"I just wanted to make a pretty and mellow pop record. I'm not afraid to use the word 'pop.' There's nothing shameful about it." -- Joe Pernice
Most pop song are by definition full of "sugar-spice-everything-nice"-type rot. Dour fellows like Elliot Smith and the over-referenced Nick Drake are the anomalies in a crowded genre the quintessence of which involves making radio-friendly songs and all the pandering to the great unwashed thereby implied.
The aesthetic of the three-minute verse-chorus-bridge-verse song did not have its genesis in Aristotle, but rather RCA. It's interesting, then, to consider whether most people's affinity for the "pop gem" derives from conditioning, or an intrinsic resonance between the style and some as-yet-unidentified "pop" receptor in the synapses. OK, maybe it's not that interesting.
At first listen, one assumes a lyrical sunniness must accompany the 200-watt beauty of the music of the Pernice Brothers, which ranges from fat orchestration to the comparatively sparser sound achieved by core members on tour. The songs on their latest, The World Won't End (Ashmont), fairly leap out of the speakers to a place under your bottom, cleverly forcing you to dance. That is, dance until little phrases start to seep in to the forefront of your consciousness: "Contemplating suicide / or a graduate degree" in opener "Working Girls"; "Shaking like a / shaken baby" in, what else, "Shaken Baby."
Mind you, Joe Pernice's silkily breathy singing style gives even the grimmest lyrics a sweetness commensurate with anything that ever came out of Andy Partridge's mouth. But it is not until you get to the album's minor-key eighth song, "Flaming Wreck," do you begin to realize you've been had. "Never knew / it would be the perfect last / word I spoke / as the cabin filled with smoke," Pernice sings, disguising a relationship metaphor as the fear-of-flying zeitgeist, like so many shipwreck songwriters before him. (Do you really think that Gordon Lightfoot was singing about a boat called The Edmund Fitzgerald? That was actually the name of his lover.) (Note: Tucson Weekly lawyers advise characterizing the preceding parenthetical statement as not actually true.)
You see, Pernice, who by all indications is a truly affable dude, writes the kind of devastating, oftentimes depressing lyrics you'd imagine would come from a published poet of Northeastern extraction: brainy without being geeky, serious with a caustically funny underpinning, but ultimately the product of someone who sees the sun infrequently, informed not by the "Bryte Side" (song number 5 on World) but rather by a bitterness borne of the collision between hyper-intelligence and romantic failure.
The juxtaposition of this lyrical bent with pure, radiant pop music can be jarring once it sinks in, but in the net, it adds a poignancy that often goes wanting in the work of other pop auteurs. There's a certain righteousness that comes with smiling through your tears.
The Pernice Brothers (an etymological curiosity, since the band includes one female and mostly non-fraternal males, the exception being the part-time contributions of Joe's brother Bob) formed in 1997 after square-peg Joe found the insurgent-country round hole of his former band Scud Mountain Boys too limiting. The group in its current incarnation comprises a veritable all-star team of New England talent (is Nova Scotia considered New England?), with players from beloved Sub Pop all-female band Jale (Laura Stein plays piano, keyboards, and "hot chick in a dude band"; see Boss Hog, Superchunk, Jawbox et al.), the Sadies (drummer Mike Belitsky), New Radiant Storm King (guitarist Peyton Pinkerton) and longtime collaborator/producer Thom Monahan, who did a stint in Boston's finest pre-Pernice pop brigade, the Lilys, back when they were still good.
While this band pedigree is impressive (at least to some of us), the reality is that Joe Pernice's songs could be performed by a quintet of retarded monkeys and still sound, well, interesting. OK, a metaphor revision: The songs could be performed by a band consisting of Leonard Nimoy on vocals backed by the Lawrence Welk "polka-stra" ... are you reading this, David Geffen?
Pernice's lyrical fascination with suicide (he describes his despair level as "brown" rather than "black," so don't get all interventiony on the guy if you meet him) extends to his career, or so it would seem from the path he's taken, at least if you're a subscriber to conventional wisdom. While reticent about the specific problems that led to his departure from Sub Pop (which released the first Pernice Brothers LP, Overcome by Happiness), Pernice maintains that the move is a step up. It seems that Sub Pop wanted to constrain his output somewhat (specifically, anything that didn't have the brand awareness their promo department "created" for the Pernice Brothers, for instance the one-off side project Chappaquiddick Skyline, an incredible album the sales of which were stultified by the universal reaction of record buyers: "Chappawhat?").
This brings us to probably the most impressive thing about Pernice's songwriting: He somehow churns out perfectly rendered pop masterpieces faster than a cat can lick its ass. So he did what any sensible monomaniac songwriting genius (read: Prince) would do: He started his own label (Ashmont, with Joyce Linehan, a confederate who had been at Sub Pop) and created a recording studio.
This enabled Pernice to focus more on his "craft," which according to him is the most purely joyful thing in his life, even when he's writing songs that begin "I hate my life" ("Everyone Else is Evolving" on Chappaquiddick Skyline). By his own estimate he's written over 90 songs with Thom Monahan alone, which would smack of musical glossolalia were the songs tossed off in a Bob Pollard-kinda way. Instead, Pernice's songs are sculpted, polished, crafted, seemingly effortlessly. Amazing.
The current tour, showcasing the songs from The World Won't End, is the first trip out west for the PBs. Gloating aside, it's hard not to feel a little glee that the Pernice Brothers won't be stopping by the Möbius-stripmall that is our northern neighbor Faux-nix. It's safe to glean an affirmation of Tucson's aesthetic superiority from that. So don't miss the Western U.S. coming-out party for a songwriter who is a nervous breakdown away from being the next Brian Wilson. Not that that's something you should wish on somebody. Sorry, Joe.