Joe Pernice, principal songwriter behind the Scud Mountain Boys and the succeeding Pernice Brothers, took a Codeine-like approach to rural country music before becoming a bit of a rustic North American Elvis Costello. Hiding biting lyrics behind suave melodies and an increasingly sophisticated croon, he now has a nearly three-decade-long track record of impeccably crafted misery.
Formed as a trio in 1991, the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Scuds initially played dryly amusing originals and covers on nearly subliminal energy planes. Both Pine Box (vinyl only) and Dance the Night Away (CD) — which have three songs in common — are seductively gentle, letting pretty melodies carry lyrics whose wary perspective, irony, bitterness and random threats of violence strew dirt on the sugar cookies. “Don’t ask for nothing, you’ll never be let down,” goes the refrain of “Peter Graves’ Anatomy” (one of the shared tracks), and that’s the band’s personality in a nutshell. Recorded on 4-track in guitarist/singer Bruce Tull’s kitchen, Pine Box’s “Down in Writing” is a model of caution, while “Silo” makes promises of destruction all the more chilling with its offhand tone. Covers of “Wichita Lineman” and “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” prove that the band’s subtle stylings can work on external sources as well and demonstrate a deep familiarity with old-time country and soft rock. The Early Year helpfully repackages both albums on one double-pack CD.
Joined occasionally on Dance the Night Away by a drummer (either Tom Shea or Keith Levreault of Kevin Salem’s band) and the Tubercular Boys Choir, the Scuds barely disturb the silence as they whisper such slightly bent inventions as “Letter to Bread” and “Television” (“send me a show/you’re the only world I know”). Although able to rouse themselves to a mild roots-rock roar — as on the neurotic “(She Took His) Picture,” which resembles the dB’s — Tull, Stephen Desaulniers (bass/vocals) and Joe Pernice (vocals/guitar) make understatement far more engrossing.
With Shea a full-time member on drums and mandolin, the Scud Mountain Boys emerge as a shyly, slyly miserable crypto-country group on Massachusetts. Pushing the excellent songwriting and quietly resonant harmony singing to the fore, the album is an atmospheric marvel — fully arranged, languidly delivered and occasionally branded by artful lead-guitar electricity. Whispered with the intimate breathiness of Zombies singer Colin Blunstone, memorable lines about difficulties with women and alcohol pop out with easy aplomb: “Cigarette Sandwich” is a devastating self-portrait set to disarmingly pepped-up music; “I’ve been down before/I’m no stranger to the canvas,” whispers Pernice in “Glass Jaw” with no hint of concern. In “Grudge,” not quite hiding the desperation in his voice, he casually (and hopelessly) attempts to arrange a sex date with an ex: “Tonight I got nowhere to go/And I thought that I would call you and see if you were home/I’m sorry but I’m pretty stoned/I hope I didn’t scare you/I hope to God you were alone.” Taking a rare lead vocal, Desaulniers sings “Liquor Store,” a dismal ode to drinking that sounds like a solemn Elvis Costello covering Gram Parsons. Rooting around various quadrants of rock’s past country incursions, Massachusetts finds a new place to hang its head.
Seeking to broaden his sonic palette beyond the Scuds’ Americana-soaked creations, Joe Pernice left in 1997 to form the Pernice Brothers, adding his guitar-playing brother Bob, New Radiant Storm King guitarist Peyton Pinkerton and bassist/engineer Thom Monahan, drummer Aaron Sperske and pianist Mike Deming (all of them previously associated with the Lilys). Overcome by Happiness certainly isn’t, but its lilting string arrangements and finely crafted songs build an internal buzz, awash in ringing hooks and melancholy poetry. From the chiming “Clear Spot” to the wistful recollections of the title track to the skewering of the nine-to-five life in “Monkey Suit,” Pernice loads the cylinders with Todd Rundgren (circa Runt) ammo that whacks the target cleanly every time. The key is Joe’s ambrosial vocals, which float over the country-pop guitars like a bee gathering nectar. With an apparently generous recording budget and ample orchestration (strings, horns, keyboard), Overcome by Happiness sounds glorious, like a Bakersfield Sound country album from the 1960s updated for 1990s indie listeners.
