WITH gloom all around, politically and weatherwise, and spring seeming a long way off, here’s a ray of aural sunshine to brighten up your day. The Innocence Mission represent love, faith, hope and charity, the joys of parenthood and, as the name would suggest, innocence. In album after album, they share the message that life ain’t so bad after all. And while they are proud Christians, you don’t need to be religious to be uplifted by their work.
The group was formed in the 1980s at the Catholic High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Pupils Karen McCullough, Don Peris, Mike Bitts and Steve Brown were all in the cast of the musical Godspell. They began playing in clubs and after leaving school Karen and Don were married. At first the Mission had something of an identity crisis – their eponymous first album from 1989 and the second, 1991’s Umbrella, reflect a line-up who cannot decide whether they want to sound like the US group 10,000 Maniacs, the Irish singer Enya or the British band The Sundays.
However by their third LP, Glow, in 1995, their sound has been simplified. The first track, Keeping Awake, shows Karen’s clear, almost childlike voice to great effect. The second, Bright As Yellow, was released as a single and has the distinction of having been used in 2008 as the official NASA wake-up call for the crew of the Space Shuttle mission STS-124. It is also on the soundtrack of the movie Empire Records.
By album four, drummer Steve has left to become a chef, leaving a trio of Karen on vocals, piano, guitars, accordion and pump organ, Don on guitars and very occasional percussion and Mike on upright bass. Birds of My Neighborhood was released in 1999. It opens with the lovely Where Does The Time Go? which was surely inspired by the great Sandy Denny song Who Knows Where The Time Goes? Further highlights are a delightful version of John Denver’s Follow Me, Lakes of Canada, later covered by Sufjan Stevens, and two charming minutes of I Haven’t Seen This Day Before.
All proceeds from the self-released 2000 EP Christ Is My Hope were donated to hunger-relief charities. It Is Well With My Soul has already featured in my wife’s Midweek Hymn blog but is well worth another listen, particularly when accompanied here by pictures paying poignant tribute to the victims of the Twin Towers attack. I also love this version of 500 Miles.
Next year brought Now The Day Is Over, a collection of lullabies and standards whose proceeds went to Catholic Relief Services. I cherish the opening track, Stay Awake, the wistful Once Upon A Summertime and the versions of Chopin’s Prelude in A and Beethoven’s Sonata No 8. My own offspring are far too old to be sung to sleep but I once lent this album to a national newspaper colleague and he testified that it got his young sons off to the Land of Nod quicksticks. In fact he used to arrive home late at night to find his wife asleep in her chair beside their beds as they slumbered, the music still playing on repeat. He ended up borrowing all my Innocence Mission CDs and claimed it was the only music they played in their house.
We Walked In Song was released in 2007 and was well worth the wait. The first track, Brotherhood of Man, sets the tone. Have no fear, it’s nothing to do with the perpetrators of Save Your Kisses For Me. This is followed by the lovely Happy Birthday which was featured in the Julia Roberts movie Fireflies in the Garden, and the almost Brazilian Love That Boy. And so it goes on, a particularly strong album.
In 2010 came My Room in the Trees. The first track, Rain (Setting Out in the Leaf Boat) features a return appearance by drummer Steve Brown. The precipitation theme continues with Gentle the Rain At Home.
At the age of 48, Karen Peris released her first solo effort, Violet, in 2012. It is mainly a piano album, including six instrumental tracks, and is a family affair with contributions from Don on guitars and drums, son Drew on violin and daughter Anna on viola. All play on the brief final song, Landscape With Birds . Like the rest of the Mission’s output, this is short and sweet, if a little more melancholic than the rest.
Maybe it’s the long gaps between the albums that make this band’s overall quality so high – it gives them time to discard any clunkers. The next album was 2015’s Hello I Feel The Same, which reminds me in name only of Groucho Marx’s remark: ‘Hello, I must be going’. Sample tracks: Tom on the Boulevard, Washington Field Trip and State Park.
The most recent disc, Sun on the Square, was released last year. Karen said in an interview that the lyrics were inspired by ‘our son and daughter being older teenagers, which can mean possibility and hope for them but also the sadness of separation and my changing role as a mom, and the intensified awareness of the preciousness of life’. Here is Look Out From Your Window.
If you’ve been listening to these clips, you will realise that Karen and Co don’t change much as time goes by. Good for them. They have found the sound that suits them and they stick to it. No hip hop experiments, praise be. As a Sunday Times reviewer said: ‘They might have been doing the same thing for nearly 30 years. But that’s OK, because they do extremely delicate late-1960s/early-1970s folk rock as well as anyone ever has.’
Sufjan Stevens, one of the more worthwhile musicians of this century, describes the band’s work as ‘moving and profound’. He opines: ‘What makes Karen Peris’s lyrics so remarkable is the economy of words . . . everyday objects take on tremendous meaning.’
For me, the Innocence Mission are like a permanently upbeat old friend you’d call when you felt down in the dumps. Every home should have one (or two, or more) of their records.