With his decisions to stop touring and write more books, one of pop's wryest lyricists is clearly slowing down. Is the music suffering as a result? Maybe.
If there was a World Cup of indie music, many critics would no doubt be rooting for Joe Pernice. Well-read, introspective, and hugely talented, Pernice has spent the better part of the last dozen years earning major indie cred, tirelessly touring, penning several books, and, by the way, crafting album after album of some of the smartest and catchiest pop songs around. In fact, before lo-fi pop and alt-country became the rage they are in indie music today, there was Pernice with his Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline and Pernice Brothers. Despite near-constant critical praise for his infectious melodies, superb composition skills, and intelligent lyrics, Pernice has barely cracked the mainstream, sadly proving, as a recent post on Pernice's website explains, that even the most talented artists often struggle to earn a living at music.
This perhaps serves as some sort of explanation why, for the first time in his recording career, Pernice sounds a bit tired on his latest release, the lethargic, ballad-heavy, and perhaps presciently titled Goodbye, Killer. Released under the Pernice Brothers moniker, Goodbye, Killer isn't a huge departure from Pernice's previous efforts. Filled with guitar pop, intelligent lyrics, and an overall sheen of melancholia, the album has all of the hallmarks of a great Pernice Brothers record. Unfortunately, it comes up short: With only 10 songs and less than 40 minutes of music, Goodbye, Killer might be the perfect pop record if every song was a keeper. However, only about half of the album's tracks live up to the gold standard that Pernice has set for himself.
"Jacqueline Susann", a tongue-in-cheek ode to the romance author of Valley of the Dolls, is a jangly power-pop gem anchored by chugging guitar and infectious melodies. "The Great Depression", another hook-laden ditty, contains excellent vocal harmonies with nods to '60s pop groups like the Byrds and the Mamas and Papas. "Something for You", the best song on Goodbye, Killer is classic Pernice, featuring a simple lead guitar melody, excellent transitions, and proof that Pernice does sappy lyrics better than anyone around: "If you love me like a bullet loves the sky / Like the perfect shape of color loves the eye / If you're infinitely close to giving up on something real / Come here 'cuz I got something for you."
The remainder of Goodbye, Killer is good but not particularly memorable. As always, Pernice's sharp, wry, and sensitive lyrics are among the best around and reveal him to be a keen observer of human nature and pop culture: "It doesn't matter if the crowd is thin / We sing to six the way we sing to ten / We like the way a four count sounds around three / We even like the smart-ass kids who shout out 'Free Bird' in our face," he snarkily croons on the twangy vaudevillian number "We Love the Stage". However, excellent lyricism isn't enough to overcome fairly staid arrangements and lazy production, largely on the album’s many ballads. “Newport News”, a slow country tune with nice lead guitar, feels much longer than its three and a half minutes, thanks to a forgettable melody and few dynamic changes that make it hard to differentiate the choruses from the verses. “Not the Loving Kind”, a rock ballad, feels too lethargic, with soporific music that doesn’t match the emotion and intensity of its lyrics. “The End of Faith”, a folkier ballad, contains rather banal guitar and mandolin arrangements.
To be fair, a subpar release from Joe Pernice is better than most artists' masterworks. However, compared with Pernice's previous efforts, Goodbye, Killer feels somewhat thin. It makes one wonder if Pernice hasn't tired a bit of the rigamarole.