Man of Steel

Joe Pernice flashes two personas. The one on record has the quiet heart.

Joe Pernice, 35, has a kind of Clark Kent dichotomy to him, a surreptitious strength under a sensitive façade. In most of his photographs, Pernice looks like he just stepped out of a television police drama -- tough, a little sensitive, very urban and very ethnic, which fits well with his background. Pernice is Italian, "a little Irish" and Catholic-schooled. He's quick to dispel certain standing ideas about Catholic schooling and original sin. "I think a lot of that Catholic sin psychology is a myth," Pernice says. "It's played up. I didn't know anybody in Catholic school who didn't think they were going to get laid before they got married. The whole premarital sex hang-up idea is a bunch of crap."

When asked if he's a "Southie," i.e., part of that bunch of South Boston Irish folk that we sometimes see in movies like Good Will Hunting, Pernice says, "Nah -- I'm even farther south of that. A place called South Shore, or what we call the Irish Riviera."

He sounds tough, but there's this other side of Pernice, something that happens when he puts on his glasses. Suddenly, he looks like a member of the Elvis Costello bittersweet-songwriters academy, or maybe a graduate of the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets. Kerouac, after all, came from Massachusetts, too. He also lived for a while in Manhattan, whereas Pernice lives a good deal of the time in Brooklyn now. So much for the parallels.

You're a total mess: The Pernice Brothers cope with life on Yours, Mine & Ours.
You're a total mess: The Pernice Brothers cope with life on Yours, Mine & Ours.

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The fact is, Pernice, who is just releasing his new CD as the Pernice Brothers, Yours, Mine & Ours, on his own label, Ashmont Records, is one of the great secret practitioners of pop music. And his music is wistful, pretty and loaded with pop hooks that dig deeper under the skin the more one listens to them.

"I'm as lonely as the Irish sea," he sings on "The Weakest Shade of Blue," the album's lead track, "and as willing as the sand."

This is the bespectacled, mild-mannered side of Pernice, a side that's reflected in a voice that's soft and melodic, often compared to 60s singers like Colin Bluestone of the Zombies and others of that ilk.

Pernice multi-tracks his own harmonies, and his music is textured in a way that makes those comparisons apt and understandable, if a bit short of the mark. There are other influences at work -- Morrissey from the Smiths, the Hoboken pop world of the Feelies, the dB's, and perhaps a smidgen of the 1980s Georgia sounds, crafted in large part by R.E.M.

Lyrically, there is more at work than simple pop formulae, and while Pernice can be close-mouthed about it, the influence of Leonard Cohen and other more ambiguous songwriters, like Stipe, can be found in there as well. Pernice once said during an interview, that he wondered if anybody ever sat and listened to Cohen's brilliant 1971 existential tomb "Famous Blue Raincoat" for an entire day, but Pernice obviously has, and traces of that song and others can be found in lyrics like those on the tune "Number Two," but Cohen never wrote a line quite as blunt as "You were my life sucking power monger/You're a total mess/Can you admit that yet?"

Pernice's music is curious that way -- pretty, lush even, especially on his 2001 record The World Won't End, but beneath the sweetness is a serious undertow of irony and rancor, even depression. It's a heady mix. Having said that, it's important to add that this isn't the brand of fashionable melancholia that haunts the world of disaffected youth in their bitter bedrooms, or college-age romantics who affect alienation, trying to stave off their inevitable capitulation.

The new disc is every bit as pop as the last but with a few minor details. "This one's more of a guitar record," Pernice says. "We decided to leave out a lot of the strings and so forth that were on the last disc. We wanted the new record to have more power, more kick than the last couple, which were predominantly string-centric."

Pernice is two weeks into his current tour, and he and the band are driving through the south, having just played Atlanta. Now, deep in the heart of Mississippi, his cell phone reception is not at all spectacular, and he admits to a case of the Mississippi Delta cell phone blues.

His band mates surround him in the van, and he's clearly a tad shy about having to talk about himself with everybody listening. Two new musicians are touring with him, Pat Berkery of the Philadelphia Berkerys, who more often drums for the Bigger Lovers, and James Walbourne, a London guitarist. Having Walbourne along offers Pernice an opportunity to make remarks about the British predilection for bathroom humor and bad dentistry, and when Pernice's guitarist, Peyton Pinkerton comes into the conversation, Pernice agrees, "Pinkerton is a wonderful guitar player," says Pernice, "now if only he'd learn some better hygiene," he laughs. Pinkerton sits beside him in the van, the recipient of his mild-mannered friend's stinging barbs.

The one actual Pernice brother, Bob, is what Joe refers to as an adjunct to the band, but he's not to be found on this tour. "He's some kind of vice-president of some digital ink company, I believe is what it is. No kidding," Joe says.

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