After disbanding the Scud Mountain Boys, primary singer-songwriter Joe Pernice headed into another direction with The Pernice Brothers (that’s Bob on guitar), where he ditched his former band’s country trappings for a lushly orchestrated pop sound. As Joe himself said, “I just wanted to make a pretty and mellow pop record,” and he certainly accomplished his mission, recalling artists such as The Zombies, Eric Matthews, Jeremy Enigk, and Teenage Fanclub in the process. Burt Bacharach-like horns and low-key piano parts also enhance these unerringly consistent songs, as does Joe’s breathy vocals, which at times veer dangerously close to being too sweet. The album also could use a few more changes of pace (“Clear Spot” and “Monkey Suit” are the only songs that could possibly be called upbeat) and obvious high points (I’d tentatively tab “Crestfallen,” “Overcome By Happiness,” “Clear Spot,” “Monkey Suit” and “Chicken Wire” as my favorites for the time being). Fine though these primarily acoustic-based songs (with a shimmering guitar jangle here and there) are, it all starts to sound like more of the same after awhile, and a few songs sound more like pop Muzak than pop music. Fortunately, the fascinating way in which Joe contrasts his sunny music with somber, downright sour lyrics largely makes up for the albums flaws, though it takes a little work to dig deeper and appreciate the album beyond its outward pleasantness.
The World Won't End (Ashmont '01) Rating: A-
After his Chappaquiddick Skyline and Big Tobacco side projects, both of which are worth hearing, the prolific pen of Joe Pernice produced 11 more songs for The Pernice Brothers’ second album, The World Won’t End. No sophomore slump here, that’s for sure, as the album again matches sad, wonderfully constructed lyrics to sumptuous music that will probably be a little too samey sounding and (occasionally) nondescript for some listeners. Still, I’d argue that this is a slight improvement over their fine debut. For one, 11 songs stretching out over 40 minutes sounds just about right, and the album is more upbeat and energetic, with a beat you can sometimes bop to and even an electric guitar rip or pseudo guitar solo here and there. Of course, the strings are still out in full force, the production is again pristine and lush, and the best songs (“Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)”, “7:30,” “Our Time Has Passed”) are at the very beginning, though you’ll likely pick out other favorites given that consistency is Joe Pernice’s songwriting trademark above all else. As for the lyrics, lines like “there’s nothing there, just bitterness” and “I don’t believe in love and I want to believe” are typical, and when he sings “I’m still in love with you” it’s painfully obvious that it’s an unrequited love. Still, when Joe sings “there is no meaning in my life” I’d beg to differ, for he’s a rare man who has found his true calling: writing beautifully melodic pop songs, again and again.
Yours, Mine, & Ours (Ashmont '03) Rating: A-
Fittingly, whereas The World Won’t End was more upbeat and energetic than Overcome By Happiness, Yours, Mine, & Ours ratchets up the energy another notch. Ditching the orchestration of their previous two albums, Yours, Mine, & Ours adds more electric guitar (that often nods to British bands like The Smiths, The Cure, and New Order) and a bigger rhythmic thrust (in fact, the beat is a tad too big at times). Songs such as “The Weakest Shade of Blue” and “One Foot In The Grave” surge on a thrilling wave of power pop, while “Sometimes I Remember” and (briefly) “Number Two” also contain chugging grooves. Both songs end suddenly (though “Number Two” comes back reprising a previous song; quirky fella, that Joe Pernice), as does “Water Ban,” one of several songs that could be called “dreamy,” while the wonderfully atmospheric “Blinded By The Stars” is but one prime example of a song that builds to a grandly epic fadeout. On the slower front, the moody “Baby In Two” keeps the vocal hooks coming (while we’re at it, “Sometimes I Remember” and “How To Live Alone” feature lovely female backing vocals), and “Judy” and “How To Live Alone” are pretty ballads (this is The Pernice Brothers, after all) that are led along by Joe’s honey-dipped voice. As usual, sorrowful lyrics accompany what is by and large joyous music, and repeat listens may be required for some of the less obvious hooks to sink in. However, with 10 filler-free songs clocking in at 37 minutes (in this age of abundant egos resulting in overly long albums, it’s refreshing to find a band who, you know, only put their good songs on their albums), it could be argued that The Pernice Brothers continue to get a little better each time out. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
