A golden voice singing wounded songs
Pernice Brothers offer 'Yours, Mine & Ours'
By Todd Leopold
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- There's Joe Pernice the singer: an unearthly voice, gorgeous and sincere, on the edge of wistful, like the Smiths' Morrissey with a heart or an American version of the Zombies' Colin Blunstone.
There's Joe Pernice the songwriter: images as sharp and glittery as diamonds, songs hungering for passion but burdened with loss.
"Won't you come unbury me?/Will you light me up like a lemon grove?" he sings in "The Weakest Shade of Blue," a song from the Pernice Brothers' new album, "Yours, Mine & Ours" (Ashmont). Or "How I lose myself in her shadow cast/And her bed's so tense I don't sleep at night," from "Sometimes I Remember."
And then there's Joe Pernice the person. He's sitting in a plain white T-shirt in an East Atlanta club, chowing down on a burger, keeping an eye on the baseball game, answering questions in a quiet working-class Boston accent. (The Red Sox, which he can't help but talk about, are the "Sawhx.")
He was going to be a professor, and he still looks like a graduate student taking a break from finishing his dissertation: a little disheveled and sleepy but focused and thoughtful.
Pernice maintains his M.F.A. bona fides writing poetry, and he also runs his own label, Ashmont Records. But music -- playing music, writing music -- is his career.
He said it's a life he finds tremendously rewarding.
"Writing a song is immediate," he said in an interview before an Atlanta show. "There's music involved. There's something about playing accompaniment, hitting a chord, that's pleasing immediately. It takes more effort to write poetry and prose. You end up circling a lot."
'We made a record for fun'
It's not that Pernice, 35, didn't like music; he just never thought it would be a living. He remembers singing constantly as a child. His mother, he recalls, was a big Beatles fan, and the family listened to everything from Bread and Jimmy Webb to show tunes and Slim Whitman.
Still, his music career began as a lark, he said. Pernice played in a rock band called the Scuds, which became a roots-country outfit, the Scud Mountain Boys.
"It was just kind of on the surface," he said. "I was in school, and I was in a band. ... We made a record for fun."
That "fun" record eventually led to a deal with Sub Pop, the Seattle label best-known for its Nirvana/Mudhoney grunge roots. ("They signed us in an attempt to branch out," Pernice said.)
From there, things kind of went in opposite directions. The Scud Mountain Boys hit the road and never stopped, and Pernice suddenly had a musical career. But Sub Pop became part of the Warner/Atlantic/Elektra family (now a division of AOL Time Warner, as is CNN.com), and being a tiny band in a big-label ocean didn't work.
With his business partner, former Sub Pop A&R rep Joyce Linehan, Pernice decided to run things himself.
Being his own boss has been liberating, Pernice said. He can devote his energies to his own records and keep tabs on the books. It helps that sales have been increasing.
"If it works, there's no reason to do anything else," he said.
Songs buried in memory
"Yours, Mine and Ours" is the Pernice Brothers' third record, and the band has grown harder-edged since its first CD, "Overcome by Happiness," came out in 1998.
That record was airy with intricate string arrangements. By contrast, "Yours, Mine & Ours" kicks off with the jangly and propulsive "The Weakest Shade of Blue," one of the year's great singles, and is more guitar-oriented.
The Pernice Brothers band -- Joe, his brother Bob, co-producer Thom Monahan, Mike Belitsky, Laura Stein and especially guitar genius Peyton Pinkerton -- sound more like a unit, much more tightly wound, giving Joe's songs all the more punch.
Interestingly, Pernice has said he barely recalls writing the songs.
"Right after September 11, we went to England, and I was a mess," Pernice told Harp magazine. "I was really depressed. ... I came home and settled down and got my head on straight. Before I knew it, I wanted to make another record and I had these songs. I remember saying, 'When did I write this?' ... I had no recollection."
Jose Ayerve, a friend who's acting as the group's road manager and Man Friday, has said he is impressed with Pernice's evolution, particularly since he got a relatively late start as a musician.
"Joe's so prolific. ... It's amazing for someone so talented to bloom at his [relatively] advanced years," he said.
Pernice would rather parcel out the credit to producer Monahan, the band -- and a little bit of luck.
"Thom is very good at getting a sound. We get a rough outline of instruments and things, and then we experiment a little," he said. "Sometimes it works, and a lot of times it doesn't. We stumble on things. There's really a lot of everything that goes into it."