The Pernice Brothers

[29 July 2003]

By Cori Taratoot

“Peyton Pinkerton on guitar. The greatest name in soft rock.”

Joe Pernice is introducing his band. He’s holding his parlor-style Martin acoustic guitar in his hands, his jeans are worn and rolled up at the ankle. He doesn’t smoke, he rarely drinks, he’s nice to his band, he takes requests from the audience. In other cities, the Pernice Brothers might sell more tickets to more people, but Joe Pernice seems genuinely satisfied tonight. He thanks us when we applaud warmly, he keeps telling us: “That’s awfully nice of you.” And the songs are impeccably orchestrated: the 1960s pop harmonies of “7:30”, the lavish melodic descent of “Bryte Side”, the morbid romanticism of “She Heightened Everything”. The Pernice Brothers wrap vocal layers and climbing chord progressions around kill-me-now mopey lyricism. The Washington Post calls this “gorgeously lachrymose,” but if you’ve recently recovered from a less-than-graceful break-up, you might walk away from a Pernice Brothers show cursing.

There’s a box I still can’t open
There’s a name that hurts to say
I fall in love with the way I’m shaking
In a crowd I think I see your face
—“Our Time Has Passed” from The World Won’t End

Joe Pernice is as suited for the meditated (and monotonic) life of academia as he is for the life of a touring rock musician. He’s finished an MFA and a book of poetry (“Two Blind Pigeons”), and a piece of fiction is in the works (an installment for Continuum Books’ “33 1/3” series, inspired by the Smiths’ Meat is Murder). But Joe Pernice has chosen the road because, well, he can. And because his band gets a decent breadth of coverage, slothful reviews of every size, shape, and color trail the Pernice Brothers. Joe Pernice is a smarter fellow, and a better writer, than most hacks covering music. Any writer worth his/her salt should suffer Charlie Kaufman-esque nerves when writing about this band.

Joe Pernice is no asshole—he’s actually a generous guy. In the months following 9/11, I wondered about the role of music (and, to a lesser degree, writing about music). Most musicians I talked to around that time said pretty much the same thing. “I can’t really talk about it,” or “I pretty much decided for a while that what I do doesn’t matter much.” As albums came out in the months after “Ground Zero” became an unspoken address, I listened carefully for sonic evidence of that crater left in the ground of Manhattan. But inside of the new music I listened to, I found only subtle (bordering on subliminal) references, and often—whenever I had the access and the nerve to ask artists the dreaded 9/11 question—I discovered even these perceived fragments were figments of my imagination.

Talking to non-musicians, I know that seeing the towers fall definitely dictated which CDs made it into the stereo. I couldn’t listen to anything for a while. For a few weeks I only listened to public radio. And then I started to dig into old American music, pre-1950s stuff. It was a while before I could feel carefree about music.

So by the time word of the Pernice Brothers’s third record hit my inbox, my expectations from the music community at-large had lowered. I hit the band’s home page, and there, behind a sky full of exploding fireworks, stood a dim shadow of a skyline, of two towers. And then a quote from Joe Pernice himself, explaining why he made the album, Yours, Mine, Ours:

“Like a lot of people post 9/11, I contemplated changing my life drastically. Rock musicians (myself included) can lend themselves to being a bit too self-involved, and the times seemed to ask more of people. In the end (to make a long and familiar story short), it was all about rediscovering the joy in things, and hanging onto them for dear life. Which is what I did.”

What informs Yours, Mine, and Ours most is that Joe Pernice is laying his cards on the table. We’re getting more of him than ever before. Yes, the record is another in a long line of Pernice’s grim heartbreak dissertations. But the string section is gone, and the sound dials toward rock and away from the “choral pop” of the band’s first two records. At the same time, the strains of Joe Pernice’s 1980s adolescence refuse to be unheard. Specifically, 1985. The year the Cure released The Head on the Door and New Order released Low-Life.

Is Joe Pernice ready for his band to hit? It seems so. The band is touring long and hard on this one. Maybe the long stretch of covered road explains why the line-up performing tonight includes some fresh faces. Pat Berkery (Bigger Lovers) is standing in on drums for Mike Belitsky, and James Walbournd (who plays with Peter Bruntnell) is in for Laura Stein (piano, keyboards, & vocals). Walbournd is obviously learning the material on the fly, reading his parts from a book and taking cautious solos. Berkery adds a fiery kick to the overall sound—his broad grin and sing-a-long method of drumming (sans microphone) tells you he’s the new kid on the block, and a big fan too.

The music business makes no sense these days; the Pernice Brothers should be playing at a whole different level, not this second-class barroom in the basement of the Crystal Ballroom. Yes, the material largely lives within the “lite rock” category self-referenced by Joe Pernice himself mid-set. The intro for “Sometimes I Remember” is an unabashed rip-off of the Cure’s “In Between Days”. And the band just barely gets away with a shaky cover of the Pretenders’ 1981 hit, “Talk of the Town” (a practice run for later in the tour, when the band is opening for Chrissie Hynde & Co.). But “Number Two” is the most brutal post-breakup rage since the Scud Mountain Brothers’ tune “Grudge Fuck”:

Little power monger sleep tonight
The city lights up like a dirty dime
I hope that this letter finds you crying
It would feel so good to see you cry
—“Number Two” from Yours, Mine, and Ours

When the band plays the first track from the new record (“The Weaker Shade of Blue”), the room has that feeling of a band on the verge. You can sense the overt ache for a bigger audience, and the paradoxical reality that this audience wants this band to remain fixed and true. And that means playing their rich material in poor tiny venues.

The reality is, Joe Pernice is a smart guy who writes sad songs. And in this America, the post-9/11 America, intelligence and melancholia gets you nowhere. Dumb and ignorant (read: happy)? The Pernice Brothers are not likely to oblige.

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