Pernice's Chappaquiddick Skyline; Mason's Lonesome Brothers
Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry
During wintertime, there's a certain stillness that falls on the Western
Massachusetts countryside that's both comforting and a little desolate. The
snow-swept hills and lamp-lit farmhouses hold their own quiet history, and, if
you're in the right frame of mind, the sigh of pines can sound like
half-remembered voices. Joe Pernice's songs, which he mostly sings in a hushed
whisper -- not much more than a rustle of a voice, really -- are a lot like
those sighing pines. The Northampton-based songwriter's tunes can sound
intimate and at your shoulder one moment, then distant and out of reach the
"Oh, I need some time to make sense of something I lost along the ride,"
Pernice sings in "Crestfallen," the ravishingly melancholy track that opens the
Pernice Brothers' 1998 debut, Overcome by Happiness (Sub Pop). But it
wasn't so much Pernice's characteristically downcast words that took listeners
by surprise; it was the ornate array of strings, horns, and piano that
underpinned his narratives -- a dramatic departure from the rustic minimalism
that marked the work of Pernice's previous band, the country-tinged Scud
Mountain Boys. The lush, orchestral pop vibe of Overcome was way closer
to Zombies singer Colin Blunstone and the Bacharach-inspired orch-pop of
Cardinal than to anything found in the pages of No Depression
magazine, even though the songs carried as much bitter despair as ever.
Chappaquiddick Skyline (Sub Pop), named for Pernice's new one-off side
project, contains his latest batch of cheery observations about such things as
seeing a would-be lover asleep in the arms of another after a party ("The Two
of You Sleep") and the lingering threat of emotional, if not physical,
desertion ("Nobody's Watching"). Once again, the first line of the first track,
"Everyone Else Is Evolving," sets the darkened stage for what follows. "I hate
my life," Pernice confides with a strange, almost carnal tenderness. "Don't be
alarmed if someday soon you hear I've gone away." Before the song's over, he'll
change the "if" to "when," and as the tune dissolves into the distance, Pernice
sounds more certain of his fate than ever. Meanwhile, the starker acoustic
shadings of the songs make Chappaquiddick Skyline's sound a closer
cousin to the Scuds' unadorned melancholy than to the Pernice Brothers'
carefully arranged gloom.
Pernice, on the phone from his Northampton home, concurs. "The songs that were
on the record just didn't fit the Pernice Brothers," he says, adding that the
title began as a joke when he and Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman were
brainstorming ideas for a "grim Massachusetts reference"; they thought the
phrase made a good goof on Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. "It's hard to
explain why, but some songs just get parceled out and go different ways. I knew
I had enough songs for a record, and I wanted to make one. And on certain
songs, I hear strings. But for Chappaquiddick Skyline, I wanted it to be
a bit more stripped down, like a Scud Mountain Boys record. I wanted it to be
more of an American record -- I'm not sure what that means."
For Skyline, Pernice enlisted bassist Thom Monahan and guitarist Peyton
Pinkerton (both of the Pernice Brothers), as well as pianist Laura Stein and
drummer Mike Belitsky. Then there were the friends and folks who stopped by to
add a vocal here or a guitar strum there. The recording sessions, done at home
on eight-track, were "very, very relaxed," Pernice recounts. "We recorded it at
my house so we could just chip away at it when we wanted to. Some days, we'd
get up and do a vocal track and then leave it alone for a while. We kind of
joked about this being a record that never happened. It was kind of like a
Chappaquiddick Skyline also marks a passage of another sort: the end of
Pernice's affiliation with Sub Pop, the label that was also home to the Scud
Mountain Boys. "Sub Pop was good while it lasted," Pernice reflects, "but it
just wasn't working out the way I wanted it to, so it was time to move on."
Pernice has nearly finished recording a solo project and has written material
for the next Pernice Brothers record. "The record I'm making right now is mine,
and I'm licensing it out to a couple of labels in Germany. I'm not sure if I'm
even going to put it out in the States yet. For the next Pernice Brothers
record, I know I want it to be really full with lush arrangements, but to be
frank about it, I can't afford to put it out myself, so we'll see."
