The Boston Phoenix October 19 - 26, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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New beginnings

Buttercup with Terminal E, Joe Pernice with Big Tobacco

Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry

It's what you don't hear on Buttercup's new album, Terminal E (Spirit of Orr), that gives you an idea of where songwriter Jim Buni's head is at these days. No pedal or lap steel guitars. No tambourines or percussive finery prettying up the corners of the Boston band's country-carnation ballads. And no ballads, either. Well, okay, maybe one ("Happy Endings"). Instead, what you hear are rousing melodies hung on rugged hooks, a grab bag of golden-age riffs steeped in three decades of classic rock radio, and electric guitars. Lots of them.

"We just wanted to do a rock record -- and that's about as rock as we get," Buni says with a knowing laugh over a beer at the Galway House in Jamaica Plain. "It's obviously pop, but there's some Bad Companyish riffs on there. We knew we wanted to limit the recording to basically two guitars, bass, and drums and not a lot of percussion. We had done Triple A-sounding records, and [1997's] Love [also on Spirit of Orr] was kind of like that. And we wanted to do something pretty raw, something that would more reflect the live sound of the band."

A noticeable difference between the current, more overtly rocking Buttercup and the previous version of the band has to do with the departure of pedal-steel-guitar player Tim Obetz, who Buni says split with the group on amicable terms. "He's just getting busy with other stuff -- he loves to play and he loves new projects. And we were kind of getting over the steel thing anyway. When we first had it, four years ago, it was kind of a novel idea. We thought, `That's cool because Elton John has pedal steel on his songs -- we can do that!' But we never thought of ourselves as a country band."

So for the time being at least, Buttercup are back to basics with Buni, bassist Colleen MacDonald, drummer Dan Lech, and guitarist Mike Leahy. "It's kind of weird -- we just made the shift to being more of a rock band again," says Buni. "I personally am getting really tired of Americana music and fake country bands, and I definitely felt we were getting pigeonholed as that. This is still an Americana record in some ways -- kind of like `heartland rock.' But we just wanted to make it more fun. It should be more fun, you know? I'm psyched we made a real good guitar record." (The band actually tipped their hand earlier this year with the release of Promises, a quickie EP that kicked out more Raspberry-flavored jams than any previous Buttercup full-length.)

In order to capture the live spark and off-the-cuff energy that's become so evident in their recent performances, Buttercup enlisted the help of veteran producer and ex-Neighborhoods singer/guitarist David Minehan, who had worked with the band on their last album, '98's considerably lower-key Buttercup. For Buni, tapping an old-school Boston rock connection was essential to the group's desire for a stripped-down approach. "There was a garage thing going it. We actually talked about that with Minehan going into it. Obviously, it's going to sound like the band -- we're not going to be the Lyres. But we gave him the basic outline of what we were going after."

Even if a track like "Walk over Mountains" does sound closer to Mellencamp than Monoman, there's no denying that "Make Some Room" -- with its circling "Tired of Waiting" riff borrowed from the Kinks -- wouldn't have sounded out of place piping from the Rat or Cantone's on a sawdust-and-beer-soaked Saturday night sometime back in the late '70s or early '80s. And indeed, that '70s-savvy feel has always been a presence in Buttercup's work, threading through the AM transistor-radio pop of their '96 debut, Gold, to the Jayhawks-ian country-rock/Cali-pop of Love to the FM "heartland rock" -- as Buni so aptly puts it -- of Terminal E. These albums, each in its own way, feel like self-contained period pieces meant to evoke and refract the iconic symbols of that era.

"You kind of know where they're coming from when you see them live and they pull out the Steely Dan covers," says Spirit of Orr co-founder Ron Schneiderman, whose label has released each of Buttercup's four albums as well as their EP. "I find it very interesting that they approach each record as a concept. They don't just go and do a record. They go after a specific mood and sound, and they've always been able to come through with each concept. So I've always been impressed by that. And I'm a big fan of songs, and Buttercup is really about crafting songs."

