When Seattle's vaunted Sub Pop label stopped signing grunge bands and branched out a little, one of its first acquisitions was the Massachusetts-based Scud Mountain Boys, a hungry little Americana band that frequently sounded like the Eagles gone C&W. Nonetheless, in the alt-country world, the Scud gents were well loved, but that wasn't enough to keep them from breaking up after three releases.
So when Scud Boys leader Joe Pernice unveiled his new fraternally named combo, the Pernice Brothers, to a packed house at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference, his new, decidedly pop direction took some by surprise. Performing without a drummer and frequently gazing at the floor, Pernice acted as if he were about to be punished. The dour ambiance of his new band -- with its simple layers of acoustic guitars and bass -- was similar in sound to that of deep-thinking mopers-supreme Red House Painters or the American Music Club. One thing's for sure, Pernice's reflections on lost love and general misfortune quieted the frat boys and talky, goateed label types -- which is an accomplishment in itself. Presented matter-of-factly, the songs were moving and majestic, a welcome change from the Scud Boys' country-by-numbers formula.
The latest incarnation of the band -- which has two members who go by the name of Pernice, including Joe -- adds pianos and drums to the core trio, filling out the sound without suffocating. Pernice's songs still show a love for country's homey lyrical twists. Still, the band's debut CD, Overcome by Happiness , owes more to the happy/sad balance of the classic '60s pop- and folkster Nick Drake than to the neo-country flavorings of Uncle Tupelo or the Bottle Rockets. Pernice's smooth vocals gently cradle most tracks, while strings and a rare trumpet or two add enticing counterpoint. Of course, good songs help, too.
But what really saves the music from a more pretentious fate is the laid-back tempos and unassuming vibe. Like another cult sensation that wasn't afraid to mix grief and bliss, the Pernice Brothers have Big Starry-eyed melodies and even bigger hearts.
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The Pernice Brothers open for Morcheeba on Thursday, September 10, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. DJ Sun also opens. For info, call 629-3700.
Hot Club of Cowtown -- If Bob Wills was the first noteworthy Texan to see what an attractive couple jazz and country make, the Hot Club of Cowtown takes that union a few steps farther to the left. Founded by native Northeasterners Whit Smith (guitar) and Elana Fremerman (violin), the Austin trio -- which also includes Beaumont's Billy Horton on bass -- can swing the western way with the best of 'em. But they've got more than hootenanny fodder on their minds. The combo's new Hightone Records debut, Swingin' Stampede, reins in all sorts of influences, from old-time fiddle strains to Tin Pan Alley to the sophisticated jazz phrasings of Django Reinhardt (courtesy of the speedy and precise picking of Smith). What may sound simple on the surface is often less so upon further analysis. But the nice thing about the Hot Club is that fine technique never comes at a cost. You can hum along to it, you can ponder its meaning, you can cry over it. But mostly you can just plain move to it. Witness the real swing revival. On Thursday, September 10, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Showtime $8:30 p.m. 528-5999. (Hobart Rowland)
The Rippingtons -- Originally a late-'80s studio supergroup featuring up-and-comers David Benoit and Kenny Gorelick, the Rippingtons were typical of contemporary jazz at the time. The band's 1987 debut, Moonlighting, was defined by its synthesizers, David Sanbornish sax playing, R&B and pop influences, and exceedingly safe compositions. Not surprisingly, the Rippingtons' formula was a commercial success, and bandleader Russ Freeman formed a touring version of the Rippingtons, sans Benoit and Gorelick, whose solo careers were taking off. On the seven releases since Moonlighting, Freeman hasn't deviated much from the formula that made the Rippingtons successful, one that is never too dangerous for contemporary or smooth jazz radio. But in concert, the Rippingtons are another story. Sure, all of the pleasant arrangements and textures are there, but the Rippingtons have been known to tear the house down, taking chances they purposely avoid in the studio. On Friday, September 11, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Showtime 8 p.m. Tickets $27 and $37. Seabreeze opens. 629-3700. (Paul J. MacArthur)