Bringing in drummer Mike Belitsky and keyboardist Laura Stein for Sperske (who went on to Beachwood Sparks) and Deming, Pernice made Chappaquiddick Skyline, continuing to mine rich, swirling guitar melodics. The opening track is titled “Everybody Else Is Evolving,” but Pernice was, too — the depth of his inner journeys set him apart from contemporaries in both sound and vision. The elegiac poetry of “Theme to an Endless Bummer” and “The Two of You Sleep” could have come from nobody but Joe Pernice. The record cuts loose most of Overcome by Happiness‘ string arrangements for understated pop that climaxes in a gorgeous version of New Order’s “Leave Me Alone.”
Pernice then left Sub Pop and started the Ashmont label with his manager, music journalist and former Sub Pop A&R staffer, now a Boston government official, Joyce Linehan, inaugurating it with his first proper solo album, Big Tobacco. Recorded with his regular crew plus such guests as Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly, the record marquees such jocular titles as “Second Semester Lesbian” and “Bum Leg” but contains the darkest music of Pernice’s career, crawling close to the disconsolate tone he often adopted with the Scud Mountain Boys.
The various strains of Pernice’s music — slo-mo country laments, chiming AM pop and sweet, string-swept emotional rushes — come together magnificently on the sparkling The World Won’t End (whose titular wink to the Smiths album is no coincidence — Pernice has a master’s degree in literature and a book of poems under his belt, and penned a fictional autobiography centered around Meat Is Murder). Starting with the gorgeous pop of “Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)” — outfitted with a quintessential Pernice lyric (“contemplating suicide/or a graduate degree”) — the album swims majestically from plane-crash (“Flaming Wreck”) to human emptiness (“7:30”) to life’s inevitable twilight (the brilliant “Ballad of Bjorn Borg”) to, naturally, love’s bitter aftertaste (“Bryte Side”). That it all comes wrapped in a glistening, gorgeously played capsule only accentuates the fact that The World Won’t End was the best record of his career to date. (Many of the songs appeared in alternate versions on an Australian tour EP that was released in the United States several years later.)
The hits just kept on (not) coming with Yours, Mine & Ours, another slab of gorgeous misery. From the opening track, “Weakest Shade of Blue,” Pernice demonstrates how deeply he has absorbed the lessons of Big Star, the Zombies and Brian Wilson most obviously, but also, perhaps less intuitively, the lessons of the Cure and the Smiths. Pernice is always romantic but scarcely warm and fuzzy, promising to “Save you from a dreamy life / to the hardest love you will ever know” with a love that’s “ruinous and true.” That juxtaposition of ’60s popcraft with country, plus the new wave jangle and Pernice’s literate navel-gazing gives Yours, Mine & Ours a jolt of energy and a depth of meaning that warrants repeated listening. “One Foot in the Grave” and “Sometimes I Remember” could have been classic new wave singles. Every song on the album is impeccably written and performed (perhaps too impeccably for some tastes; Pernice can err on the side of too much craft). “Baby in Two” indulges in some Solomonic rationalizing; “Number Two” (a Joe Jackson nod?) opens with the sweet lyric, “Little powermongers sleep tonight / The city lights up like a dirty dive / I hope this letter finds you crying.”
In front of a smallish but adoring crowd in New York City (“the place where the team that lost the American League pennant to the Red Sox is from”), Pernice and the gang did a set of revved-up performances of songs from throughout his Scuds/Pernice Brothers career. Nobody’s Watching/Nobody’s Listening, a dual CD/DVD, features a magnificent cover of the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town.” Heavy on guitars and Pernice’s velvety singing, the live album pares down the orchestral flourishes from Overcome by Happiness‘s “Crestfallen” and “Monkey Suit,” but The World Won’t End and Yours, Mine & Ours also get strong showings, as does the Scuds’ “Grudge,” a perennial live favorite.
