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Linda Perhacs - Parallelograms

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Artist: Linda Perhacs

Album: Parallelograms

Label: Sunbeam

Review date: Nov. 24, 2008

Recorded in 1970, mastered badly, almost entirely unpromoted and forgotten for decades, Parallelograms was, up till recently, one of the great lost albums of the early 1970s. Its author, a dental technician by profession, was completely untrained, yet had an unusually sophisticated ear for harmonies and counterpoints. Her voice was, and remains crystal-clear yet flexible, capable of the most otherworldly trills (“Parallelograms”) as well as earthy jazz slides (“Paper Mountain Man”). She sounds a good bit like Joni Mitchell, who was recording in the same Southern California scene at about the same time. Like Mitchell, she sings songs that flirt with folk, blues in jazz, yet unlike Mitchell she sounds fundamentally untethered to any of these conventions. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is this: Perhacs had no formal training, in writing, singing or arranging music. But there is nothing naïve about Parallelograms. It is intricate as well as hauntingly beautiful, carefully, complexly composed as well as utterly natural.

Inspiration is a very mysterious thing, and often over-emphasized, but it seems to have played a role here. Perhacs say that, from an early age, she saw music in terms of colors and shapes. “I’m seeing silences between the leaves,” she sings on the lovely “Chimucan Rain,” a striking, synesthetic metaphor. Her sensory channel-crossing shows up, too, on “Parallelograms,” the most stunning cut on an exceptional album. The song, she says, was composed instantaneously on the Ventura Freeway at 3 a.m. in a bout of multi-disciplinary inspiration. Perhacs calls it a “visual composition,” where “all the components of sound …are interactive to a composer as a total three-dimensional sound – light, form, color, sculpture, created rather than randomly improvised.”

Songs like “Chimucan Rain” and “Parallelograms” are fragile, gauzy, spiritual, yet Perhacs had an earthier side to her as well. She turns downright cutting on the blues-influenced “Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding,” where she mocks the perfectly coiffed, materialistic brides-to-be of Southern California. “Did I see you in Rome? I wintered abroad,” she sings, acidly, and you remember, all of a sudden, how much pressure there must have been on a woman in the late 1960s to marry well and behave, rather than making songs. The other stinger is buried in “Paper Mountain Man,” a sliding, slapped blues song about a man Perhacs used to love.

The album had been almost unobtainable for 26 years following its release, until, Michael Piper’s The Wild Places digitalized the original, clumsy mix in 1996. Seven years later, coincidentally, about the time that Devendra Banhart began talking Parallelograms up, Piper located Perhacs herself, who still possessed the original tape masters. (In the liner notes, she explains that she could only bear to listen to these originals. The album mix, compressed for AM radio, was so bad that she threw her copy away after one play.) That led to a remastered, reissue in 2003, which included five additional tracks. All these tracks – two versions of the unreleased “If You Were My Man,” an additional noise-inflected take of “Hey Who Really Cares” and two demo versions of “Chimacum Rain” – are included on the current Sunbeam reissue, as well as two new ones: a BBC interview and a new song called “I Would Rather Love.”

The bonus tracks illustrate the dangers of fooling with something that is damned near perfect already. An interview with Leonard Rosenman (the film composer who discovered Perhacs in his dentist’s office and encouraged her to record her songs) shows Perhacs experimenting with tape manipulations, slowing the tinkling chimes and xylophones of “Chimacum Rain” to provide eerie backing. Likewise, the sample-studded introduction to “Hey, Who Really Cares?” tell us something about Perhacs’ open-ness to experiment, but nothing more. The unreleased “If You Were My Man” is fine, both in demo form more elaborately arranged, but it would be one of the weaker tracks on Parallelograms. The alternate takes of “Chimacum Rain” are lovely, but not as striking as the album cut.

The really new stuff is even worse. The BBC interview is an endless retelling of a Chinese woman’s encounter with American Indian ghosts. It’s sort of like when someone insists on telling you every aspect of a dream they had last night, and it’s not even Perhacs own dream, but someone else’s. And the really new song, “I Would Rather Love” is slick and smug and just not on a level with Perhacs’ early work. It sounds like an off-track from Karen Carpenter.

But all this is really beside the point. The meat of the album, the 11 tracks from the original Parallelograms, is still remarkable, strange and a nearly ideal iteration of Perhacs’ distinctive art. It’s no disgrace to have only one perfect album in you. Most people don’t even get that.

By Jennifer Kelly

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