Music » Record Reviews

Hurts So Good

Joe Pernice turns romantic misery into sharp songcraft.



The Pernice Brothers hail from Northampton, Massachusetts, a smallish New England town with a colorful history and a thriving bohemian arts scene (see Tracy Kidder's 1999 book Home Town for a look at life in Northampton during the final decade of the last century). Joe Pernice, the band's main songwriter and singer, writes tunes that have a very identifiable geographic context and feel. His previous combo, the Scud Mountain Boys, even named one of their recordings simply Massachusetts. What the Band did with a certain notion of rural American life on their second, eponymous, album, the Pernice Brothers more or less do with the subject of poisoned romance in a small New England town: illuminate their subject with songwriting that is at once universal in theme and yet regionally specific.

The Band comparison may be a little misleading: The Pernice Brothers are anything but artful rustics playing with a 19th-century farmhand persona (although the Scud Mountain Boys got lumped in with the new sincerity/alt-country/Americana thing in the mid-'90s). And the Pernice Brothers don't really sound that organic, either. Like the Band, they have created a hybrid that finds few comparisons or competitors. But where the Band blended traditional country, folk, R&B, rock-and-roll, and obscure strains of American popular music to make a sound quite familiar but also singular, the Pernice Brothers draw their sound from less vintage sources: British Invasion rock, the Grassroots, ELO (a heavy dose), the Smiths, New Order, Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson (who doesn't these days, right?), and even the crybaby emotionality of Mark Eitzel's American Music Club. And they take these disparate influences and blend them into a style with surprising emotional power and impact. It's as if that crafter of '60s radio hits, Jimmy Webb, got locked into a recording studio with Robbie Robertson and crew and said nobody could leave until they completed an album of great pop songs.

The Pernice Brothers' latest, Yours, Mine & Ours, is that album. "The Weakest Shade of Blue" starts things off with a chorus that features a hint of Lou Christie, the master of high-pitched '60s teen screech. (I say you can't go wrong with a spot of Christie on the vocal side.) "Water Ban" sounds like Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs with some Turtles-style singing on the chorus. "One Foot in the Grave" is Smiths territory marked by Johnny Marr guitar. "Blinded by the Stars" is pre-disco Bee Gees (before Miami, before Travolta, before excessive amounts of hairspray, before wigs) -- pretty and desperate. "Waiting for the Universe" is heavy ELO with a dash of Furs again. "Judy" is Chad & Jeremy with a hint of Peter & Gordon. (Say, weren't they the same act when you get down to it two Brits with Beatle cuts and Everly Brothers harmonies?) "Sometimes I Remember" is as modern as the Pernices get, with a New Order rave-up featuring a Pete Hook kind of lead bass line.

Joe Pernice is definitely the focus here (he's a bit like the Band's Robertson in being the group's prime mover, but, unlike Robertson, he has a great voice and a sense of humility that finds expression in almost all of his original tunes), but the band isn't just a one-man show: The rest of the group contributes just the right accompaniment at every juncture. The Pernice Brothers are masters of dynamics, their sound swelling or fading expertly whenever a song arrangement dictates. But the depth of their music still derives primarily from Pernice's vocals and lyrics. Those vocals are often just a husky whisper, Pernice's voice controlled and dry-sounding yet wildly emotional and expressive at the same time. Joe Pernice is that unlikeliest of creatures: a "soul singer" who never breaks a sweat.

And his lyrics: Well, I'm a tough crowd considering that I despise most original rock lyrics since about 1966. In my mind, Joey Ramone was a great lyricist who sometimes veered toward the pretentious, so I pretty much loathe the "poetry of rock." Given a choice between listening to instrumental or vocal music, I'll almost always opt for music without intrusive human voices. But there are exceptions to this blanket dismissal, and Joe Pernice is one of them.

Pernice earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is a published poet/author. He's as caustic and brilliant as the late poet John Berryman, but Pernice's obsessive demon is not booze or the siren song of suicide (though he does sell a Pernice Brothers T-shirt emblazoned with "I Hate My Life" at live dates; I plan on buying one at their Hi-Tone show). It's the curse of romance or, more simply, the existence of "the other" that troubles him. There are people in this world, women mostly, who cause him a ton of aggravation and hurt. His original tunes are not really love songs as such but more like superbly crafted paeans to romantic misery. Pernice is a master at hiding his closet romanticism with barbed contempt. The nasty, eviscerating one-liners in his songs serve to distance him from the raw pain and yearning he feels in a relationship. He's a brainy romantic who hides behind a facade of cruel words -- but what words! Thanks for suffering in such an articulate way, Joe: Your pain is the listener's gain.

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