I Feel Sullen

Fascinated with the moribund: Pernice Brothers

JOE PERNICE HAS had more band names than Will Oldham. Since Pernice's days in Scud Mountain Boys in the mid-Nineties, when he earned attention from the alt-country crowd by decorating downer melodies with mandolin and steel guitar, Joe Pernice's output has been prolific but his profile low. In 1998 Pernice swapped the Scuds for new bandmates--including his brother Bob--christened the group Pernice Brothers, and, with Overcome by Happiness, tossed off the twang trappings in favor of a sticky-sweet orchestral swirl. In early 2000 the same lineup, now called Chappaquiddick Skyline, slowed things down on a sleepy, self-titled disc, and a few months later Pernice released an album abroad, Big Tobacco (Glitterhouse), under his own name. Meanwhile Pernice kept busy touring pretty much everywhere except the U.S., where fans could understandably have forgotten him.

Not anymore. At the midpoint of Y2K+1 and amid the band's American tour, the new Pernice Brothers disc The World Won't End (Ashmont Records) stands as one of the two or three best pop albums of the year. This is in part because here, for the first time, Pernice Brothers rock. The recording sticks to the expected Pernice themes of screwing up and falling short. But rather than soak in sob stories like lukewarm bath water, here Pernice perches his songs' protagonists on the quivering lip of an abyss. Then, with trebly strings and dirty guitar, he celebrates and rages at their freefall. Check the staccato chords and rapid-fire drum fills that fuel "7:30," or the electric lick, all sirens and screams, that drives "Flaming Wreck," in which Pernice confronts his fate in a spiraling jet.

The World Won't End could be categorized alongside the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin and Wilco's Summer Teeth, its mood a mix of the former's giddy whirl and the latter's psychological somersaults. The music, however, is more organic and not so grand as on those discs: This is an album of modest aims and rewards. It captivates with flickering glimpses of beauty, like the surprise arrival of the "Flaming Wreck" guitar lick. Or the moment on "Our Time Has Passed" when the arpeggio hook of the chorus falls away, the organ trembles atop the drums, and the strings sweep Pernice into the bridge as he sings of a love lost "like a flash of radiation that leaves the buildings where they stand." Or the call-and-response interplay of "Let That Show," in which the vocal vies with a guitar riff so bold and bawdy it's comical.

That's right, comical--which, coming from such a notorious sad sack as Pernice, is a welcome surprise. There's satire in the riffs and the cheesy disco break of "Let That Show," and elsewhere in some especially sopping strings. And on "She Heightened Everything," Pernice pokes fun at his bummer rep as he sings about a "fascination with the moribund."

The humor is several shades darker on the album's lead track, "Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)." In what sounds like four hypermelodic minutes condensed from a Todd Solondz movie, Pernice sums up the titular temp with a wit as quick and clean as a paper cut: "Contemplating suicide or a graduate degree," he sings. "Answers 'How's it going?' with, 'I feel sullen. I feel sullen./I feel seventeen.'" And, of course, here's where the strings come in.

In Joe Pernice's world, total collapse is assured and the plummet to oblivion is inevitable. On The World Won't End, he has decided to just enjoy the ride. By the conclusion of these 40 minutes of words and music, it remains deliciously unclear whether he intends the title as a blessing or a curse.

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