Friday, September 12, 2008

Scud Mountain Boys. Pine Box (Chunk, 1995)

"Bring your guns, bring out all your ammunition/ Meet me at the old haunt where we hanged/ You're so pretty, you've got money and ambition/ Will you think of me when two weeks pass?"

I received the Pine Box LP a few years ago as a gift, having up to that point never heard of the Scud Mountain Boys, and being only vaguely aware of Joe Pernice -- the Scud Mountain Boys' primary singer and songwriter -- through his band the Pernice Brothers. As I recall, my friends handed me the CD, I asked, "What's it sound like?" and they said, "Heaven." And they were right. This is one of the most gorgeous albums I've ever heard, with songs so simple and direct in their beauty and delivery that at times they're almost too much to bear. Over the years, it's become one of the most treasured records in my collection, and something I never, ever get tired of listening to.

If the Internets can be trusted, the Scud Mountain Boys were born from the Scuds, a Massachusetts punk band who discovered that they preferred the acoustic songs they played after shows in their friend's kitchen to the electric stuff they played on stage. And so they became the criminally short-lived Scud Mountain Boys: in 1995 they released their first and second LPs -- Dance the Night Away and Pine Box, respectively -- and in 1996 they released their third and last, Massachusetts. In 1997, Sub Pop put out Dance the Night Away and Pine Box together in one budget-minded collection, The Early Year. And that's how I got Pine Box, and how you can, too.

Dance the Night Away is a solid set of tunes, don't get me wrong, but it really doesn't hold a candle to Pine Box. And man alive, how could it? First, let's talk about how this record sounds, recording-wise. The liner notes say, "Pine Box recorded live in Bruce Tull's kitchen using one microphone." Well, was it Jesus Christ's microphone? For the love of God, this record has such a warm, resonant tone, it's like being wrapped in the coziest quilt the sweetest grandmother who ever lived ever made. Every instrument (bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar -- no drums) sounds perfect, each note blended just right and given enough space to breathe. Ditto the vocals, provided mainly by Joe Pernice, who has a rich baritone borrowed from '70s AM radio. As a matter of fact, the entire album sounds like a transmission from 1975's best AM station.

And the songs. Album opener "Silo" is devastating, combining a spry main line with lilting descending chords and a vocal melody as sad as it is lovely. "'Cuz I'm halfway drowned in this sorry little town," Pernice laments, "and I can see the silo on the rise," conveying a sense of anguish and loneliness mirrored in Bruce Tull's dolorous lead guitar runs. Next up is "Resevoir," in which the narrator -- a spurned lover? a discarded corpse? -- asks "Where's my world?/ Did you forget me when they came to flood the town?" before pleading, "Don't leave me in the resevoir/ 'Cuz I don't belong," and all the while the chords cascade like the floodwaters of the lyrics. "Freight of Fire" makes you marvel at what passes for country music today, because there's no reason why it couldn't be a radio hit if all were right in the world. I mean, a couplet like, "Love, it came like a burning freight of fire/ Love, it dies just like three days without water"? C'mon. Pure gold. Oh, and guess what? It's catchy, too, with a nicely strummed verse marking time 'til the crystalline harmonies of the chorus.

There are some well-chosen covers on Pine Box, as well. Glenn Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" -- a song for which the fine people of Wichita should be eternally grateful -- is given a touchingly affectionate rendering, and the vocals (provided not by Pernice, but by either Bruce Tull or Stephen Desaulniers, the liner notes aren't clear) find just the right balance of hope and romantic resignation. "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" is slowed down and scrubbed of the disco glitter coating Cher's version, revealing the desperation and dread of the singer's tale and the haunting prettiness of the tune. And "Please Mr. Please," from Olivia Newton-John's 1975 MOR hit parade Have You Never Been Mellow, is transformed into a touching country gem.

Pine Box is beautiful, an instantly engaging collection of well-crafted and lovingly-executed songs. It is not a complex record, to be pondered and examined and unwrapped layer by layer; rather, its charms -- exquisite melodies, thoughtful lyrics -- reveal themselves immediately upon first listen. And again and again and again, as many times as you return.