Hyperliterate indie rock has a robust history. See The Smiths in the ’80s, Pavement in the ’90s, The Decemberists and your various Andrew Birds and Sufjan Stevenses of the ’00s. Curiously enough, the literary qualities of these groups come through in equal amounts of quirk and melancholy – rather like the music of Joe Pernice.
Joining again with his brother Bob and long-time collaborators James Walbourne (of Pretenders fame) and Ric Menck (who’s played with Matthew Sweet and Velvet Crush), Joe returns after four years with another batch of Pernice Brothers tunes. What happened for four years? Joe Pernice, who has an MFA in poetry and has published at least one book (on The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder for the Thirty-Three and a Third book series), was working on a novel.
Joe Pernice’s practices in creative writing come through wonderfully on the 10 songs for Goodbye, Killer, and these songs hold true to the band’s solid catalogue. Opener Bechamel is instantly catchy and accessible in an Apples In Stereo kind of way, with layered vocals and a tambourine-fueled forward momentum broken (only temporarily) by a slinkily plucked guitar solo. The happy-sounding music is wonderfully disturbed, however, by the lyrics, which combine food and passionate love in a decidedly American Psycho way. Pernice sings “I want her bones and I want her flesh and it’s all she’ll give me – I want the rest.” And before the song is over, he’s proclaiming that “the aftertaste’s like aspartame, it’s gamey and it won’t be tamed, this love, this love.”
Pernice can load a lot of meaning into a single word. In Bechamel, ‘gamey’ is one of the small winks he gives to close listeners. He expertly splits the different meanings of the word to serve the controlling metaphor of the song: the gamey implications of the partner’s sexual missteps mix in with the gamey tainted meat coated in a bechamel sauce that’s being eaten. These tiny discoveries are stuffed into all of Pernice’s songs and make repeat listenings essential. The images contained within the band’s songs (like the memorable line, “crushed the rabbit cage of my skeleton,” from the band’s 2005 song There Goes The Sun) stay with listeners indefinitely.
Jacqueline Susann follows Bechamel with a real Fountains Of Wayne vibe – organ, fuzz bass, sharp guitars and sharp wits. But every band’s got a song about a girl, right? That’s where We Love The Stage comes in. It’s a nice switch-up for Goodbye, Killer, both lyrically and musically. A slow-step country-shuffle song with swagger, We Love The Stage opens with, “I nearly drowned on my motel room floor, but even so we made sound check by four.”
Pernice goes on to list the things that bands run into on the road. “It doesn’t matter if the crowd is thin, we sing to six the way we sing to 10.” “We even like the smartass kids who shout out Freebird in my face.” “We opened up for some Welsh singer who in the ’80s was the rage.” He then lists the troubles bands face when they return home. “I had a wife who said home makes me free.” “I chose this life, this life chose me.” “My boy thinks I’m his uncle, there’s a dog who never knew my smell.” But all of these things are washed away in the titular lyric, “But love is lovin’, we love the stage.”
Joe Pernice is a musician’s musician and a lyricist’s lyricist. His smooth melodies are the hooks for his poetic lyrics, which wonderfully convey his in-depth observations of life. The only thing Goodbye, Killer suffers from is a slight lack in variety and a somewhat poor album pacing. But there are the pop rock songs and there are the alternative folk country songs, and they’re all done to perfection.