Amazing Glow: A Review of the Discography of the Pernice Brothers
Stephen Rowland takes a look at every major release by the Pernice Brothers, ranging from the high points to the sleep-inducing lows.
In 1997, revered alternative country act the Scud Mountain Boys called it a day, and leader Joe Pernice (along, obviously, with his brother, Bob) quickly formed the Pernice Brothers, a group with a much less interesting name making decidedly more interesting music. Debuting on Sub Pop in 1998, Joe and Co. have been cranking out solid and often brilliant music for over a decade. This article examines and reviews all their major releases and hopefully gives insight into the songwriting evolution of the band, or more specifically, Joe Pernice. I feel it's time we give them their due -- they are by no means unknowns, but still fly a bit under the radar.
Overcome By Happiness
Sub Pop (1998)
Yeah, more like Overcome By NyQuil, as this record is the sonic equivalent to drool on a pillow. It's so mellow it has fallen asleep. And it's asleep so hard, it is almost comatose.
Now the actual Brothers Pernice's prior group the Scud Mountain Boys had a similar sound, but there's really nothing positive to say about them. If people were talking about them -- which they weren't -- they were classifying the Scuds as an alternative-country band. I think not, unless Cat Stevens singing Burt Bacharach tunes is country. Or an alternative to that.
And that's what Overcome By Happiness is. It surprised me that, in creating a new band, Joe Pernice, THE Pernice brother, kept that same sound as the Scuds. But it wouldn't last long, luckily.
Sometimes the drowse works, as on the title track, which is gorgeous jangle-pop getting ready for bed, and "All I Know", a beautifully composed ballad that throws away the guitars and gives us, prominently, piano and orchestra. Flip the coin, though, and you get shit like "Ferris Wheel", which is the TRUE "Valium Waltz" the Old 97's would sing of about a decade later.
The bottom line is, you keep waiting for everything to quit being so fucking delicate, and it just never happens (with the exception of the track "Monkey Suit", where the bored producer must have slipped them some ephedrine). The sleep sound is, oddly enough, so very tiring, and highly irritating, depending on your mood. If the song were simply good, we'd have a different story here. But there are no exceptional melodies, no intriguing hooks--nothing memorable to back up this soundtrack to benzodiazepines.
The World Won't End
Look at that. Just look at that! No, not the bird, but the rating. The massive jump in rating from the Pernice's previous effort. I have a theory about this.
Between releasing Overcome By Ativan and The World Won't End, Joe Pernice put out two solo(-ish) projects, Big Tobacco and Chappaquiddick Skyline. They both sucked terribly, and he admitted it wasn't his best material. Some people are just selfish pricks who have the means to be in the studio whenever they want, recording whatever they want, and selling whatever they want, while knowing it's simply not very good. There is an endless number of bands and artists out there who have to save money for a year just to get a weekend in a studio to record a fucking demo that will probably never see the light of day as an actual compact disc released by an actual record label. So fuck you, Joe, for essentially expecting all of us to take your dirty laundry to the laundromat for you. You don't realize how goddamn lucky you are.
Now that's not one of my patented, hyperbolic rants; I mean every word, every syllable, every letter, and every punctuation mark. The problem is, I still love the Pernice Brothers, especially this record, and its follow-up, to obviously be profiled soon.
In order to make a great album, you don't need to record and release your B material; you just need to shelve it and record and release what's great. So what Joe did was selfish bullshit, but the end result is an album where nearly every song is golden, and the rest are at least silver. He recorded the best song he's ever written, "Our Time Has Passed", and I'm not going to use words to describe how it sounds because I want you to hear it for yourselves. Also brilliant: "Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)", which recalls Teenage Fanclub in its heyday, before the beards and Scottish highlands; "She Heightened Everything," superb jangle-pop not unlike Mexico 70 or the La's; and "7:30", with its fun and carefully orchestrated Beach Boys-inspired ending. There's still some folky Bacharach; it's like athlete's foot, and folk in general, such as the Damien Rice-soundalike "Cronulla Breakdown". Of course that Irish bastard didn't inspire anything, as he hadn't hit the popular scene at the time this album was recorded.
You can literally hear their masterpiece of a follow-up, Yours, Mine & Ours, coming into fruition here, like watching your garden grow. And here it is.
Yours, Mine & Ours
I have never given a record a higher rating than this. It was the best album of 2003, one of the best albums of the decade, and still one of the best in the history of recorded music. Yes, all of that in a ten-song, indie-pop excursion.
I suppose some of it is personal, emotional reaction. Yours, Mine & Ours came in to my life during a very trying period, shortly before I was to make a drive across 2/3rds of the country. While I drove on, depressed and worried, anxious and panicked, I played this music over and over and over again. It was perfect for the South, for the Midwest, for the Rockies. It was perfect in Northern California. I'd bet it'd be perfect in New England, too. But I've never been there, nor do I have any desire to go there. I can only think of one place where it doesn't seem like it would be perfect: Florida. But nothing is perfect in Florida, as Florida is the harbinger of ruination.
