The Scud Mountain Boys and their successor, the Pernice Brothers, initially took a Codeine-like approach to rural country music. Formed as a trio in 1991, the Northampton, Massachusetts group 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 retiring 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. Meantime, covers of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” prove that the band’s subtle stylings can work on external sources as well. 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 whom were 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 a 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.
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, Boston music journalist 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, who has a master’s degree in literature and a book of poems under his belt, has also 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 (referenced as “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” that the band had been performing for years in concert. 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.
In the midst of Red Sox mania, Pernice’s solo throwaway “Moonshot Manny,” an ode to Manny Ramirez, landed on the soundtrack to the American version of Fever Pitch in early 2005. Ironically, this may be the highest profile exposure his music has ever received.
Pernice continued with Ashmont Records for Discover a Lovelier You and Live a Little. Don’t assume too much from the titles, but Pernice does express a cockeyed optimism and generally brighter outlook, which is mirrored in the engaging sound. The band has shed and gained members, leaving Pernice and bassist Thom Monahan at the consistent 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” is about as close to “rock” as Pernice has come 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 “Gentille Allouette” (“je te plumerai” / “I will pluck you). 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 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, entertainingly, that the intensely lyric-focused Pernice tends to record his demos with wordless “baa baa” choruses. But the demos of “PCH One” and “Conscience Clean” are pleasant alternative versions of the polished versions on the album.
By 2009, after the well-documented MFA in Creative Writing and his two published books (poetry and the Meat Is Murder semi-autobiographical novella), a full-length novel by Pernice was almost a foregone conclusion. That novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop, covers some ground you might expect from Pernice’s background: the musical exploits and romantic confusion of a working-class Irish-American in Massachusetts in his 20s. The setting is Cape Cod, Amherst and New York in 1996. To promote the novel, Pernice recorded a solo album of covers of songs referenced in the book: some fairly awful, some obscure, some painfully overfamiliar. He also embarked on a joint book/concert tour combining solo guitar performances of many of the songs discussed in the book, with readings of selected chapters.
The cover disc 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 the fairly grotesque “Chevy Van.” There are audio excerpts, including one (which precedes Pernice’s spare cover of “Hello, It’s Me”) where the unnamed narrator discusses forsaking not just Todd Rundgren but all the records he produced. Elsewhere, the narrator explains how he once misjudged Del Shannon as 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, which submitted a demo to Sub Pop in the 1990s. In a puzzling meta-reference, the real Sub Pop then released a real three-song single by the fake 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 customary classy, but rarely flashy, complements. As the band’s droll website asserts, “Goodbye, Killer should appease Pernice fans from all walks of life.” Of course, appeasement is rarely a sound strategy, either in foreign policy or pop music, and Goodbye, Killer could have used more exploration from the gifted, but sometimes overly consistent, band.
Pernice — in his various recorded incarnations — is falling victim to his own reliability. By making album after album of lyrical short stories in the form of three-minute pop songs, he risks painting himself into a well-furnished artistic corner. But Pernice’s small but intense fan base includes such literati as Nick Hornby and George Pelacanos in addition to the usual rock-crit crowd. As long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, his audience will keep listening.
Goodbye, Killer came packaged with a hilarious side project that assumed a small life of its own: a brief book cataloguing the cantankerous back-and-forth between Pernice and his perpetually put-upon manager, primarily rendered as tweets. Pernice to Me (the phrase with which Linehan indignantly prefaces his supposedly-verbatim commentary when posting to Twitter) has its own charms, but probably of most value to those who know Pernice’s temperament and can hear the lines in his voice. (Online, the Pernice-Linehan saga continues in the form of puppets narrating the bilious tweets.)