Sad Songs Say So Much 

Joe Pernice strikes a winning combination with finely crafted pop music and erudite, melancholy lyrics

Joe Pernice strikes a winning combination with finely crafted pop music and erudite, melancholy lyrics

Pernice Brothers

Performing August 11 at 12th & Porter

One of the finest pieces of American literature this year happens to appear on a pop record. The Pernice Brothers’ second album The World Won’t End begins with a song called “Working Girls,” which opens with the lines “She summered every winter through a calendar from paradise / A cheap dress-up temp job and a tan by cold fluorescent light / ‘Anticipation’ playing from a radio it mocks her life / ‘I was here’ she scribbles in a rest room proves she was alive.” In four lines, bandleader Joe Pernice sketches a cubicle dweller’s rut and her aspirations in language that is both precise and loving. That verse repeats, then there’s a bridge with the lines “Contemplating suicide or a graduate degree / Answers ‘How’s it going?’ with ‘I feel sullen...I feel 17.” The empathy that Pernice evokes is enhanced by the music that backs his character study—it’s a heavily orchestrated, uptempo number with a breathy melody and a bittersweet string section swerving in between the stinging electric guitar. It’s a poem, a pop song, and a perfectly vivid little short story in a three-and-a-half-minute package.

Joe Pernice has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and until he realized that he could make art out of music, he says that “most of my creative pursuit was writing prose and poetry.” He’s played guitar for most of his life, but only casually before he went to grad school. Then he joined a punk band, and after shows, the group would head back to someone’s house to keep playing. “We’d drink with our friends and play, like, ‘Chevy Van,’ ” Pernice recalls. That late-night drinking-in-the-kitchen ensemble developed into the Scud Mountain Boys, an acclaimed alt-country band that put out three albums in a year and a half.

“We were writing feverishly,” Pernice says. “I didn’t have any chops—-I just fell into a groove. I think my output was influenced by all the writing of verse that I’d done up to that point. While they’re very different things, I think I took a method with me. I had a pretty good work ethic. I started really writing a lot of songs toward the end of my MFA. I actually had a good chunk of critical work left to finish my degree, and it became exponentially hard to finish. I nearly didn’t.”

Pernice is an engaging gentleman, as comfortable sharing his enthusiasm for Nabokov as he is discussing the overlooked oeuvre of New Radiant Storm King. His accent is fixed squarely between his South Shore Massachusetts upbringing and his current home in Brooklyn, and he has an appealing honesty that’s rare in a fledgling pop star. Since leaving his record deal with Sub Pop last year, Pernice has been copy-editing part-time to make ends meet and to help finance his self-released records, and he’s upfront about his reasons for doing so: “I faced up to the fact that I chose to leave a pretty significant stream of income—but I’d rather work [on my own terms] than be someone else’s slave.”

Pernice started his own label, beginning with an online-purchase-only solo record called Big Tobacco (due to be distributed more widely later this year), then a 500-copy limited pressing Pernice Brothers EP, and most recently, the band’s sophomore release The World Won’t End. Like the Pernice Brothers’ 1998 Sub Pop debut Overcome By Happiness, The World Won’t End has sent critics scrambling for fresh superlatives. It’s currently neck and neck with Spoon’s Girls Can Tell for the title of Best Rock Record of 2001.

For Pernice, the path from grad school grind to alt-country personality to purveyor of lush, literate pop was blazed by his quest for a medium of self-expression. Had he made friends with filmmakers in college, he might be maxing out his credit cards right now to churn out indie films. But he met Bruce Tull, who was into Western swing, and even though Pernice was obsessed with The Smiths, Buffalo Tom, and Dinosaur Jr. when the Scud Mountain Boys began, Tull’s influence assured that the band was “informed by country music.”

“His stylings certainly pushed it in that direction,” Pernice says. “But that band was more about an AM radio sound that we all really dug. We didn’t start with any real vision. Ultimately, it wasn’t what I wanted to spend my time on. I wanted to go other places and our tastes just started to diverge drastically.”

By the time of the Scuds’ marvelous third album, Massachusetts, the twang was fading into plaintive folk, and as soon as Pernice discovered that his spontaneous outpouring of songwriting didn’t have to be filtered through a country sensibility, his melodic sense improved to match the level of his lyrical expertise. Overcome By Happiness had that AM radio sound that Pernice had originally wanted for the Scuds—informed by Poco, America, and the Top 40 incarnation of The Psychedelic Furs—and The World Won’t End zips along cheerily with an augmented pop vibe that at times recalls the Electric Light Orchestra.

When that comparison is made to Pernice, in reference to the song “Let That Show” particularly, the song’s author laughs and says, “I was thinking more like Yvonne Elliman, but I’ll take the E.L.O. too. A guy who can write ‘Telephone Line’ and ‘Living Thing’—you gotta cut that guy an infinite amount of slack.”

With the topic raised of rock wunderkinds who went through the same sort of fertile creative stretch that Pernice is currently in, he pauses to consider what might happen when his inspiration runs out. He’s not sure if he’ll know when it happens. “I often wonder if people who make great records realize what they did,” Pernice says. “What kind of control did they have? Or what kind of control did it have of them? Can they tell the two apart?

“I finished making this album and it took a long time,” he continues. “It took six months and a ton of effort. I was pretty drained after, just exhausted and empty. I thought, like, ‘Maybe I won’t even make another record. Maybe I’m done.’ Then it started to awaken in me in the month after. I have another record in me that I’m really hungry to make. After you get away from it for a while, you come back and it’s like, ‘Wow. That’s like the most complex and ambitious song I’ve ever written.’ And I’m really excited about it. So it could be about perspective.”

But will the next record be credited to Pernice Brothers? Pernice has confused some of his fans—and, ultimately, his previous label—by also releasing music under his own name or under the name Chappaquiddick Skyline, even though all of his post-Scuds albums are essentially only slightly different stylistically. Pernice doesn’t see it that way. “Those two records between the Pernice Brothers records were collections of songs I’d already written, but to me, they’re worlds different. If I wrote six songs that I didn’t like, or I wrote one good song and then the next five I didn’t like and then the seventh one was a keeper, it could take me two years or so to write an album, and that can be even more confusing. But the fact that the songs come to me pretty quickly, they feel more related.”

And again, that’s mainly the music that comes out in a similar vein. Pernice’s lyrics, though uniformly melancholy, explore different places and different people with a scope that’s more like a great anthology of prose than a CD of recorded music. On one of The World Won’t End’s best tracks, “The Ballad of Bjorn Borg,” an echoing guitar, tinkling piano, and trembling strings intertwine as Pernice sings of a lost summer. It could be about the singer’s own youth, from the days when Borg was on top of the tennis world, but Pernice insists that although that aspect is certainly there, the song is mostly about what the title says it’s about, and what the subject represents. “I was watching a show on Borg,” Pernice explains. “I played tennis as a kid, and he always struck me as a character. And then I remember him vanishing from the scene of tennis. I remember thinking about it like a theme, someone approaching greatness, and at the pinnacle, they pull back and drop out. That’s like an American literary theme—even though Borg’s Swedish. I just started going with it and it just turned it inward, and it became about myself.”

Pernice finishes his thought with a sentence that explains his art as well as any critic can, that sums up what differentiates a Pernice Brothers song from just about any other pop song in the marketplace: “I tend to adopt this from writing poetry, where you develop a kind of gossamer narrative and then hopefully kind of dapple it along the way with images that ring true—instead of bashing a strict narrative over people’s heads.”

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