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Thursday, July 21, 2005 01:16 pm

sound patrol

Balancing contrary forces

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Pernice Brothers Discover a Lovelier You (Ashmont)

For the past decade, Joe Pernice has practiced the art of pop chiaroscuro, crafting sunny songs with sudden shadows and dark songs that dazzle. With its buoyant hooks, chiming riffs, and major chords, his sad-sack soft pop goes down easy, but make no mistake: it’s not easy-listening pabulum. These creamy confections are steeped in bile, larded with regret, and garnished with ground glass.

Like most of Pernice’s post-Scud Mountain Boys output, Discover a Lovelier You conforms to the basic light/dark, sweet/bitter template, but it offers some interesting deviations. Compared with the four previous Pernice Brothers albums, Discover sounds astringent — not exactly stripped-down but streamlined. Where earlier efforts were awash in swoony strings, Discover gets by mainly on frigid synths, programmed drums, and reverb-drenched guitars. Instead of his usual sonic touchstones — the lustrous chamber rock of Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb — Pernice seems to have drawn inspiration from the new-wave acts that influenced him as a teenager in the 1980s: the Smiths, the Attractions, New Order, and early R.E.M. It’s less of a sea change than it might appear. This is the ’80s of Morrissey and Modern English, not the ’80s of Mission of Burma and the Minutemen. Because his songwriting aesthetic is so deeply ingrained, Pernice always finds the exact point on his continuum of influences that dovetails with his own artistic interests. Taken as a whole, the dozen songs of Discover mark a minor evolution in style, but not one of them would sound out of place on an earlier Pernice Brothers album. The difference is one of degree, not of kind.

If Discover isn’t a radical departure, it’s a highly enjoyable variation, proof that some artists are just plain good enough that they don’t need to reinvent themselves with every new release. If you look past its synthetic sheen, relatively minimalist orchestration, and sometimes-flagrant eightiesisms, Discover is essentially like every other Pernice Brothers album: Everything rests on the melodies and lyrics and the queasy equilibrium that Pernice negotiates between them. In this regard, Discover doesn’t disappoint. The melodies are ripe and satisfying, with just enough tartness to cut through the treacle; the lyrics are clever and mopey, in the tradition of Morrissey, if Morrissey had read more James Tate and less Oscar Wilde. If blues music finds the happiness in being sad, think of the Pernice Brothers’ music as blues for repressed, anhedonic blue-staters: exquisite bummers that teeter between despair and hope, pessimism and optimism, dark and light.

The best songs on Discover, like all the best songs in Pernice’s catalog, succeed by harnessing these oppositional energies. “Snow,” a shuddery guitar anthem reminiscent of the Soft Boys, describes the moments leading up to a car crash — narrated by a “flickering prick on the timeline.” With its serrated chords, screamy leads, and persistent cowbell, it sounds at once dreamily detached and horrifically present. The ultracatchy “Saddest Quo” combines Byrdsish guitar jangle with fake violins and a harmonica straight out of “Moon River”; meanwhile, Pernice croons lines about a “train wreck picking up survivors from a plane crash on the TV.” The track you’ll be humming for days, though, is the delirious duet “Subject Drop,” a midtempo power-pop rendering of a couple’s pointless quarrel. Guest singer Blake Hazard’s crisp apple slice of a voice brings out the best in Pernice’s sweetish, plain one; when they come together on the chorus, harmonizing in thirds against a radiant backdrop of guitars, it’s the perfect Pernicean moment, a giddy balancing act of contrary forces.

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