trade with a rocking band behind them. I’m long-suffering.) Mr. Peris does, however, lay down a sweet drum groove on “Barcelona,” the album’s fourth track. It’s like a fresh-water version of recent Mark Kozelek. The drums make another cameo before the album ends.

The first two tracks are classic Innocence Mission, with just a touch of drums and subtle bass harmonica (!) coming in a minute or so into the second song. Don Peris’s high-register guitar arpeggios and pleasingly breathy background vocals complement Karen Paris’s good-as-they’ve-ever-sounded vocals.

Track 3, “Washington Field Trip,” is this album’s “North American Field Song”–at least as I listen to it. Here is the band, only “wanting to be helpful in this life,” helping–whether they mean to or not–by laying down a devastatingly beautiful song with actually perfect piano tone. Never was a three-note melody in a chorus so haunting. The Perises, again, get into soul territory:

I do not want fear to hold me

I don’t want to be kept from loving at all

The longest song on the album is 3:43. Four songs don’t even reach the three-minute mark. You want all of these songs to keep going, but therein lies the duo’s approach and artistry.

Highlights include “Blue and Yellow” (what The Truman Show might have sounded like had Karen and Don Peris scored the movie) as well as the moving (and highly singable) tribute, “Fred Rogers,” which calls to mind Lancaster, PA (and, now that I think about it, maybe also heaven):

And you know I hate to drive

Maybe I’ll see you at the station

“The Color Green” features viola and violin and closes the album in a wonderfully fitting way–ascending piano with gorgeous melody in the right hand, joined by all manner of longing-inducing string parts.

And darn it if the song doesn’t resolve to the tonic at the end! One hopes The Innocence Mission will not make their listeners wait five more years to hear what’s next.

Hello I Feel the Same is another excellent effort from some beautiful makers of art and music.

 


 

Thanks to The Innocence Mission’s publicity team for early access to the album for the review. I’m sure it’s available on Amazon and iTunes, but why not support the band more directly? Check out the album at their Bandcamp page here.