Singer-songwriters toe a thin line between heartfelt pleading and downright whining. Their music can grate on a listener when it trips into the latter; I’m thinking of Conor Oberst. Even worse is when the whining is about a perceived lack of respect for their talent; now I’m thinking of Aimee Mann. For a while there, she was making a career out of bitching about how major labels didn’t give her a fair crack at success.
Joe Pernice has the right to even more of that regret. He’s been a master songwriter for years in various incarnations — Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline, Pernice Brothers — but unlike Mann, he never had a hotshot young movie director snatch him up for soundtrack work. Joe’s not bitter, though. Thankfully, on Live a Little, he avoids the complaints and sticks to what he does best: creating lovely, literate pop-rock.
Pernice and the rest of the band throw everything into opener “Automaton.” Pernice starts the song singing over snaky, minor guitar chords that give way to a sunnier, bouncier chorus that finally fades out on a scrawling guitar solo. After this, the band settles down, winning with solid base hits instead of trying to swing for the fences. “Somerville” has Pernice frustrated with the modern hipster life that he can’t handle. The subtle piano ditty “Cruelty to Animals” makes use of an old French children’s song. And “PCH One,” an ode to California’s coastal highway, sounds like Mojave 3 running through R.E.M.‘s “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.”
Pernice’s way with words is as witty as ever. Early on in the album, he describes a mood swing as “Something came over me/ Crimson not cloverleaf.” Later he’s still depressed, claiming, “I was half my customary forty-eight percent.” Even about a new lover he doesn’t seem too jazzed: “Don’t care if she’s pretty/ As we leave Suck City.” Sometimes Pernice’s vocab can get a bit too haughty, as if he’s purposefully raiding the thesaurus. On “Microscopic View,” he rhymes “film noir” with “abattoir.” And he describes the PCH as a “catalyst or panacea.”
But these occasional big-word wowies are the only missteps on Live a Little. The album closes with a reworking of an old Scud Mountain Boys song, “Grudge Fuck.” The tune is ironically earnest for its title, with Pernice crooning, “I would do anything to make it with you/ Just one more time.” I don’t know how he is in the sack, but he sure makes pretty music in the studio.
Stream Live a Little: http://www.pernicebrothers.com/media/lal_player.html