Wherever he ends up, it's unlikely Pernice will stop writing lovely,
disconsolate ballads about suicide, alcoholism, and betrayal. "They're pretty
much all autobiographical -- even the New Order song (`Leave Me Alone') that I
didn't write," Pernice says with a laugh. "It all starts with me. I mean, who
doesn't have days where they wake up and they hate themselves? I think
most everybody goes through that at some point." Pernice says there's a simple
explanation for why he's so drawn to writing about folks who asphyxiate
themselves in suburban garages or languish in lives they've stopped trying to
salvage: "Fear of death, probably."
At one time or another, it seems, the Lonesome Brothers'
Jim Armenti and Ray Mason (the trio also includes drummer Bob Grant) have
played with just about every musician in New England. Back before he was a Scud
Mountain Boy, for instance, Joe Pernice took guitar lessons from Armenti (who
also moonlights on clarinet in a klezmer band!). Years later, the Scuds opened
for Mason's other project, the Ray Mason Band, at the long-extinct Sheehan's
Café in Northampton. Since then, several of the Scuds have popped up in
Mason's band. If music historian/illustrator Pete Frame ever endeavored to
assemble one of his rock family trees charting everyone who's crossed paths
with the Lonesomes, there'd be quite a few branches on the old maple.
"It's all interchangeable," jokes Mason, who's seated with Armenti at a table
in the band's usual haunt, the Bay State Restaurant & Bar in Northampton.
Moments before, Armenti and Mason (who's clad in the same Blood Oranges T-shirt
he wears on the inside cover photo of the Lonesomes' new album, Diesel
Therapy, out on Tar Hut Records) were watching Wheel of Fortune on
TV, trying to figure out the appeal of Vanna White. "She gets to touch the
letters," deadpans Armenti. "That's why she's famous." The Lonesome Brothers
may never be as famous as Vanna White, but they already boast a legacy a good
deal more substantive than that of Pat Sajak's sidekick.
On Diesel Therapy, the Lonesomes build on the rural warmth and
back-porch wisdom that made their self-titled 1997 debut (also on Tar Hut) such
a resonant example of great roots-pop songwriting. The tracks run the gamut of
what the Lonesomes facetiously call their "hick rock" approach, from Mason's
Rick Danko-ish vocal turn on the pedal-steel-soaked plea "Don't Make Me a
Memory," to the gutbucket, hillbilly groove of Armenti's "Big Shakedown." You
could compare shaggy, rough-and-tumble ravers like Armenti's "Going Blind" or
Mason's "All Jacked Up" to the work of insurgent-country darlings such as
Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets, and the Old 97's -- except for the fact that
the Lonesomes have been playing this stuff since before the musicians in those
bands were in high school.
"Jim and I grew up in the '60s and on bands like Buffalo Springfield, and they
were all doing country-oriented stuff, so I've never thought of it as a new
thing," says Mason. "But No Depression is a good thing. It's about music
based around songwriting -- which I like -- and a lot of the people who are
involved in that scene are definitely some really good songwriters."
As a guy who last year inspired a tribute disc called It's Heartbreak That
Sells (Tar Hut), Mason knows about such things. On the new album, he
continues in the same vein. He's quick to credit Armenti's talent as a
composer, too. "Jim's a better songwriter than I am," he says. "So it gives me
something to strive for."
The sessions for Diesel Therapy were done in a few
idea-and-intuition-flushed days at "Cloud Cuckooland" -- otherwise known as
producer Jim Weeks's Northampton apartment. Pedal- and lap-steel specialist
Doug Beaumier stopped by, as did ex-Blood Oranges bassist-singer Cheri Knight.
And Weeks, a master tinkerer with a keen ear for detail, added judicious
touches of cello, harp, and keyboards. And that was pretty much it.
"If something feels good, you don't go back and keep doing it," says Mason. "I
like the Dylan kind of approach, where the guys in the band would say, `Okay,
we learned the song, we're ready to record,' and Dylan would say, `No, you're
done.' If you listen to Highway 61, the guitars are really out of tune,
but it was perfect for the record. It would not be the same record if you took
that out of there. It's like the Stones's December's Children, where you
had these wicked out-of-tune 12-strings clashing with the harpsichord, and it's
so off. But so off that it's on." Or, says Armenti with a laugh, "to use
Jim Weeks's favorite phrase, `You're out of tune. But in a good way.' "