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Innocence Regained : Cacophony Was Silenced When the Mission of Dreamy, Intelligent Introspection Was Heard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To find the polar opposite of punk and grunge on the rock ‘n’ roll map, just consult a touring itinerary for the Innocence Mission.

The band from Lancaster, Pa., makes gentleness and refinement a virtue in delicate songs that often are warm, sympathetic meditations on questions of faith and the tug of family ties.

For fans who enjoy being drawn into singer Karen Peris’ now-gauzy, now-glistening world of introspection, it may come as a shock to learn that her life as a rock singer began with attempted banshee screams.

Peris, 32, traces the Innocence Mission’s start to her appearance in a student production of “Godspell” at Lancaster Catholic High School.

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“I had one line, which I think was, ‘The tallest candlestick ain’t no good without a wick,’ ” the soft-spoken singer said of her early encounter with show biz. “I think [the limited role] was because my acting audition was so awful.”

But the school play introduced her to guitarist Don Peris, her future husband, and bassist Mike Bitts. One of Don’s friends, Steve Brown, was recruited to play drums, and the foursome, with Karen on keyboards and vocals, assembled for their first rehearsals.

“When we were first playing in Steve’s garage, we played quite a few Led Zeppelin songs,” Peris continued over the phone from a hotel room in Edmonton, Alberta, a stop on the Innocence Mission’s five-week tour as opening act for Emmylou Harris. (Both acts perform Monday at the Coach House. Review, F2.)

It’s hard to conceive of the demure Peris trying to wail her way through “Immigrant Song,” but she gave it a shot, banshee screams and all.

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“I wasn’t very good, though,” she said with a soft, breathy laugh.

Soon enough she had given up attempting to replicate Robert Plant’s hormonal blues and swaggering Viking battle cries in favor of her own methods.

The three Innocence Mission releases since 1989 have invited comparisons to such dreamy pop-rockers as Cocteau Twins, the Sundays and Natalie Merchant. It hasn’t been uncommon for critics to invoke the names of famous female novelists and poets of the 19th century when trying to describe a musical sensibility far removed from the coarseness and clangor of much ‘90s rock.

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Books are a big part of Peris’ life--lately she has been reading Elizabeth Bishop and Josephine Miles, two 20th century poets she admires--and her songs include such literary devices as using proper names for people and places.

Peris resists claiming any laurels for literacy.

“I don’t think there’s anything exclusive or distinguished about reading books. It’s just like joining in a conversation with people,” she said. “Reading things that move me and remind me of mysteries in my life makes me want to write.”

One example of that process is “Keeping Awake,” the opening track on “Glow,” the 1995 album that is by far the group’s best.

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Peris said that a passage in “The Optimist’s Daughter,” by Eudora Welty, reminded her of the snug, secure bedtime feeling she would get as a girl in her own home, where she was the second youngest of six children.

As the album proceeds, Peris sings of the idealistic aspirations young people have and of the inevitable separations they must face on the journey to adulthood.

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The band supplies a unified but varied backing of soft ripples and firm rhythmic pulses, playing with more backbone and dynamic than on past releases. Still, intimacy and introspection prevail, and “Glow” comes off as a rock approximation of--here we go with the 19th century literary lionesses--the family-based storytelling of Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott.

Peris says that the characters in her songs correspond to people she knows, with some poetic license taken. “I think it’s maybe just because my family is important to me and has been a strong presence in my life,” she said.

The theme of close connections shadowed by inevitable partings reflects “those moments of different family members moving away from home and the feeling that I’ve had of being unsure of what my place will be in the world, what purpose, what I could do after admiring the lives of my brothers and sister. I’m one of the youngest in my family, and that was an experience for me, wondering how I could leave home and do something with my life.”

The Innocence Mission’s homecoming to Lancaster, where all four band members (and all but one of Peris’ siblings) still live, will have to wait a while as the group completes its touring for “Glow.”

“I’m looking forward to going home and writing songs. Hearing all this great music--Emmylou and 16 Horsepower and Natalie Merchant [the Innocence Mission’s touring partners during the past year]--they’ve all given me a longing to just go home and sing and write songs.”

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A sense of musical fellowship has been coming out on stage, Peris said. She would join Merchant for renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want” or the country-gospel song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Harris has begun joining the Innocence Mission to harmonize on “Keeping Awake.”

“It was her idea, and it was really gracious of her,” said Peris, who, with the rest of the Innocence Mission, had fallen for Harris’ latest album, “Wrecking Ball,” before the chance to tour with her arose. “It’s been a great joy to hear her sing harmonies on a song of ours.”

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The Innocence Mission opens for Emmylou Harris on Monday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 7 and 9:30 p.m. $29.50-$31.50. (714) 496-8930.


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