AmericanA to Z – Joe Pernice

It was the ‘Sounds of the New West’ compilation CDs issued by Uncut magazine in 1998 that opened so many musical doors for me, bringing to my attention a slew of new acts, as well as forging an obsession in what we were tending to call ‘alternative country’ 20 years ago ago. One of the acts appearing on the first of those CDs, the Pernice Brothers, and their song ‘Crestfallen’ generated huge interest in the work of Joe Pernice and his various side projects, even if his musical output has somewhat dimmed in recent years. ‘Crestfallen’ featured on the 1998 album, ‘Overcome by Happiness’ and was a fine example of Byrdsian and Big Star sounding chamber pop –literate, melodic, elegantly constructed and influenced by a number of acts such as Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Burt Bacharach and Scott Walker.

Someone recently tweeted that ‘Overcome by Happiness’ was the best album released that year, while Joe Pernice himself replied with typical dry humour: “Thanks. It was definitely the best album I made in 1998.”

Joe Pernice’s previous incarnation, the Scud Mountain Boys, disbanded the year prior to its release, having recorded three albums: ‘Dance the Night Away’ and ‘Pine Box (both in 1995) and ‘Massachusetts in 1996. With more of a country twang than the Pernice Brothers, ‘Massachusetts’ was the Scud Mountain Boys’ debut on Sub Pop, and upon signing to the record label they arranged to re-release their first two albums. ‘The Early Year came out in 1997 and contained slightly reordered versions of ‘Dance the Night Away and ‘Pine Box on two CDs. ‘Massachusetts’ is the place to start for the uninitiated, with ‘Grudge Fuck’ essential listening, while the songs ‘Penthouse in the Woods’ and ‘Silo’ run it a close second and third. After a 15 year gap, the Scud Mountain Boys reformed briefly to release a fourth album in 2013 called ‘Do You Love the Sun.’

Between the issue of ‘Overcome by Happiness’ and the next Pernice Brothers album, Joe Pernice issued two solo(ish) projects: ‘Big Tobacco’ and ‘Chappaquiddick Skyline’. While the former was a bit hit and miss it still contained some stand out numbers in ‘Prince Valium’ and ‘Bum Leg’.

It was with the Pernice Brothers – the band formed by Joe and his brother Bob – particularly their releases from around the turn of the century, where Joe really started to peak and it was the issue of ‘The World Won’t End’ album in 2001 that had me hurrying along to see them perform at Dingwalls in Camden the same year. The majesty of this album is apparent right from the start, with the jangly and melodic ‘Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)’, its outwardly sunny and melodic disposition belied by its lyrical content – “contemplating suicide with a graduate degree…” Without going through the entire track listing there’s no drop in what is a supremely high standard throughout the whole record, with gems such as ‘7.30’ ‘Let That Show’, ‘She Heightened Everything’ (sounding not unlike Teenage Fanclub, but better than anything they ever released), ‘Bryte Side’, ‘Flaming Wreck’, ‘Cronulla Breakdown’ and ‘Shaken Baby’, possibly only surpassed by ‘Our Time Has Passed’. Heartbreak has never sounded so alluring. Ideal summer time listening, this is such a good record that I’ll refund your money if you buy it and don’t like it.

Almost as enthralling was the release of ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’ two years later in 2003. Its album cover featured a sparkling array of fireworks exploding into the night sky and this record is sure to light up your life. The hook laden opener ‘Weakest Shade of Blue’ is probably better than any song you’ll have heard this month. A decidedly indie feel to this album– in truth the alt country tag is something of a misnomer for the Pernice Brothers as they’re really too baroque and indie sounding for such a label – there are distinct shades of the Cure and the Smiths which creep in here, particularly on ‘Sometimes I Remember’ which sounds decidedly like ‘Friday I’m In Love’ – but don’t let that put you off. The slowed down ‘Baby in Two’, the uptempo ‘One Foot in the Grave’, and ‘Waiting for the Universe’ would all grace any ‘A’ star album.

Skip another two years to ‘Discover A Lovelier You’ – and its follow up ‘Live A Little’ a year later – and the songs here are only intermittently brilliant, but when they’re good they’re still exceptional. It was while touring the ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’ album that ace guitar player, James Walbourne joined the band and it’s his playing that also features on ‘Discover A Lovelier You’. The album features a song, ‘Amazing Glow’ that shimmers with a rare beauty and has enriched the popular music canon ever since:
And when it came to the wrecking ball / She swung it effortlessly like it had no weight at all.” Lennon and McCartney – eat your heart out. Meanwhile, ‘Saddest Quo’ has just about as good a hook as any other Pernice Brothers song. The ‘Live A Little’ album contains something of an unnecessary reworking of ‘Grudge Fuck’, although it’s redeemed somewhat by the inclusion of such quality tracks as ‘Somerville’ (sounding somewhat similar to ‘Working Girls’ from ‘The World Won’t End’), ‘B.S. Johnson’, and ‘Conscience Clean (I Went to Spain)’.

A hiatus of four years before ‘Goodbye Killer’, the last Pernice Brothers album proper, culminated in something of a stripped down approach and a 10 song record of only 32 minutes’ duration. Highlights included ‘Newport News’ and ‘The Loving Kind.’ The brevity of the album is perhaps explained by other distractions for Joe Pernice during this period, including his burgeoning career as a novelist (his first book was accompanied by an album of interesting cover songs that effectively acted as a soundtrack to the novel – titled ‘It Feels So Good When I Stop’). Pernice has also written a book about his love for the Smiths album, ‘Meat is Murder’, and more recently he’s ventured into television writing in his home country of Canada where he writes for the show, ‘The Detail.’

Joe Pernice released an EP and album with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub as the New Mendicants who toured the UK in 2014. The two of them met when the Pernice Brothers played with Teenage Fanclub at London’s Astoria in 2000, a gig attended by superfan Nick Hornby. Blake and Pernice decided to spend time together when they became neighbours in Toronto (both their wives are Canadian). A film version of Hornby’s book, ‘A Long Way Down’, was something the New Mendicants were meant to soundtrack, although their songs never made the final cut.

The Canon: 4 albums with the Scud Mountain Boys; one album under his own name (‘Big Tobacco’); one album as Chappaquiddick Skyline; 6 studio albums with the Pernice Brothers and one live album, ‘Nobody’s Watching/Nobody’s Listening’; one EP, ‘Australia’, and one album, ‘Into the Lime’, with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub as the New Mendicants; one solo album with musician friend Budo as Roger Lion with their eponymously titled album issued by Team Love Records in 2015.

Key Release(s): ‘The World Won’t End’ (2001) and ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’ (2003).

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