The Pernice Brothers
Pairing the kitsch countrypolitan collective Lambchop with the earnestly melancholy Pernice Brothers for a tour seems an inspired choice, since both bands are lush, rock-rejecting post-alt-country acts who nevertheless have conceptual approaches that are almost diametrically opposed. The Pernice Brothers smooth away rock’s edges with efficient songcraft and well-engineered hooks designed to deliver an entirely predictable and strangely comfortable mood of “seriousness,” whereas Lambchop writes muffled, tranquilized songs that make you all too aware how creepy and unsettling mood music can be, particularly when you have no way to tell just what mood is being evoked. Bringing the groups together on the same stage would seem to make for an intriguing point-counterpoint, a dialectical investigation of the emotional conditions of irony. But even with such philosophical questions in play, I was surprised to learn that both these shows at the Bowery Ballroom sold out. Lambchop’s quiet, semi-whispered dirges never struck me as rock-club ready while the Pernice Brothers seem more appropriate for a rainy-day drive to IKEA or Whole Foods Market than for Friday-night drinking.
But the Pernice Brothers, who came on before Lambchop this particular night, were actually much more enjoyable live than they are on record, where they can come across as insufferably smug in their streamlined, faintly contrived melancholy. Joe Pernice’s elegant, luxurious melodies seem to smack of the privilege necessary to feel the languid heartbreak his lyrics give voice to, and his pinched vocal style always made me wish someone would administer him some Correctol. His special tic is to stretch one-syllable words into two and to make the new syllable about a half octave higher than everything else. This is supposed to dramatize intense feeling but succeeds only in stylizing and neutering it. But live, Pernice’s voice is not captured in the pristine laboratory conditions under which it is recorded, so in its cracks and strains and approximated notes, it actually does convey some of the feeling it’s intended to. This was especially true of “The Weakest Shade of Blue”, which, stripped of its saccharine notes was almost revelatory. “Wait to Stop” and “Monkey Suit”, maudlin in their versions on 1998’s Overcome by Happiness, were also genuinely affecting here. Even their cover of New Order’s “Leave Me Alone” (from Pernice’s solo side project, Chappaquiddick Skyline, which, by the way, is indistinguishable from the Pernice Brothers) seemed heartfelt rather than a calculated retro ploy.
This may be because when you see this band on stage, it becomes very easy to believe that there isn’t much pretension to what they’re doing. With the exception of the keyboardist, who looked as though he’s been carefully studying photos of Nick Drake, the band managed to project an almost apologetic image, as if they were asking to be excused for their presumption in playing. Mostly they came across as decidedly adult, beyond the need to try to appeal with flashy clothes, corny stage patter or calculated poses.
Typically, the nebbishy Pernice would have his shoulders hunched up at the mic with his eyes squinty as he sang. At times the group was a bit ambiotronic, but generally the Pernice Brothers played their soft rock politely and thoughtfully, and the polite applause the crowd gave each song (no shouts, no whistles, no inane requests) seemed to be exactly what they were shooting for. They were also well served by guest drummer Ric Menck, from the Velvet Crush, whose lively work kept the set from seeming too somnambulant.
Lambchop were polite in their own way as well, if only because I expected them to be as oblique and cantankerous as their music can be. Instead, they were exceedingly good-natured, seemingly put at ease by the complacent, attentive crowd. In the old days, a band the size of Lambchop would have had a bandstand, not merely to make room for them all, but to impose a visual sense of order on the disparate elements. The band’s specific deployment on stage made lucid the precision of the music played and the hierarchy of those playing it. Not so with Lambchop, however. The eleven musicians were strewn across the stage as if a tornado had deposited them there, with Kurt Wagner seated in a chair in the center. (Baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, woodshop safety glasses on, he sat as if bolted there, so much so that halfway through the show my friend asked me in all seriousness if the lead singer was paraplegic.) But such an organic set-up seemed to befit their performance, in which none of the individual musicians stood out, all instead contributing to a seamless flow of sound that was deceptive in its simplicity. At first it seemed a testament to their excessiveness alone that they used eleven musicians to make the sound of three (there were at least five different people playing guitar), but really this demonstrated how tight they were and how subtle were their arrangements, which ebbed and surged without fuss or gimmickry, making the slow, slightly dissipated songs utterly captivating.
They opened with “Action Figure” from one of the two CDs they recently released (now that is truly excessive), played a new yet-to-be-recorded song, and covered an instrumental track from an obscure film score. Wagner’s muttering vocals were often difficult to make out, but perhaps they are best absorbed that way; they tend to underwhelm when you actually decipher them. Also, his mumbling made those few moments of enunciation that much more emotionally powerful, as in the last song before the encore, when Wagner urgently repeated “Don’t follow me” to chilling effect. Chilling in an altogether inappropriate way, however, was his occasional lapse into Cat Stevens-like cadences, barking out stilted syncopated rhythms and pausing in peculiar places.
But such lapses were only momentary distractions from an otherwise absorbing show. The ironic distance that makes Lambchop’s albums so perversely inaccessible didn’t factor into their live performance—they didn’t need that ersatz mystique to compel the audience’s attention. The band wasn’t baffling or oblique, but was almost spectrally transparent, and that kind of directness might be the most mysterious thing of all.