Critically Speaking: The Perrys, Come Thirsty

With this review, I’m introducing a new way of rating albums. The method is pretty simple: take the number of songs on an album that you skip over after you’ve gotten to know the song selection well enough; subtract that number from the total number of songs; divide the remainder by the total numbers of songs, and viola: you’ve got yourself the patented AVLF Listenability Index (ALI) for a given project. The higher the rating (that is, the nearer it gets to 100), the better the project.There are a coupla things I like about this approach: it manages to quantify subjectivity in a meaningful way that the arbitrary X out 5 star rating system so many people use does not. The patented (note: it’s not really patented) ALI approach also - again, unlike star-rating systems - suggests at a glance whether or not album manages to hold a given reviewer’s attention for a majority of the time. And finally, it requires reviewers to listen to the album at least two times, which is not always a given in music reviewing, while at the same time rewarding our intuition as listeners that we usually know what we like when we hear it. So here we go.

The Perrys
Come Thirsty
Daywind 2006
ALI: 63%

Comparing the Perrys to the Goodmans is such a commonplace in gospel music that it has become less of a compliment and more of a critical crutch, a way to sound perceptive and historically literate without really having to say anything terribly insightful, indeed without having to listen much at all. Of course the Perrys eagerly cultivate this comparison.

For all its reverence and seriousness, the Perrys’ Remembering the Goodmans album from 2005 was, after all, the ultimate extension of what started long ago as Libbi Perry-Stuffle’s better-than-the-real-thing imitation of Vestal Goodman’s “God Walks the Dark Hills.” But something happened on the way to life imitating the Goodman’s larger-than-life art in this case. As Perry-Stuffle’s out-Vestalling Vestal suggests, the Perrys have gone well beyond imitation of the Goodmans’ style and, with Come Thirsty, have pretty clearly managed to surpass it.

The first three songs of the album - “Until the Last One is Home,” “Still Thrilled,” and “Day that Never Ends” - are a better tribute to the Goodmans than anything on the Perry’s slavish Goodmans album. “Day that Never Ends” is reticulated with delightful little Goodman moves: the way dotted quarter-notes are used to punch up certain words such as “together” and “never” rather than singing them in straight time (this is one way the Goodmans were able to keep simple I-IV-V music from sounding monotonous), the piano trilling and running all around the vocals, and the shuffling gait.

“Still Thrilled” feels a little too much like a warmed over “Still Blessed” reimagined in the style of Vestal, but “Until the Last One is Home” opens the album pitch perfectly and is perhaps the most pleasing and well sung bass-lead I’ve heard in years (Tracy Stuffle and the song’s arranger(s) deserve an extra gold star for pulling off the most enjoyable bass-note ending since Greater Vision’s remake of “I Didn’t Know” on the live recording of the Quartets project, and this depsite the fact that you can’t really understand what in the heck Stuffle is saying in his bass lead lines on the chorus).

It’s as if the Perrys use the first three songs of Come Thirsty to work out the emotional residue from their work on the Goodmans’ project because the remainder of the album goes in several different directions. The cinematic ballad “He Will Hide Me,” sung mainly by Loren Harris, anchors the album emotionally. A self-possessed edge has crept into Harris’s voice with age, giving him Herculean reach (listen to the second verse). And the song’s intricately shaded orchestration has the expansiveness of a Broadway show stopper or an operatic overture. In fact, the song demands the kind of investment of emotion and extension of empathy usually associated with musical drama.

“He Will Hide Me” seems to aspire to the kind of power-ballad position that “Calvary Answers For Me” occupied on the This is the Day* album (one title even vaguely echoes the other), but I’m not sure “Hide” is lyrically up to that level, and certainly it’s not up to the level of its own melody and arrangement here. Words, though, hardly seem to matter in moments when Harris and Joseph Habedank share a splendid few bars of harmony, or when Perry-Stuffle’s voice comes out of nowhere to take the lead and then recedes back into the ensemble with the stealthy confidence that often comes to vocalists only after their voice itself has peaked, or when the orchestra’s trumpets sound a transition that seem almost to presage a more apocalyptic trumpet blast.

“Walk Away Free,” an airy, medium tempo number with a reliable hook, balances the heftiness of “Hide Me” and sounds like a shoo-in for an early single. “He Forgot” moves along ably enough that it’s easy to … well, forget that the chorus’ hook - “He forgot more than I’ll ever know” - doesn’t really make a lot of sense in the context of the verses, which talk about all the transgressions that have required God’s forgiveness. I get the “sea of forgetfulness” allusion here, but what does it matter that God has forgotten more than I’ll ever know when what the song really seems to want to say is that he forget all that I ever did when I asked forgiveness? But no matter. Tap your toe hard enough and you’ll be sufficiently distracted to enjoy the song.

This cannot, alas, be said of others. “When Jesus Prays” is a melodically meandering tune that sounds like a good idea (”hey, wouldn’t ‘When Jesus Prays’ be a great title?“) in search of a song that’s never really found. Ditto “Why Trouble the Master.” Though it’s catchier than “When Jesus Prays,” “Why Trouble” pivots on the ghoulish line, “I know he makes dead things rise.” Entire pet cemeteries and miles of sludgy road kill levitate before my eyes every time I hear this song in the car. Dead things? Ick. And finally, the title track manages to be both turgid and singsongy, though given that the Life of Love title track also fizzled and sputtered, maybe there’s a logic here that finer minds than mine appreciate.

As I’ve noted before, in the mix of material on a given album, the Perrys can end up sounding like everyone and no one. That’s fortunately not the case here. They are wholly themselves and for the most part (63% of the time to be exact), Come Thirsty sates the thirst it solicits. The Goodmans never had the stylistic or creative range showcased here; at their best, they bent every song to their will. The Perrys, on the other hand, rise (or try) to meet their material, which in this case means they end up sounding as good - but also as bad - as the songwriting. June 23, 2006 12:07 PM [comments]

*Originally I had said Life of Love here, incorrectly so. Thanks to DM for pointing that out.

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  1. » “Come Thirsty” (Perrys) CD Review on 18 Sep 2006 at 1:36 pm

    […] The album also has several nice ballads. Libbi takes the lead on “Mary for a While,” a unique song in that the rest of the group doesn’t sing anything more than background vocals. “When Jesus Prays” features baritone singer Joseph Habedank. One reviewer dismissed “Walk Away Free” as being somewhat predictable or formulaic. That is quite an underestimation of the most powerful song on the CD. The second verse closes with these lyrics: When Satan says I’m still in slavery My Jesus takes me back to where He paid the price for me To walk away free… […]

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