In my bleakest hours, there are some records I’ll always turn to. Quietly wretched and tuneful, they don’t bother me with quick tempos or anything resembling aggression. I keep them all in one spot, so I won’t have to search my CD collection for Nick Drake, the Red House Painters, or Elliot Smith when dejection strikes. One recent addition to this stable of aural depressives is Joe Pernice. Although he’s recorded under a number of guises, his work has always been marked by a melodic melancholy. As songwriter and lead singer for the Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice took a hushed, intimate approach to alt-country.
Pernice disbanded that band in 1997, and since then, he’s shifted away from “No Depression” twang towards a polished pop sound. Lush strings and warm horns adorn the two albums he’s recorded as the Pernice Brothers (1998’s Overcome By Happiness and 2001’s This World Won’t End), while the self-titled debut of side-project Chappaquiddick Skyline explored a sparer sound.
With this release, Joe Pernice has made a record under yet another moniker, his own name. Big Tobacco was recorded after Pernice left Sub Pop for the usual reasons, but it certainly doesn’t sound like a man celebrating his newfound freedom. Unlike Prince, who unleashed the ridiculously long and self-indulgent Emancipation after being released from his hated Warner Brothers contract, Pernice’s first act as a free man was to issue a short album that marks a return to his roots.
Big Tobacco is hardly a country record, but it does reverberate with the twang that was largely absent from Pernice’s earlier solo efforts. Steel guitar and banjo provide shading throughout the record. There’s even an old-fashioned murder ballad, the remarkable “Bum Leg”. The song tells of a cancer-riddled vagrant who kills for a “green jewel bigger than my hand”. He never finds the gem. His is one of the many ruined lives Joe Pernice surveys on Big Tobacco.
The album’s characters have all been knocked down and seem intent on staying in life’s gutter. Some, such as the addressee of “Hard to Take”, seek escape through the oblivion of drugs. Others incessantly revisit the source of their ruin. The narrator of “I Still Can’t Say Her Name” might not be able to name his ex, but that doesn’t stop him from obsessing over her. Such self-pity takes a dangerous turn on “Pipe Bomb”, as unreturned phone calls escalate into threats of suicide. “Now if you call, I’ll light the fuse, and if you don’t, I’ll light the fuse,” croons Pernice in a disarmingly sweet tenor. With its steady twelve-string jangle, the track moves along dreamily; only the occasional squalls of noise suggest the malice its lyrics so directly evoke. The song epitomizes why, for all its gloom, Big Tobacco is addictive: Joe Pernice has made bile and sorrow sweet. He offers the pop sensibilities of Teenage Fanclub when you can’t bear to face that band’s upbeat tempos and sunny lyrics.
Perhaps the record’s monochromatic mood will mean that it won’t get much play when you’re not in the midst of the winter of your discontent, but when you’re miserable, it’s marvelous company.