Monday, December 8, 2008

Pernice Brothers. Yours, Mine & Ours (Ashmont, 2003)

"It's hard to understand/ The cruel, cruel summer of a water ban/ A dead grass cradle and a water can/ To hold our prayers for rain."

Some enviable musicians can pull timeless melodies, addictive hooks, and effective lyrics out of apparent thin air with as little effort, it seems, as breathing or blinking. They make stellar songwriting seem natural, a reflexive action requiring little to no concentration or sweat, an involuntary nervous process.

And though this is usually not the reality -- in truth, it's hard to make things look easy -- it invariably sounds great. Joe Pernice, formerly of the mighty Scud Mountain Boys, is just such a musician: on record after record, the post-Scud Mountain Pernice Brothers (Joe's brother Bob is in the band, as well) have released some of the most exquisitely constructed, flawlessly delivered, and powerfully lyrical indie pop I've ever heard. The sound is lush, and the words are simultaneously personal and universal, and isn't that pop perfection?

The Pernice Brothers came together sometime in or around 1996, after the Scud Mountain Boys released their final record (Massachusetts) and disbanded. 1998 saw the Pernice Brothers' debut, Overcome by Happiness, released on the Scuds' old label, Sub Pop, followed by a string of LPs from Pernice's own Boston-based indie imprint Ashmont: The World Won't End in 2001, Yours, Mine & Ours in 2003, Discover a Lovelier You in 2005, and their latest, Live a Little, in 2006.

Where the Scud Mountain Boys had a distinctly alt-country vibe, the Pernice Brothers put away their boots in favor of an orchestral, sophisticated guitar pop sound, extremely easy on the ears and devoid of any and all pretension. There's a lot of Smiths in the Pernice palette (in fact, Joe Pernice wrote the Meat is Murder installment of the 33 1/3 series), and some Big Star, Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, and Nick Lowe, too. Some solid building blocks, certainly, and each Pernice Brothers record is a testament to Pernice's superior sonic craftsmanship. And of all the Pernice Brothers' sterling LPs, Yours, Mine & Ours shines the brightest.

Each of the ten tracks in this collection is enough to stake a reputation on, so I'll just mention the highest lights in an album full of highlights. Opener The Weakest Shade of Blue ushers in the album with a crisp four count, some luminescent chords, and a whipcrack beat. "I'm as lonely as the Irish Sea and as willing as the sand" croons Joe Pernice (who sings all of these songs) in his rich, emotive baritone, evoking heartfelt longing and deep self-doubt in the subtle turns of phrase and melody. In one of the album's best lines, Pernice warns/cajoles, "This love I have for you is ruinous and true," breaking hearts and raising alarms at the same time.

Water Ban is a haunting, lilting lullaby marked by some nicely reverbed lead guitar and a heavenly, weightless chorus: "I'm the same, though we've severed every courtesy we've made." "Baby in Two"'s casually strummed acoustic main melody provides for the foundation for one of Pernice's best vocal performances (which cribs awesomely from David Essex's "Rock On"). The loose wah of "Blinded by the Stars" is essential, and matches the quietly assertive rhythm track and Pernice's chiming falsetto turns perfectly. "How to Live Alone" is beautiful and devastating, with a wide-open, spacey sound and a dolorous melody tinged with radiant instrumental flourishes. Like a gift-wrapped switchblade, final track Number Two is pretty and inviting with a deadly edge. "I hope this letter finds you crying/ It would feel so good to see you cry," Pernice whispers over the acoustic guitars and tinkling pianos, as the song builds and builds until collapsing back into calm at the 3:32 mark.

Joe Pernice is a national treasure. An insightful, modest, and truly gifted songwriter and composer, I have no doubt that folks will someday look back on this New England-bred troubadour as one of the best pop masterminds America had to offer at the turn of the 21st century. Start listening now so that you can tell folks you were into him way back when.