Discover A Lovelier You (Ashmont '05) Rating: B
After a live album, Nobody's Watching/Nobody's Listening, The Pernice Brothers came back with Discover A Lovelier You, which gets off to a rousing start with three of the band's best songs ever. "There Goes The Sun" is enticingly moody, has a good low-key groove, and shimmering, gorgeous guitars along with Joe whispered vocals, while "Saddest Quo" is similarly beautiful but is even sadder and more radio friendly. "Snow" is comparatively rocking and is probably a great song in concert, what with its excellent groove, but then the album dips on the next few songs, with only the title track instrumental being a standout. It isn't until track 9, "Amazing Glow," that Joe writes another potential qualifier for my eventual "best of" mix tape, and it is another terrific little love (lost) song of the type they do best (great lyric: "when it came to the wrecking ball, she swung it effortlessly like it had no weight at all"). Alas, much like the middle of the album, aside from "Pisshole In The Snow," a somber Zombies-esque winner, the end of the album is unerringly pleasant and pretty but is ultimately unmemorable, faceless, and fairly boring. Even Joe's lyrics lack his customary sense of poetry and memorably quotable dosages of cynicism, but perhaps he's the victim of his own high standards, as again most of these mid-tempo songs are enjoyably melodic and melancholic, just like one would expect from the band. It's just that, aside from its four or five obvious highlights, they've done it all better before, though extra keyboards and an increased reliance on reverb do add up to a more expansive overall sound.
Live A Little (Ashmont '06) Rating: B+
Reuniting with producer Michael Deming, who had worked with them way back with the Scud Mountain Boys and on Overcome By Happiness, Live A Little is a typically classy Pernice Brothers album with their customary strengths and weaknesses. Again Joe writes consistently pretty melodies and highly literate lyrics delivered in his customarily breathy, over-enunciated style. At times the lyrics come across as pretentious (pick out the forced rhymes and thesaurus-worthy words) and some songs flutter prettily by without really latching on, but most of these songs are extremely enjoyable nevertheless, especially those stacked at the beginning of the album, as per usual. "Automaton" is an anomaly in that it's both upbeat and catchy, but the more subdued "Sommerville" is more in line with the rest of the album and is arguably the highlight, with a wonderful vocal melody and good guitar from Peyton Pinkerton, who sprays short but sweet solos throughout the album on songs such as "Zero Refills" and "How Can I Compare." Indeed, "Cruelty To Animals" has air guitar-worthy moments, but elsewhere it's Joe's lyrics or vocals that demand attention. For example, "B.S. Johnson" is a moving and rather rocking ode to a talented but troubled writer who committed suicide, and Joe's sugary sweet vocals are the most notable aspect of the sparse "PCH One." Although the band have a readymade formula by now, they're not above adding a wrinkle here and there, such as the exotic percussion on "Microscopic View" or adding horns along with their sumptuous string arrangements. Still, there's nothing really new here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing as the band's formula works quite well and Joe has written another batch of very good if not quite great songs. Revisiting the past, another obvious highlight is "Grudge F*** (2006)," a remake of an old Scud Mountain Boys song that aspires to and achieves a rare epic scope, the rest of the album being comparatively modest, with a typical track like "Conscience Clean (I Went To Spain)" being as laid-back and pretty as can be without being particularly memorable. Really, more than anything the Pernice Brothers are victims of their own unspectacular consistency, and overall I'd rate Live A Little as another high quality but not quite top shelf Pernice Brothers album, certainly better than the last one but probably not as good as the two that came before that one.
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