The ten songs are almost perfect, and the ones that aren't completely, absolutely perfect in every way, are so goddamn close you can barely discern the single missing piece. The production is shinier; in fact, the whole LP glimmers (in a later album, Pernice has a song called "Amazing Glow", and that's what this record delivers), the band is more synergistic, and Joe's songwriting could only get better if he spent a few months with Brian Wilson in 1966.
This is truly the proverbial record you can listen to at any time. I could not possibly see myself ever tiring of it. Yours, Mine & Ours is Joe Pernice's career apex. So while we undoubtedly slide down the mountain from this point, we never reach the point of catastrophe.
Discover a Lovelier You
After retaining a similar sound for their first three records (I'm not counting their fourth live LP--I don't do live LPs), the Brothers decided to try a few new things. This isn't Metal Machine Music or anything; the experiments, if you can call them that, are subtle, and I think mainly, they didn't want their music to stagnate. Maybe they had the insight that they had done everything they could with their signature sound, so changing things up would be beneficial.
And like I said, things aren't really changed up. In fact, "Discover" is in many ways a completely natural progression and follow-up to Yours, Mine & Ours. The instrumental title track, along with "Saddest Quo" and "Dumb It Down", for instance, would've easily fit on their two predecessors. And the songwriting is essentially the same.
Yet, there are little changes in sound, production, instrumentation here and there. "Sell Your Hair" uses canned drums or a drum loop and has a heavy New Wave influence (and "Pisshole in the Snow" shares those quirks, but is a much weaker song). "There Goes the Sun" features guitar effects I've never heard during the chorus, and the New Orderisms that so surreptitiously poked their head into a track or two on Yours, Mine & Ours (so slight I didn't even mention them), certainly come out here, especially on the brilliant "My So-Called Celibate Life", which has a great enough chorus and verse but features a bridge that is positively enthralling.
Here we have our ups and downs and this isn't the place to begin with the Brothers (I'd choose The World Won't End, so you don't get the best, but you get a great representation). The new things tried aren't failures, nor would the record be better off without them. This is just the beginning of an evolution.
Live a Little
I think a lot of people will disagree with me, but I'll say it anyway as it's of no consequence: this is the Brothers' rock album. Yeah, there's still jangle pop and chamber pop and indie pop and sunshine pop and twee pop and whatever all that shit is, but listen to "Microscopic View" and then please shut the fuck up.
Now, being more rock 'n roll than usual...it's strange, because of the man behind the boards. Michael Deming, the entity who hit the Trazodone button before the tapes began to roll on the Scud Mountain Boys' three albums and the overrated, comatose Overcome by Happiness. It doesn't make sense to me, but I won't worry about it because it's of no consequence.
So, gentlemen, there is a lot of greatness on this record I once hated (what four years can do to you, eh?). On "Lightheaded", I think Joe laid off the weed and popped an Adderall instead, as it has the sound of Overcome but it's, you know, awake. "Cruelty to Animals" showcases Joe's lyrical knack and delivers one of his best lines, concerning someone who is "stuck in dumb amazement like a dog who's told to levitate". "PCH One" is endlessly catchy, while the re-recording of the Scud Mountains Boys' "Grudge Fuck" (I am NOT blocking out the word "fuck" with asterisks, regardless if that is actually how the song title is written) gives us a highly pleasing new production, but was never a very good song in the first place. The gold: "B.S. Johnson", a huge sound with heavily distorted guitars and swirling strings, and wonderfully, one of the greatest choruses Joe has ever written. And even more important is "Automaton". Now this is exactly how a song should be written: several different parts/progressions, each one a great hook or melody, all flowing together without a hint of tactlessness, and a running time of three minutes, seven seconds.
Does it get better than that?
In the long interim between Live a Little and this, Joe Pernice made a solo record called It Feels So Good When I Stop. I'll spare you the obvious joke/retort, but it is one of the most dreadful things I have ever heard in my life. Listening to him cover James & Bobby Purify's soul mega-classic "I'm Your Puppet" is almost worse than listening to anything by Led Zeppelin. Almost.
I mention this 1). to rant selfishly, and 2). because Goodbye, Killer feels like another solo record, which I don't understand. And while it's not the Ambien overdose that is Overcome By Happiness, it just seems to go by, floating invisibly like a ghost in the snow. Only the final track, the acoustic guitar and vocal "The End of Faith" leaves any lasting impression (which, as the last song, is a good thing). It's far, far up there with Joe's best work, which goes pretty far up. "Bechamel" and "Great Depression" are great indie pop/rock songs, and the country feel and wry lyrics of "We Love the Stage" are a lot of fun, but I seriously couldn't tell you much more than that, because mediocrity is abound. It's easy to write about what's great. It's easy to write about what's awful. It's damn near impossible to write about what's in between.
Taking so long to release this whatever of an album because of recording an ear-defiling, pointless, and monstrously selfish solo record was not only a bad move, but a disappointing one. Joe, you've been known to save your lesser work for your other projects (which you do), so maybe Goodbye, Killer would've made an exceptional four- or five-track EP.
I have a problem in my head where I don't remember things. Even major events. There is no way in Hell that this record is going to stick around in my grey matter. And I don't care.