Don’t assume too much from the titles Discover a Lovelier You and Live a Little, but Pernice does express a cockeyed optimism and generally brighter outlook that is mirrored in the albums’ engaging sound. The band has shed and gained members, leaving Pernice and bassist Thom Monahan at the core (other players are Peyton Pinkerton, Patrick Berkery, James Walbourne, Bob Pernice and Ric Menck of Velvet Crush). No matter. Discover a Lovelier You features that now-familiar Pernice angle on literary and artistic figures (the new wave-inspired opener “There Goes the Sun” tweaks a George Harrison title; the Cure-like “My So-Called Celibate Life” riffs on Claire Danes’ 1990s dramedy) with instantly hummable choruses and verses of abject depression. But the album varies in tone more than most Pernice Brothers records, with both positive and negative results. Chiming guitars and jaunty rhymes enliven “Say Goodnight to the Lady,” while “Snow” pulls about as close to “rock” as Pernice has in some years. The delicate “Pisshole in the Snow” could be an old Scud Mountain Boys song, although the clean production is more typical of Pernice records. (Around this time, Joe Pernice appeared on an episode of Gilmore Girls, completing his triple-threat résumé of music, fiction and acting.)
Reuniting Pernice with producer Michael Deming (who recorded Overcome by Happiness and some of the Scuds’ records), Live a Little features the insistently catchy “Somerville,” surely referencing that Boston suburb’s gritty Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods rather than the glitzy hipster hangouts in Davis Square, and the brilliantly Costelloesque “Cruelty to Animals.” “Stuck in dumb amazement / like a dog who’s asked to levitate,” Pernice and a lover proceed “merrily into the abattoir” while singing along to the traditional French Canadian song “Gentille Alouette” (“je te plumerai”). There’s a strong ’70s-pop vibe to the mellow tones of “Zero Refills” (Bread?) and the Eagley “PCH One,” which sounds positively Californian coming from an unrepentant New Englander. “Conscience Clean (I Went to Spain)” and the jittery “Automaton” are also highlights. Deming’s production strikes a middle ground between the lush string orchestration of Happiness and the pared-down sound of recent Pernice records. There are some gorgeous string sections, even a few horn charts, but most of the songs are carried by Pernice’s guitar and singing, Pinkerton’s tasteful electric soloing and Walbourne’s keyboards. Live a Little concludes with a more cleanly recorded but basically unaltered rendition of the Scuds’ “Grudge ****,” which is fine but doesn’t add to the original. Indeed, the snappy delivery belies the original’s late-night desperation. Some copies of Live a Little include a charmingly low-key disc of demos and outtakes which reveals that Pernice tends to demo songs with wordless “baa baa” choruses. But the versions of “PCH One” and “Conscience Clean” are pleasant alternatives to their polished album renderings.
By 2009, a full-length novel by Pernice was a foregone conclusion. It Feels So Good When I Stop covers some ground you might expect, given Pernice’s background: the musical exploits and romantic confusion of a working-class Irish-American in Massachusetts in the mid-’90s, at the height of the alternative rock era. To promote the novel, Pernice recorded a solo album of covers of songs referenced in the book: some are fairly awful, some are obscure, some painfully overfamiliar. It Feels So Good When I Stop veers from a Sebadoh track (the beautiful kiss-off “Soul and Fire”) to “Chim Chim Chiree” (from Mary Poppins) to FM radio nuggets from the 1960s and 1970s, like Sammy John’s grotesque “Chevy Van.” There are audio excerpts, including one where the unnamed narrator discusses forsaking not just Todd Rundgren but all the records he produced, followed by a spare cover of “Hello, It’s Me.” Elsewhere, the narrator explains how he once misjudged Del Shannon to be akin to Pat Boone, leading into an apologetic version of Shannon’s “I Go to Pieces.” While most of his usual accomplices appear on the disc, this is billed as a Joe Pernice solo album, and none of the performances are overly produced or busy. It’s just what it sounds like — a narrator very much like Pernice in his younger days playing songs that obviously meant a lot to him. The one Pernice original is “Black Smoke (No Pope),” credited to the Young Accuser, a fictional band mentioned in the book, who supposedly submitted a demo to Sub Pop in the 1990s. In an instance of life imitating art, the real Sub Pop then released a real three-song single by the fictional band in 2009.
