During wintertime, there’s a certain stillness that falls on the Western Massachusetts countryside that’s both comforting and, at the same time, 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 ancient sigh of pines can sound like half-remembered voices. Joe Pernice’s songs, which he mostly sings in a similar kind of 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 somehow distant and out of reach the next, lost in a wilderness of their own making.
“Oh, I need some time to make sense of something I lost along the ride,” Pernice sang in “Crestfallen,” the ravishingly melancholy track that opened 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 those 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 Cardinal and Colin Blunstone than anything found in the pages of No Depression magazine, even though the songs carried as much bitter despair as ever.
The new Chappaquiddick Skyline (Sub Pop) refers to both Pernice’s new one-off side project and his latest batch of cheery observations about things like 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 than ever. Meanwhile, the starker acoustic shadings of the songs make Chappaquiddick Skyline a closer cousin to the Scuds’ unadorned melancholy than 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” and thought the phrase made a good goof on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album.
“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 … 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 strum a guitar there. The recording sessions, done at home on eight-track, were “very, very relaxed,” Pernice says.
“We recorded it at our 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 awhile. We kind of joked about this as being a record that never happened. It was kind of like a shadow passing.”
Chappaquiddick Skyline also marks a passage of another sort: the end of Pernice’s affiliation with Sub Pop, the label that had also been home to the Scud Mountain Boys. “(Sub Pop) was good while it lasted,” he says, “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,” Pernice says. “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 stopped trying to salvage: “Fear of death, probably.”
HIGH LONESOMES. 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 Cafe in Northampton. Since then, several of the Scuds have popped up in Mason’s band.
Suffice it to say that 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 that old maple.
“It’s all interchangeable,” jokes Mason, who’s seated with Armenti at a table inside the band’s usual haunt, the Bay Sate Restaurant & Bar in Northampton. Moments before, Armenti and Mason (who’s clad in the same Blood Oranges T-shirt he’s wearing 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 like Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets, and the Old 97’s — except for the fact that the Lonesomes have been playing this stuff since before those bands were even in grade school, or born for that matter.
“Jim and I grew up in the ‘60’s 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 (the attention being given) ‘No Depression’ is a good thing. It’s 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, Ray picks up right where he left off, although he’s quick to credit Armenti’s talent as a composer. “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’ Northampton apartment. Pedal and lap steel specialist Doug Beaumier stopped by, as did ex-Blood Oranges bassist-singer Cheri Knight. And Weeks, a master after-hours tinkerer with a keen ear for detail, added judicious touches of cello, harp, and keyboards. But that was pretty much it.
“We’re not Carusos,” says Mason. “If something feels good, you don’t go back and keep doing it. 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’ December’s Children,” Mason continues, “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’ favorite phrase, ‘You’re out of tune. But in a good way’.”