The Perrys and the Next Phase
So I’ve been wondering lately when the Perrys will be starting work on their next album. It will, after all, be the first with baritone Nick Trammel and erstwhile baritone Joseph Habedank in his new role as lead and as such will mark a kind of official move into The Next Phase (as in, after Loren Harris).
It’s an interesting moment for them as a group. Even though it’s a bit soon to be picking the greatest albums of the aughts (three years too soon to be exact), it’s already pretty clear that with time and retrospection, Life of Love and This is the Day, while not perfect, really do and always will stand out as the kind of instant classics that both define a group and consolidate on a single album or two some of the best that’s being thought and written and arranged in an entire genre.
And yet what has followed these landmarks has often felt unworthy of the Perrys’ own standard of achievement. What the Goodmans tribute album gained the group in the near term – endearing themselves to legions of old-timer fans eager to find an object for their Howard and Vestal nostalgia – it has cost them in focus over the longer term. Come Thirsty, the last major release from the Ps and the first project of new songs since the Goodmans album, went wobbly on the basis of uneven material, and that wobbliness was only exacerbated for the group when Loren Harris left.
Shortly after Habedank was promoted to fill Harris’s spot and Nick Trammel hired to replace Habedank on baritone, a friend of mine saw the Perrys in concert and caught a glimpse of Habedank, Trammel, and the Stuffles’ son JK together. Describing the situation in email, my friend wondered wryly if Tracy and Libbi Stuffle had a license to operate a day care.
A huge Perrys fan, my friend was being facetious. But I think I understand her point: the same youthfulness that has invigorated the Perrys’ style and energized their sound has in the last year or so seemed to scatter their force to a certain extent. In promoting Habedank to lead and replacing Habedank with Trammel, the Stuffles seem to have become somewhat captive to, rather than primarily role models for, the young talent in their group.
What makes me say that? It’s not, actually, the shakiness of Trammel’s start with them (whether he ultimately proves himself vocally is a matter for which there’s not yet quite enough evidence to decide). Rather more urgently, there’s the problem of Habedank’s metastasizing ego, which by all outward appearances has gone virtually unchecked. Instead of impressing upon the young Habedank how much he had to learn, his promotion to lead seems instead to have been an occasion for him to slip the chain and harass the neighbors. The spottiness of his vocal work in the lead position wouldn’t normally be cause for much concern – everybody needs time to adjust and grown into new roles. Neither are any one of his hammy, manicured stage habits worth much notice in isolation – the white hanky peaking out of the clenched fist, the little glory hops at strategic moments, the over-practiced expression during particularly powerful moments of teetering between heaven and hysteria, the IAG singing.
You’ll see any number of talented but young and inexperienced artists over-indulge one of these behaviors now and then when they get their first big break. But converging in a single artist, which they have, and establishing themselves, which they are, as serial patterns of misbehavior in Habedank, these habits look a lot like symptoms of a more general lack of focus and proper instruction – the kind of acting out that kids will do to get attention.
There a couple of mp3 clips making the email rounds in sg right now. They’re both, I gather, from a gospel cruise back from the first part of the year. I’ve heard one of them and had the other described to me by a few people. The more widely circulated of the two involves a bunch of artists getting together one night and singing Amazing Grace intentionally out of tune. Several phony shouts go up among the general carrying on. This little dramedy’s high point involves one Joseph Habedank stepping into the “pulpit” and launching into a lengthy parody of an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preacher discoursing extravagantly on the carnality of the flesh. It goes on for some while.
I know people who grow up evangelical and/or fundamentalist and think this kind of stuff is funny. And I can’t say I’ve never joked privately about the pietistic fervor of the stem-winding evangelist. But there’s an outlandishness to all this that’s unnerving and off-putting, the kind of thing that when you hear it you’re embarrassed to listen, and embarrassed for the people involved largely because they have no better sense than not to be embarrassed themselves (see, for example, here). Habedank’s full-throated embrace of his “preacherly” satire gives off a certain tawdriness that spoils the fun, leaves one with the feeling that such cheap limelighting comes a bit too naturally for him, is not that far off from the glory hops and the white hanky of the main stage, the “real” thing.
Why hasn’t someone told him: A)that it’s probably not a good idea to publicly mock the religious traditions of so many of your fans, especially when it could be (and obviously was) recorded for posterity and circulation (I’m assuming here that Habedank himself isn’t emailing these things around to people, which would be incomprehensibly gauche); and B)that his focus needs to be on learning how to lay down his lead lines with polished expertise instead of fixating on matters of choreography and stagecraft and cheapseat showboating? Where, that is, are the Stuffles in all this?
Where were they when “He Forgot,” a song from Come Thirsty written by Habendank and Perrys pianist Mathew Holt, was chosen as a single, passing over any one of the far superior tunes on the project – “Until the Last One is Home,” “They Sang a Hymn,” and “Day that Never Ends” come most immediately to mind? Instead of singling middlin’-to-fair Habeholt music, why aren’t they sitting the two young aspiring writers down for a talk: Look guys, you’ve got a great deal of promise as writers, but your song doesn’t quite cut it. In fact (and now I’m quoting myself here), “it 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?”
The song and the songwriters have a great deal of promise that with the right support and honest feedback could be cultivated into something special. But for a group of the Perrys’ status, an early cut from the songbook of two fairly inexperienced writers simply won’t do as a single. At least it shouldn’t have.
This can’t be news to the Stuffles. The hits they scored off Life of Love and This is the Day – among them, “I Will Find You Again” or “Calvary Answers for Me,” or “Wish I Could’ve Been There” – possess a lyrical and melodic coherence that are conspicuously absent from “He Forgot.” So what gives?
Perhaps they’re afraid of losing Habedank and so are willing to single a musically inferior song of his and Holt’s – just as they’re willing to indulge and let go unchecked Habedank’s indiscipline on and off the stage – in passive kind of appeasement. Or maybe they see other groups cutting Habeholt songs – for instance, Mark Trammell Trio, which just recorded “Weary at the Well,” a rhythmically savvy and melodically catchy tune, but lyrically, full of beginning writers’ mistakes – and think, “well, they must be good.” The irony, of course, is that other groups are probably cutting Habeholt songs because they’ve been recorded on a Perrys album. A perfect little echo chamber of abdicated responsibilities and bad judgment.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s something else altogether. But in any case, it’s natural to wonder (or fear) if whatever is leading the Stuffles to cede their creative and professional authority to their less experienced and skilled employees means we should expect their next album to be weighted in favor of musically substandard Habeholt songs.
Supporting young artists in the industry the way the Perrys have is deeply admirable. They’ve made a long-term commitment to investing in their own people that speaks clearly of their fundamental goodness and professional integrity. But to make this investment an effective one, you’ve got to have a solid grasp of your own needs first and then decide how much you can give the artists you surround yourself with. It’s not just a matter of inadvertently creating another Andrew Ishee or the next generation’s Jonathan Wilburn, troubling as that is. It’s a matter of unintended self-sabotage, of surrendering so much control over the direction of your music that the artistic vision languishes in the hands of those who are still in their professional adolescence.Email this Post