Pernice reunited the Pernice Brothers in 2010 for Goodbye, Killer, 34 tersely effective minutes that includes an ironic country weeper about touring (“We Love the Stage”), snappy rock numbers referencing pop literature (“Jacqueline Susann”) and haute cuisine (“Bechamel”) and one unabashed heartrending Pernice pop classic: “Newport News.” Walbourne, Menck, and brother Bob (“Other Pernice”) provide their customarily classy, but rarely flashy, additions. As the band’s droll website asserts, “Goodbye, Killer should appease Pernice fans from all walks of life.” Of course, mere appeasement is rarely a sound strategy, and Goodbye, Killer could have used more exploration from the gifted, but sometimes overly consistent, band. Goodbye, Killer came packaged with a hilarious side project that assumed a small life of its own: a brief book cataloguing (in tweets) a cantankerous back-and-forth between Pernice and his perpetually put-upon manager Linehan. Pernice to Me has its charm, but is of value mainly to those who know Pernice’s temperament and can hear the lines in his voice.
Reflecting both his artistic maturation and more limited recording budgets, more recent releases have been presented on a smaller scale. The format places greater emphasis on the lyrics and Pernice’s increasingly burnished singing voice, which calls to mind the Hollies in the earnestness of its croon, undercutting the bite of the words. The 2010s saw Pernice revisiting some of his roots, and establishing a plethora of short-lived side projects. In 2013, shaken by the death of one of his Massachusetts friends and musical influences, Pernice reconvened the Scud Mountain Boys for a tour and Do You Love the Sun, the band’s first new album since the mid-’90s. Stephen Desaulniers, Tom Shea, Frank Padallero (who had replaced Desaulniers in a prior version of the band) and Bruce Tull helped Pernice make a brief ten-track record that includes a cover of John Barry’s “Theme from Midnight Cowboy.” The key difference between the recent Pernice solo records and this edition of the Scuds is the sweet background harmonies and vocals provided by the band members, honed in years of singing together in clubs and kitchens, and the suave pedal steel and mandolin on tracks like “Double Bed.” Desaulniers sings lead on “Crown of Thorns” with somber Johnny Cash-like gravitas and contributes several other songs and lead vocals. “The Mendicant” is a droll revisiting of the Statler Brothers’ immortal “Flowers on the Wall,” down to the Captain Kangaroo reference. Concurrent with this reunion, the Scud’s The Early Year got a much-needed reissue in the UK on One Little Indian.
Having relocated to the Toronto area to be with his wife, Laura Stein (who had played bass in the Halifax band Jale and piano with Pernice), our hero found himself traveling in the same circles as Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, a Scottish expat in Canada, and they formed a band together. With Canadian drummer Mike Belitsky (Sadies, Neko Case, Jale), they formed the New Mendicants as a modest supergroup. The trio toured Australia, releasing a tour EP with a hushed and empathetic cover of INXS’ “This Time” and a variety of Pernice and Fanclub back catalogue tracks (the rendition of “I Don’t Want Control of You” is particularly good), and then Into the Lime in 2014. The concise ten-song record mixes originals with a tender Sandy Denny cover, “By the Time It Gets Dark.” In its sturdiness and craftsmanship, Into the Lime is closer in form and style to Pernice’s work than Blake’s — much as there is to admire about the Fanclub, they never had the lyrical complexity or nuance of Pernice’s best work. “Follow You Down” shows the depths of Pernice’s debts to the somber 1970s acoustic rock era. The wryly defeatist “A Very Sorry Christmas,” a holiday anthem for the perpetually downtrodden, was issued as a 45, backed with the apropos “A Very Sorry New Years.” “Shouting Match” has some of the Fanclub-style electric guitar, and Blake does a handsome lead vocal on the Hollies-influenced “Cruel Annette.” Needless to say, Pernice and Blake’s harmonies are splendid even on the slighter material.
