place of origin:
Lancaster, PA. U.S.A.
folkish, ethereal, melodic arty enlightened rock
The Innocence Mission (1989)
Birds of My Neighborhood (1999)
Mike Bitts (bass, vibes, voice); Steve Brown (drums); Karen Peris
(voice, guitar, keyboards); Don Peris (guitar, keyboards, voice)
"Music is something I'm grateful for. I feel a great joy in writing
and singing and playing. Music is one of those gifts God gave to people to help them learn
about how we're all connected."
The Innocence Mission emerged from Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the late
eighties bearing a folkish, atmospheric, airy-guitar style that owed as much to 10,000
Maniacs as it did to Simon and Garfunkel. Comprised of four schoolfriends, Mike Bitts
(bass), Steve Brown (drums), Don Peris (lead guitar, keyboards) and his newlywed wife
Karen Peris (vocals, guitar, keyboards), the band found a niche on A&M Records's
roster upon the strength of the ep Tending the Rose Garden. Since then The Innocence
Mission has been cultivating a personal, contemplative style that explores the most
fragile regions of the post-punk, "enlightened", arty sound.
The Innocence Mission (1989, A&M), the band's self-titled debut, if anything
was strikingly unique (especially for its era). Karen's lyrics (on this record), obviously
contrasting the literary sophistication of a Natalie Merchant and a John Lombardo or the
imagination of a Morrisey, may seem plain at first glance, like random scribblings in a notebook; yet there is something to be said for
their humility, which comes across as refreshingly honest. In those days Karen's words
primarilly covered the desperate insecurity of youth. Above all, the shining point of the
album is Karen's unique, wonderfully odd sorprano (comparable to Kate Bush and Mary
Margaret O'Hara), displayed at its most fledgling stage. That combined with Don Peris's
beautifully chiming guitar style and the slower, more subtle rhythms is what makes this
record such a beautiful listen. Some of the finer moments are the elegant
"Mercy" and the consuming "Surreal" and "Wonder of Birds".
The group's second album, Umbrella, (1991, A&M) is definitely more polished,
and some might even say it loses a bit of The Innocence Mission's raw intensity.
Yet, the melodies are stronger, as is apparent in the gorgeous opening track "And
Hiding Away", and the rhythms become the focal point. Overall, it's, a step up, with
beautifully reflective lyrics that reach the most personal emotions of the listener with
remarkable ease. It carries on the theme of emotional burdens (which seems to be the
consistent topic of Karen's words) as well as childhood memories coupled with Catholic
imagery. Karen's singing has also improved, and she seems to have a greater control over
Glow (1995, A&M), the third album, wouldn't see the light of day for some
time. But the wait was surely worth it, as this record displays The Innocence Mission
reaching what is considered by the broad portion of their fanbase to be their peak. It is,
as it is named, a brightly burning flame, swirly, driven by a more neo-psychedelic guitar
jangle. Karen's voice having pleasingly settled, the melodies are easier while the rhythms
are more intense. Karen's lyrics are no longer as desperate and emotionally burdened,
expressing a settled comfort in her family life. The band's groove clearly flaunts the
solidity of experience. It is their most upbeat record to date, although you wouldn't know
it from the quiet single "Bright as Yellow" or the drifting ballad "Happy,
the End". The passive energy of "Brave" and "Speak Our Minds" is
utterly thrilling, as Don's gorgeous, chiming guitar riffs command the tunes eloquently.
At this point things would shift dramatically in the world of The Innocence Mission.
Unhappiness with their status on A&M and an overall feeling of security in their
fanbase would lead the group to leave the label for more freedom on independant label
Kneeling Elephant. Yet the more affecting change would occur in 1998 when Steve Brown
would depart the band to fullfill a lifetime dream of opening his own restaraunt. The band
didn't seem at all alarmed by his departure, despite the fact that it would delay the
release of a new record. At the same time Don and Karen's difficulty in conceiving a child
led to some unhappiness for the two (that no doubt would come across on the album). The
recording process for Birds of My Neighborhood (1999, Kneeling Elephant) was slow
and apparently comfortable for the remaining members, who chose not to add a new drummer.
The new record is consoling, emotional, personal their quietest and most folkish yet. Birds
of My Neighborhood may not quite match up to its innovative predecessors, but few
artists can come across so astoundingly strong from such a stripped-down setting. The band
seems more than comfortable where they are, and Don and Karen are quite content with their
new baby boy. At the same time, this is clearly a veteran band, one that has proven their
abilities with already classic records and their live shows remain fantastic and sold out.
Perhaps many are satisfied with The Innocence Mission's new direction, but surely the
group's most powerful albums were the first three, which are all very different but
ultimatly equal in their greatness. No doubt a new drummer would only clutter things, but
one can always hold to the hope that Steve Brown will one day return. Certainly this won't
occur anytime soon, for the band just released an even more folkish record, a collection
of traditional hymns called Christ is My Hope (2000, Kneeling Elephant) to
benefit the charitable work of Food for the Poor and the Council of Churches' foodbank in
Lancaster. Don has also announced plans to release a solo album. All in all, The Innocence
Mission is one of the most unique and consuming bands of the last ten years, engaging
their audience in one of the most human and uplifting musical journeys to be taken, and
they've certainly proven they have the power to remain so for the long haul.
the innocence mission in 1989