Artists new on the scene (and their publicists) are forever struggling to position themselves with a compelling personal story that makes them stand apart from their peers. In the case of buzz-making troubadour Elvis Perkins, the story wrote itself, and has succeeded in creating a burst of media interest in his current tour. Whether Perkins’ music lives up to that story remains to be seen.
Perkins, of course, is the son of the late actor Anthony Perkins, immortalized in film as Alfred Hitchcock’s titular “Psycho” as well as a string of notable performances as sensitive but troubled souls. Before he succumbed to AIDS in 1992, he and photographer wife Berry Berenson raised two distinctively named sons: songwriter Elvis and drummer-brother Osgood, or Oz. In 2001, Berenson tragically died aboard one of the planes that was flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
All of which gives Elvis Perkins more lyrical source material than many artists accrue in a lifetime.
It also makes it hard not to read layers of meaning between the lines of songs like the provocatively titled “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky,” from his debut album “Ash Wednesday” (on XL), when he advises, “Take better care of your heart/ And you’ll be opening Swiss bank accounts/ Let go, girl, for now play your part/ Or you’ll be swimming those milk clouds on high/ Do you ever wonder where you go when you die?”
The 11 songs comprising “Ash Wednesday” were reportedly composed around the time of Berenson’s death, and include allusive titles like “While You Were Sleeping,” “Moon Woman II,” “It’s a Sad World After All,” “Good Friday” and the beautifully affecting title track.
But to his credit, the thirtysomething troubadour eschews personal specifics in favor of more mysterious poetics that imbue his words with greater universality. Melancholy beds of acoustic guitar, double bass, violin, vibraphone, harmonium, trumpet, trombone and even glockenspiel cradle Perkins’ dreamy melodies, and the falsetto breaks in his emotional vocals. Subtle touches of whimsy lighten the brooding: the Left Bank strains of violin prettying “Emile’s Vietnam in the Sky,” the childlike title of “Sleep Sandwich” and its lyrical references to “you in your velvet space helmet, me in my rainbow hat” as vibes and theremin quiver in the background.