The feeling, it seems, is mutual. Buni attributes his band's longevity to his esteem for a label that's always afforded Buttercup the freedom to indulge their musical impulses: "Part of the secret is that we never had any goals to accomplish anything other than to record music that we wanted to record. We're really lucky that we have a label that will put out records for us, even though on the one hand we don't have a publicist, we don't have a record contract, and we don't make any money. But on the other hand, we can do whatever we want. And as long as we believe in what we're doing, that's all that matters."

ANOTHER PERNICE PROJECT. Joe Pernice doesn't make it easy for his fans to find him. After his depression-blasted outfit, the Scud Mountain Boys, made a few quickly beloved albums (culminating with Massachusetts, the band's 1996 Sub Pop debut), the Northampton songwriter broke up the band and formed the Pernice Brothers, a gorgeously downcast chamber-pop ensemble. So what did he do after that band's gleaming Overcome by Happiness (Sub Pop) landed on plenty of year-end Top 10 lists in 1998? Well, back in January he put out something called Chappaquiddick Skyline (Sub Pop), a home-recorded project that despite featuring all of the Pernice Brothers made no mention of the name. Oh yeah, also around the time of Chappaquiddick's release, Pernice announced he was leaving Sub Pop.

Now, having just started his own label, Ashmont Records, with Pernice Brothers manager Joyce Linehan (who as a Sub Pop staffer brought the Scuds to the label), Pernice has another new "side project" out called Big Tobacco that represents the imprint's first release. It's available in Europe, Japan, and Australia. And, yes, it too features the Pernice Brothers' Thom Monahan, Peyton Pinkerton, and Laura Stein. Meanwhile, Pernice swears the proper follow-up to Overcome by Happiness is a mere backing vocal away from being finished and should be out sometime early next year -- though he hasn't decided what he wants to do with it. (The Pernice Brothers make a rare appearance tonight, October 19, at Lilli's).

So why all the subterfuge? "I write a lot of songs, and when I got out of my contract with Sub Pop, I had this luxury to write whatever and whenever, and they [the songs] back up," Pernice explains over the phone from his Northampton home. "And I feel like the Pernice Brothers is my main project. It's not that I don't care if these others do well, but I don't want to push them too much as my main focus. I wanted Big Tobacco to be a boutique item."

Pernice says he'll likely put out Big Tobacco in the United States after the next Pernice Brothers album. "Not to knock it, but America is more hung up about multiple releases than Europe. And having one band or one name is very important here -- it's a real anchor for people. I have a distributor in Ireland [Independent Records] who says if I put out 10 records a year, he'll release every one of them."

Pernice says he can well understand the impulse of Guided by Voices' leader Robert Pollard "to want to flush out the pipes and keep working. People don't understand that if you're on a label that gives you a lot of money to make an album, you spend months working on it and then another 10 months waiting for it to come out." The music industry can be stifling to the creative process of making music, he continues -- "Hopefully you don't get into it for those reasons."

Like Pernice, Pollard started his own Fading Captain Series label as a means to supplement his band's "official" output for TVT records. For Pernice, it's all about the ritual of the craft. "Really, the only time I listen to [my] records is when I'm on tour so that I can remember the words. The process of making a song is such a joyful thing to me, it's like the records are just the by-product of what I like to do."

As usual, Pernice's narrative inventions on Big Tobacco include a cast of characters who more often than not are bracing for the worst that life can hand them, or who have made a strangely serene peace with disillusion or loss. "It gets so hard just to stay alive each day," he whispers over a plucked acoustic guitar on "I Break Down." But not to worry: "All I can say is that I've made seven albums about things like suicide, and if I can make another seven albums that have that same kind of feeling, then maybe they're saying something about staying alive and sticking around."

The Pernice Brothers perform this Thursday, October 19, at Lilli's. Call 591-1661

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