Scroll of sound

Linda Perhacs' inspired solo album Parallelograms traces new designs, 40 years later


MUSIC One of the singular ironies among the speedy online dissemination of sounds has to be the rediscovery of so many 1960s- and '70s-era women singer-songwriters who came, sang, and seemingly disappeared in the wake of Joni, Judy, and Joan. Singular among Judee Sill, Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, and those other ladies of the canyon is Linda Perhacs, the maker of Parallelograms, an achingly beautiful ode to nature and an all-too-brief testament to one young woman's life, first released on Kapp in 1970 and most recently re-released in 2008 by Sunbeam.

From the start, psychedelic and folk-rock aficionados have been swept away by Parallelograms' opener "Chimacum Rain," as Perhacs' overdubbed harmonies pour down like a sweet shower in the Olympic Peninsula while she tenderly pieces out, "I'm spacing out, I'm seeing/ Silences between leaves." But the title track is the heart of the album. A child of both Joni Mitchell and Free Design, with its jazzy washes of atonal color, circling Celtic guitar figure, and exploratory electronic effects, "Parallelograms" is a genuinely haunting masterpiece of experimental psychedelia — a future-folk madrigal that has inspired artists as disparate as Daft Punk (which used her "If You Were My Man" demo in 2007's Electroma) and Devendra Banhart (who sang with Perhacs on "Freely," from 2007's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon).

It's a recording informed by the natural world of Perhacs, born Linda Jean Arnold in Southern California, raised among the the redwoods of Mill Valley, and relocated once more to Topanga Canyon as a young dental hygienist. By day, she'd work on the teeth of the famous and talented in Beverly Hills, and on the weekend, she and her husband, artist Les Perhacs, would venture into the "very raw wilderness" of Big Sur, Mendocino, and Alaska, she tells me today from LA, where she continues to apply her healing powers to celebrated smiles. "I'd walk the beaches in Baja, California, or the Sea of Cortez, Canada or the Pacific Northwest. I'd spend a lot of time alone walking — that's when I started to write songs. It just seemed to come naturally in the middle of such beauty. I was just describing what I was seeing."

That vision — and its sonic incarnation — was recognized by Oscar-winning film composer Leonard Rosenman, a patient who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg and befriended Perhacs. Once he heard her rough demo and saw her "scroll" — her sketchlike notation for the song "Parallelograms," which she saw as a "moving sound sound-sculpture" — Rosenman decided he had to record her. "He said, 'I could live a lifetime and only come up with two ideas this good,'" recalls Perhacs. The composer gave Universal Records a demo of two of her more conventional songs, secured funding, and assembled such ace players as guitarist Steve Cohn and percussionists Shelley Mann and Milt Holland to play on the LP, telling Perhacs, "If you see the executives from Universal walking in with suits, switch to another song because they'll never understand this piece." In Perhacs' words, "He supported me, but let the creativity of a young person come through."

Perhacs' rare vision continues to shine through, though she never tried to replicate Parallelograms' many-layered vocals and effects live until recently. In fact, her forthcoming San Francisco Art Institute concert of new material — and a few songs from the 1970 classic, she promises — is only her third public performance.

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