You'd be hard-pressed to find a songwriter today who makes existential angst sound prettier than Joe Pernice. On The World Won't End, the second effort from this latest Pernice incarnation (after Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline and his Big Tobacco "group"), the Massachusetts native treads his usual lyrical ground, serving up dark nights of the soul as if they were as common as cafeteria food. But unlike the Brothers' lovely but restrained 1999 debut, Overcome by Happiness, the new record is musically upbeat, the kind of thorny pop masterpiece that begs comparisons to Brian Wilson and Elvis Costello.
While it may be too soon to laud Pernice's musical genius, The World Won't End is certainly something to celebrate. Filled with string-soaked, pure pop gems that sound as if they were exhaled rather than written, the record is a fine example of what happens when a good songwriter matures into something greater. While his previous work with the Scuds was decent, Pernice didn't really hit his stride until he made strings and keyboards an integral part of his arrangements. The addition of these instruments to his sparse folk-pop songs gives them an intoxicating, otherworldly quality. While he used this formula to great effect on Overcome by Happiness, that record was so slow it could've been used to fight insomnia. On The World Won't End, Pernice nicely balances his downbeat lyrics with toe-tapping melodies.
On the album's opening track, "Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)," Pernice makes a death wish sound as hopeful as a marriage vow, as he describes a temp worker who's "contemplating suicide or a graduate degree." The song is a marvelous mixture of hopelessness and apathy, made palatable by Pernice's sincere delivery and Laura Stein's bouncy piano rhythm. Tracks like "Our Time Has Passed" and "Flaming Wreck," the latter with Pernice imagining his death in a plane crash, also stand out as brightly told odes to misery. Not wanting to appear too cheerful, Pernice throws in croony weepers like "Shaken Baby" and "Cronulla Breakdown" too.
The Pernice Brothers
Continental Club, 3700 Main Street
Thursday, November 8; 713-529-9899
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The World Won't End is certainly a dark record. But even when Pernice sings a line like "I feel like I am dying as I watch you go" ("Let That Show"), the backing track suggests that he'll find a way to suck up his despair -- and his beer -- and start flirting with the next girl to come along. When Pernice sings "Keep loving me to death" on "She Heightened Everything," it's hard not to acquiesce.