Anything With a Song

Joe Pernice talks about his new record and writing songs.

Yours, Mine and Ours, the Pernice Brothers' new record, has the telltale birthmark of a great pop record: really well-written songs. And that's not just because Joe Pernice, the main brother, is a prolific songwriter--Yours, Mine and Ours comes two years after The World Won't End, and in 2001 he also released a solo record on his newly formed Ashmont records and published a book of poems, Two Blind Pigeons. It's because Pernice writes for the sake of writing.

"When I'm done with something, I don't listen to it, I don't read it; not that I don't care about it, but it's gone," said Pernice over the phone somewhere near Georgia. "I love the process of making the thing. For me, the real joy in it and the love in it is the process. And once you put it out, it's for everybody else to either listen to or not listen to. For me, the end product is not what I'm shooting for, it's the ride along the way. Which is why I think I've put out so many albums, because I just really love the process so much, I just want to keep doing it."

Pernice does have an impressive output: three records with his alt-country band the Scud Mountain Boys, one record under the title Chappaquiddick Skyline, one solo record, Big Tobacco, and three Pernice Brothers records. With each record, Pernice somehow manages to slightly redefine his lush brand of songwriting, improving on every chord what you thought could not be improved further. Going from slow, quiet country to full-fledged pop that draws from the early years of rock and roll as well as melancholic '80s guitar pop, Pernice's songs always have some things in common: his airy vocals, poetic lyrics (he does, after all, hold an MFA in Poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied with James Tate) and a pop brilliance that makes each record shimmer.

Pernice has another book coming out in October, The Smith's Meat Is Murder, part of the 33 1/3 series by British publisher Continuum that has musicians or critics write about records that somehow shaped their musical life.

"I didn't want to write a critical book, like a rock critic, so just as a kind of shot in the dark, I said, 'What if I write a fiction, like a short or a longish piece of short fiction, like a hundred-and-some-odd pages, that kind of rotates or orbits around the record Meat is Murder, instead of trying to break it down song by song,'" explained Pernice. "I thought that I should write a fiction about a person who I would say maybe worships the record, the influence kinds of shows how big and important it was in someone's life."

The Smiths' influence on Pernice's life is very apparent, especially on Yours, Mine and Ours. The record had the working title Pretty in Pinkerton, and there's a definite Smiths/New Order/Psychedelic Furs aura, Pernice's voice sounding eeriely Morrisey-esque at times, and some songs ("Sometimes I Remember") sounding like they could be long lost New Order circa Technique tracks.

Without the orchestras and heavier guitar of The World Won't End and Overcome by Happiness, Yours Mine and Ours is simpler and lighter, but with just as much apocalypse. The songs look at the togetherness and loneliness of love; "Won't you come away with me and start something we can't understand," sings Pernice at the beginning of the record, and Yours Mine and Ours is a documentation of that journey. There are constant references to the feeling that there are three entities in any human relationship: the you, the I and the we, and that we is something separate, something different, something hard to understand.

"(The title is) also an old Lucille Ball/Henry Fonda feel-good movie of the '60s, and my record just is not that," said Pernice.

Pernice, as a writer and a songwriter, layers his songs in metaphor and allusion. "Blinded by the Stars" is a love song to a comet, "in the old poetic style of speaking on the constellations," said Pernice. "Baby in Two" is a haunting, almost surreal look at a biblical allegory.

"I was thinking of King Solomon, this biblical story of these two women who were both claiming that this particular baby was theirs," Pernice said. "One of them was lying, obviously, and one of them was telling the truth. They were fighting over this baby and they brought the issue to King Solomon, and he said, 'Well, cut the baby in two and each take half.' And the woman who was the real mother said, 'No, there's no way you can do that, let her keep it,' and the other woman was willing to cut the baby in two and therefore he knew that she really didn't care about the baby, so he could tell who was the real mother by saying 'cut it in two.' I was wondering if anyone had written a song that used that metaphor, so I took it. It's about compromise, really."

"Waiting for the Universe" ends with the line, "If I was the only one, and you were the last alive, would we sit there like the amateurs and watch our days go by, waiting for the universe to die." The amateurs, Pernice explained, are "people who don't know better. The question is hopeful in a way, there's a little hope by making it a question, but not making it into a declarative."

"Water Ban" crackles with drought imagery, with Pernice asking, "Scorched earth lovers, is that all we'll be?" The chorus, "Now we've severed every courtesy we've made," is catchy not just in the melodic sense, but because the pairing of "severed" and "every" is about three schemes of repetition packed into two little words.

"One Foot in the Grave" is "a nostalgic look at what music is to me and what music has been in my life," said Pernice. "So far out of reach, a perfection never found," he sings. "Never stirring, never found, in the calm, in the storm, in the radio."

"I grew up listening to the radio, for me it meant more before than it does now, it's just really kind of a nostalgic look at radio, things that I love to listen to that would never get played today, that's just the way it is," he said. "I listened to everything.... anything with a song I like."

Yours Mine and Ours could be a homage to "anything with a song," crafted with a love for melody, harmony and rhythm.

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