If you believe that first impressions are the be-all and end-all, Ash Wednesday perhaps isn't one to add to your playlist. Initially, the debut release from California native Elvis Perkins strikes you as unrelentingly morose, almost uninviting. It requires a conscious effort on the part of the listener to scratch beneath the surface - but put the effort in and the reward presents itself nicely.
Boasting a voice that's a stunning balance of capable gravel and silky easiness, both of these tones and everything in between display an insight and an expertise far beyond Perkins' 31 years. The highly emotive content supplies a solid base on which to utilise this, with 'Moon Woman (Pt 2)' encompassing the whole vocal spectrum in the space of one track. Elsewhere, the title track is a saddening, highly sensitive murmur, somewhat more indicative of the album overall.
It's during the few examples where Perkins strays from his own remit of melancholy that he truly demonstrates promise. While 'May Day' and the veiled hoedown of 'All The Night Without Love' are by no means strikingly different, they're diverse enough within the sphere of Ash Wednesday to provide an atypical showcase for Perkins' natural flair.
Not that he should be chided for producing an album so downbeat. The unapologetic, no-frills folk sound almost commands the stripped-bare substance found here (or possibly vice versa), the two complementing each other to great effect. It certainly doesn't mean it's in any way lacking passion - in fact, Perkins should be commended for managing to convey so much fervour in an ambience evidently not fashioned for it.
Without a doubt, Ash Wednesday is an album to suit - perhaps even induce - a specific mood. For all its artistry and intellect, the subdued feel reigns throughout, potentially meaning the consumption of it will be few and far between. Yet the quality is consistent, far more important in the bigger picture. However, Ash Wednesday serves most effectively as an advertisement for Elvis Perkins himself, a man who, on this evidence, could well be a Johnny Cash for the 21st century. --Al Fox
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