Pernice Brothers: Live a Little

[27 October 2006]

By Zeth Lundy

The Pernice Brothers’ kind of pop music—the articulate wisps of stately, postured sheen coupled with lyrics that threaten to topple the prettiness in a verbal coup—has always been anti-vogue, even if its refined mini-pageantries are immaculately stylized showpieces.  Chamber/orchestral pop isn’t “pop” as in “popular”, as the literalists may have us believe (ask Love or Big Star or even the Zombies, whose hits were the least “orchestral” of their catalog, about pop and popularity); rather, it’s the sort of “pop” that suggests an aesthetic, something as sharp and exquisite as perhaps only an economic three-letter word can signify.

For their last two albums, Discover a Lovelier You (2005) and Yours, Mine & Ours (2003), the Pernice Brothers (technically, the band is singer-songwriter Joe Pernice and a revolving cast of collaborators, sometimes including his brother Bob) distanced themselves from that aesthetic, instead chasing a more chilly, synthetic sound that relocated Pernice’s breathy fatalism to an ‘80s-centric context.  While the move offered a change of scenery (one, some would argue, more sympathetic to the moody climes of Pernice’s songwriting), it strayed from the self-contained universe of action-verb “pop”, which is a good universe to remain in when you have a knack for affecting its environment.

Live a Little, the band’s fifth studio album, returns to that heavily orchestrated, emotionally claustrophobic sound typified by the Pernice Brothers’ first two releases, Overcome by Happiness (1998) and The World Won’t End (2001).  It’s better this way, to experience the songs within overgrown landscapes of volatile string sections, heartening brass, and structural burdens that impose beauty upon Pernice’s dark wit.  There are very few people making pop music these days who can attend to the minutiae of textural delicacies so expressively, from the airlift rock of “Automaton” to the plain airiness of “High As a Kite”.

Pernice can be as lyrically dense as Elvis Costello, and he nears Imperial Bedroom heights of dizzy grandiosity with this latest collection of ringers.  There are stories here (the random pick-up tale at the heart of “Microscopic View” or the biographical look at an avant-garde novelist in “B.S. Johnson”, for instance), but since all the bon mots and teeming imagery are wrapped in torrents of heady melody, it can take a bit of untangling to get at the heart of Pernice’s intentions.  (The Nick Flynn-referencing “Somerville” and the campfire jaunt “PCH One”, however, do happen to rank as two of Pernice’s most straightforward and immediately captivating songs, even if the latter uses “panacea” in its chorus.)  Lines like “I know less than you think you do, simpleton king of a little rotten roost” (“How Can I Compare”) are packed with fastidious twists of rhyme and syntax, and are often followed up with point-blank strikes of clearer focus.  Visions of gorgeous defeat (“Singing like a bird in flames and headed for the window pane”, from “Cruelty to Animals”) and exceedingly bad luck (“Something came over me / Crimson, not clover-leafed”, from “Automaton”) are par for the course, but Pernice’s voice delivers inevitably so well that these things come across as crushingly sudden.

Even more surprising is the inclusion of “Grudge F*** (2006)”, Pernice’s old song from his days in the Scud Mountain Boys.  It’s resurrected as Live a Little‘s final track, given a ‘70s AM-radio facelift, and ends up coming off like Wings under the subversive direction of Randy Newman.  The song, told from the point of view of a stoned ex-lover (but who knows, maybe he just thinks he’s an ex-lover) who reappears one night with (at the very least) a dodgy agenda, is an unsettling mesh of pity, menace, and misguided loneliness.  “I hope I didn’t scare you” and “I swear to God I wouldn’t touch you” are the kinds of desperate promises thrown about as the prom-theme piano and swelling strings use normal barometers of comfort to give the song an upset stomach.  Like the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” with an added backstory of disquieting ambiguity, it’s pop on the rocks—an aesthetic, if you will, through the glass uncomfortably.

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