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Man of Steel

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.

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.

Pernice got his start recording with a band called the Scud Mountain Boys, and when he later formed the Pernice Brothers and signed a deal with Sub Pop, the label released an album called Overcome By Happiness and reissued several of his older records and some unreleased material. Pernice decided then to pull out of the deal and form his own label, Ashmont, which has released the past two Pernice Brothers records. "Sub Pop was like a bad flu," says Pernice. "Everyone's got it. But you do eventually become immune to it, or more like a tolerance."

One rather unusual aspect to the Joe Pernice story is, that, in the midst of spreading his indie-rock ambiguity and intensity, he's writing a short novel, due in a couple months.

"I received a rather dubious phone call from Continuum Books one afternoon, from someone wondering whether I might be interested in writing something on the Smiths," he says. "They're publishing a series of books about influential albums, and they suggested I write about The Queen is Dead. But I didn't feel like writing any kind of critical book, like a straight rock criticism type of book, so I said how about a piece of fiction that would show the importance of that particular record in someone's life. So I wrote up a little treatment and they accepted it. And I didn't want to write about that particular album. I suggested Meat is Murder, and they agreed to that as well. There's like 13 or 14 books in the series, but I think mine is the only one that's taken this kind of an angle.

"It was hard at first to get motivated cause it takes up a lot more time than writing songs, which is sitting around playing guitar, and I only had a couple of months to work on it. So the hardest part was the discipline sitting in front of the computer. But once I got in the swing it was fun. Making records after all," he adds, "is a collaborative effort. It's a lot less lonely."

Still, he was a little intimidated by the project. "If I was actually deciding I wanted to be a writer instead of a musician, I'd probably be shaking in my shoes," he says.

As for his immediate plans, Pernice is determined to tour through Thanksgiving, possibly longer than that if the tour goes well, and then get back to his songwriting and recording. He also has an idea about a musical he wouldn't discuss in detail.

Pernice and his band have stopped for a spell along the road, and he admits that they listen to few records while traveling. "We do have some Smiths, The Cure, the dB's, a few other things, but most of the time we just read," he says. He then takes a moment to admire his brand new Econoline E350 extended-cab van, which he claims is in immaculate shape. He jokes that he's trying to keep it pristine so that he can get a good price for it eventually. What about an SUV? "Never," he says sternly. "You might catch me under one, but never in one."

Let's hear it for the tough guy.

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Henry Cabot Beck