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Well Versed

If the Pernice Brothers' newest full-length, Discover a Lovelier You, sounds just a little more optimistic than earlier releases, it's an unintended nuance. Singer-songwriter Joe Pernice really doesn't see it as a radical departure from 2003's Yours, Mine and Ours, although the press has called it everything from his poppiest record yet to his darkest material so far.

"I guess it might be a little jangly at times," he admits.

That's it? There's not a tentative glimmer of happiness in a few of those songs?

Pernice concedes. Sort of.

"There's always a string attached," he says. "And sometimes it's a rope."

True to Pernice's body of work, which includes three records with the Scud Mountain Boys, two solo releases (one under the name Chappaquiddick Skyline), and four prior Pernice Brothers albums, Discover a Lovelier You is skeptical but not smug, witty but grounded in humble sincerity. Talk about a string attached -- even his take on romanticism is cheeky. You could say that bittersweet is the perfect word to describe these deceptively melodic, immaculately crafted pop songs. Or, you could just call them gorgeous.

Opener "There Goes the Sun" juxtaposes a sweet, upbeat tune and a desolate confession ("Kicked the life from me. Left a headless drum. Crushed the rabbit cage of my skeleton."). Meanwhile, despite its title, "Saddest Quo" doesn't dwell in melancholy like you might expect. Instead, it strives for hope in spite of life's bitter realities ("Love my neighbor even when I couldn't give a shit"). "Snow," a rocker with expressive electric guitar and plenty of percussion -- cowbell, maracas and tambourine -- is not to be confused with "Piss Hole in the Snow," a slow-burning waltz that sparsely adorns sensuous words with plucked guitar and touches of high-hat. And "Red Desert," inspired by an Antonioni film, could stand alone in its poetry ("She had a beauty as soft as a shipyard, lonely as conviction"). Indeed, Pernice puts his creative-writing MFA to good use, delivering lyrics that cut even deeper with his distinctive, heartbreaking voice.

The band's current five-man lineup doesn't actually include any of Pernice's siblings. But his older brother Bob, who has performed on earlier Pernice Brothers recordings, still gets credit for introducing Pernice to music.

"He started playing guitar when he was 6. So my earliest memories of my life, my brother was playing guitar," he says. "I'm the fifth of six kids, and I have older sisters who were teenagers when I was young. They had tons of 45s, and they listened to a lot of '70s AM radio."

Pernice can reel off plenty of influences: the Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jimmy Webb. Country and western songs that his mother called "cowboy music." Later, Nick Drake and Elvis Costello.

After years of absorbing so many sounds, he started playing music in his teens.

"By that time, I was a real freak for mostly British music, like punk rock. I listened to a lot of Clash and Sex Pistols, and I was a big freak for The Jam. I liked a lot of British music, and The Smiths became one of the most pivotal bands in my life."

It's not hard to guess his favorite album, because the album title is also the title of a novella Pernice wrote for the 33 1/3 book series.

"The editor just got in touch with me out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to write a book. He had in mind The Queen Is Dead, but that wasn't the one that was pivotal for me. It was Meat Is Murder. That was the record for me," he says. "Morrissey, either you love him or you hate him, and I loved him. At the time that I was exposed to [The Smiths], it was just perfectly timed -- it hit me right in the sweet spot. You know, all my buttons were pushed to the console when I heard those songs. So that record just blew my mind."

The Smiths made a huge impression on the budding songwriter. "It was nice to know that you could just say what you felt rather than have some kind of gimmick in a song," he says. "It didn't always have to be about a hokey hook, like in those hairspray country songs, like, 'We're two of a kind, working on a full house,' kind of thing . . . and you could do it in a way that was not quite as angry as say the Pistols or the Clash or the Damned. You could have angst without being completely dysfunctional -- you didn't have to be a complete fuck-up."

Pernice rediscovered Slim Whitman and Hank Williams before he started playing with the Scud Mountain Boys, and those influences came out in the band's Americana appeal.

"At the same time," he says, "I was listening to Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. I think my style, even though I might've had different instrumentation, has always orbited around a strong melody and a sense of structure in songs, regardless of the type. I like what is considered classical kind of pop melodies, and I think a lot of my songs could be done a lot of different ways."

A prolific songwriter who plays music as routinely as brushing his teeth, Pernice had a backlog of unreleased songs when he decided to part with Seattle label Sub Pop in 1999. "I knew I didn't want to just make two or three records. I knew I had a good string of records in me. And if you're signed to a label, unless you really hit it, you don't really have much of a future," Pernice says. "So I just started the label [Ashmont Records] with a partner, and we were just like, 'Fuck it, we're not even going to go near radio. Radio's not going to touch us anyway -- let's just do this and tour and do it our own way so we don't have to kiss too many asses.'"

Going truly independent turned out to be wise, and Pernice recommends it to other musicians.

"In having my own label, as far as the money interest, we make so much more per record sold than I ever made when I was signed -- like 10 times more -- so now I don't have to sell a ton of records to bring in decent money. So I have the luxury of sitting back and letting my audience grow in a natural way rather than, 'Let's bring 'em all in because I have to sell a billion records.' I mean, that's no way to live."