In 2015, Pernice made a one-off record, Roger Lion, with Seattle hip-hop and electronic producer Budo. The primary difference between this record and Pernice’s other work is textural; here his somber tales are backed by subdued trip-hop beats, sampled horn sections, swelling keyboards and other accouterments which give the record an unsettled feel. Much of Roger Lion feels like the soundtrack to a sad low-budget film. “Love Surrendered” has spare and insistent keyboard riffing and ghostly backing vocals; the gently twinkling “Telescope” is the centerpiece. The record ends with the horn-enriched, faux-jaunty “Let’s Divorce,” which sounds a lot like Stars at their most celebratorily morose.
After this spate of side projects and collaborations, Pernice emerged with a burst of recordings in 2019 and 2020. Spread the Feeling, the first Pernice Brothers record in nine years, is a refreshingly bracing record with a host of friends and guests: Pete Yorn, Neko Case, Joshua Karp (a.k.a. Budo, from the Roger Lion project), drummer Liam Jaeger, Pinkerton, Menck, Walbourne and brother Bob. T.W. Walsh of Pedro the Lion/Headphones mixed much of the album, giving it an appealing power-pop snap. The revved-up approach suits songs like the magnificent “The Devil and the Jinn,” a Badfinger-like number about the futile search for meaning in pop music. (But Badfinger never started a song with a lyric like “Love is a shoeless charlatan / A silver-tongued huckster with a sadist’s lipless grin // Love is the breaking of a bone / A burning cauliflower ear still throbbing on the telephone.”) Elsewhere the record has the bright sheen of vintage Pretenders. “Throw Me to the Lions” cheerfully borrows one of Peter Hook’s New Order basslines. Spread the Feeling is one of the most immediately appealing Pernice records in years, although the decision to keep it from streaming services surely reduced its audience.
The solo record Richard telegraphs its musical setting on the cover, which shows a grizzled Pernice cradling an acoustic guitar and a beer. Thoughtful and subdued, this record exudes a sense of autumnal melancholy. It’s almost entirely Pernice, with minimal accompaniment from Liam Jaeger on second guitar and a muted trumpet solo from Joshua Karp on the failed romance song “Sullivan Street.” The title track somberly recalls abuse dealt to a gay friend. The emphasis is on the lyrics throughout, and Pernice casually demonstrates his mastery in turning spoken dialogue into lyrics in “You Should of Came” and the bitter but empathetic love song “Long Black Shadow.” “We Both Know” is a rare instrumental from someone best known as a lyricist. Early LPs included a bonus 7-inch of “Here Comes September” b/w an alternate mix of “Spend the Mountain” that features a small barrelhouse piano solo, an electric guitar solo and harmony singing — quite unlike the solo version on the LP.
As the COVID-19 lockdown hit North America, Pernice began a web series called “Barely Manilow,” exploring the schlockmeister’s oeuvre from the perspective of the songcraft (although Manilow, famously, did not write “I Write the Songs”). The Scud Mountain Boys always showed a lot of familiarity with 1970s acoustic soft rock and adult contemporary, so this is not a surprising turn.
The eight-song Could It Be Magic celebrates the Manilow songbook. While it could be taken as a gag, Pernice’s appreciation is sincere, and he treats every lyric and chord change with respect. Backing his vulnerable vocals with simple guitar treatments, he unearths the heartache underlying much of the Manilow songbook (“I’m doing OK/But not very well”) but also the warmth and empathy in “Weekend in New England” and “Could It Be Magic.” The outlier is a delicate cover of Ian Hunter’s “Ships,” with its remorseful lyrics of a father and son unable to connect. Not a record for Pernice newcomers, but an interesting detour.