Lambchop + The Pernice Brothers

Rob Horning
Lambchop + The Pernice Brothers

Lambchop + The Pernice Brothers

City: New York
Venue: Bowery Ballroom
Date: 2004-04-09

The Pernice Brothers
Pairing the kitsch countrypolitan collective Lambchop with the earnestly melancholy Pernice Brothers for a tour seems an inspired choice, since both bands are lush, rock-rejecting post-alt-country acts who nevertheless have conceptual approaches that are almost diametrically opposed. The Pernice Brothers smooth away rock's edges with efficient songcraft and well-engineered hooks designed to deliver an entirely predictable and strangely comfortable mood of "seriousness," whereas Lambchop writes muffled, tranquilized songs that make you all too aware how creepy and unsettling mood music can be, particularly when you have no way to tell just what mood is being evoked. Bringing the groups together on the same stage would seem to make for an intriguing point-counterpoint, a dialectical investigation of the emotional conditions of irony. But even with such philosophical questions in play, I was surprised to learn that both these shows at the Bowery Ballroom sold out. Lambchop's quiet, semi-whispered dirges never struck me as rock-club ready while the Pernice Brothers seem more appropriate for a rainy-day drive to IKEA or Whole Foods Market than for Friday-night drinking. But the Pernice Brothers, who came on before Lambchop this particular night, were actually much more enjoyable live than they are on record, where they can come across as insufferably smug in their streamlined, faintly contrived melancholy. Joe Pernice's elegant, luxurious melodies seem to smack of the privilege necessary to feel the languid heartbreak his lyrics give voice to, and his pinched vocal style always made me wish someone would administer him some Correctol. His special tic is to stretch one-syllable words into two and to make the new syllable about a half octave higher than everything else. This is supposed to dramatize intense feeling but succeeds only in stylizing and neutering it. But live, Pernice's voice is not captured in the pristine laboratory conditions under which it is recorded, so in its cracks and strains and approximated notes, it actually does convey some of the feeling it's intended to. This was especially true of "The Weakest Shade of Blue", which, stripped of its saccharine notes was almost revelatory. "Wait to Stop" and "Monkey Suit", maudlin in their versions on 1998's Overcome by Happiness, were also genuinely affecting here. Even their cover of New Order's "Leave Me Alone" (from Pernice's solo side project, Chappaquiddick Skyline, which, by the way, is indistinguishable from the Pernice Brothers) seemed heartfelt rather than a calculated retro ploy. This may be because when you see this band on stage, it becomes very easy to believe that there isn't much pretension to what they're doing. With the exception of the keyboardist, who looked as though he's been carefully studying photos of Nick Drake, the band managed to project an almost apologetic image, as if they were asking to be excused for their presumption in playing. Mostly they came across as decidedly adult, beyond the need to try to appeal with flashy clothes, corny stage patter or calculated poses. Typically, the nebbishy Pernice would have his shoulders hunched up at the mic with his eyes squinty as he sang. At times the group was a bit ambiotronic, but generally the Pernice Brothers played their soft rock politely and thoughtfully, and the polite applause the crowd gave each song (no shouts, no whistles, no inane requests) seemed to be exactly what they were shooting for. They were also well served by guest drummer Ric Menck, from the Velvet Crush, whose lively work kept the set from seeming too somnambulant. Lambchop were polite in their own way as well, if only because I expected them to be as oblique and cantankerous as their music can be. Instead, they were exceedingly good-natured, seemingly put at ease by the complacent, attentive crowd. In the old days, a band the size of Lambchop would have had a bandstand, not merely to make room for them all, but to impose a visual sense of order on the disparate elements. The band's specific deployment on stage made lucid the precision of the music played and the hierarchy of those playing it. Not so with Lambchop, however. The eleven musicians were strewn across the stage as if a tornado had deposited them there, with Kurt Wagner seated in a chair in the center. (Baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, woodshop safety glasses on, he sat as if bolted there, so much so that halfway through the show my friend asked me in all seriousness if the lead singer was paraplegic.) But such an organic set-up seemed to befit their performance, in which none of the individual musicians stood out, all instead contributing to a seamless flow of sound that was deceptive in its simplicity. At first it seemed a testament to their excessiveness alone that they used eleven musicians to make the sound of three (there were at least five different people playing guitar), but really this demonstrated how tight they were and how subtle were their arrangements, which ebbed and surged without fuss or gimmickry, making the slow, slightly dissipated songs utterly captivating. They opened with "Action Figure" from one of the two CDs they recently released (now that is truly excessive), played a new yet-to-be-recorded song, and covered an instrumental track from an obscure film score. Wagner's muttering vocals were often difficult to make out, but perhaps they are best absorbed that way; they tend to underwhelm when you actually decipher them. Also, his mumbling made those few moments of enunciation that much more emotionally powerful, as in the last song before the encore, when Wagner urgently repeated "Don't follow me" to chilling effect. Chilling in an altogether inappropriate way, however, was his occasional lapse into Cat Stevens-like cadences, barking out stilted syncopated rhythms and pausing in peculiar places. But such lapses were only momentary distractions from an otherwise absorbing show. The ironic distance that makes Lambchop's albums so perversely inaccessible didn't factor into their live performance -- they didn't need that ersatz mystique to compel the audience's attention. The band wasn't baffling or oblique, but was almost spectrally transparent, and that kind of directness might be the most mysterious thing of all.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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