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Chasing the ephemeral in wistful melodies

The music on Elvis Perkins’ debut “Ash Wednesday” sounds like sorrow set to melody -- which puts the singer-songwriter’s ensemble in a tenuous position when presenting it live.

It’s an attempt “just to hold on, really, to something invisible,” Perkins says. “It’s easy to get derailed by the turning of my own mind, and its distractions by what’s going on in the minds of everyone else in the room. Sometimes I find it can be like being in the middle of an existential crisis.”

Not that the sadness conveyed on “Ash Wednesday” isn’t palpable. His father, actor Anthony Perkins, died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, and his mother, photographer Berry Berenson, was killed when her plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. The album has all kinds of references to his parents, depending on how you read it.

“As far as their lives and their deaths, they’re essential to my experiences as a person,” he says. “That affects everything.”

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Filter in his musical influences, which include Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” and you get the picture. Perkins possesses a hint of the Irish bard’s ability to evoke sadness with soul and the Russian writer’s love of the subtleties of language.

The trick, though, is to render it all into a shape someone else wants to hum. “I want a song to become what it wants to become, with my help -- the way, I guess, good parenting works,” he says. “I don’t turn one away if it’s ready to be born quickly. But they don’t just fall out.”

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-- Scott Timberg

Elvis Perkins, the Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Friday. $12. (213) 413-8200;

www.attheecho.com. Also 8 p.m. Saturday at Largo, 432 N. Fairfax, L.A. $15. (323) 852-1073.


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