Someone, it seems, has been beating Joe Pernice's larynx with a rubber chicken. Or maybe Rocky Balboa just shanghaied his cell phone and identity. "I am hoarse," the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and recovering flu victim says while exiting a restaurant near the Pernice Brothers' rehearsal space in suburban Boston. "But I feel great now. For two days, I was sick as a dog; it just ripped right through me. My fever finally broke at the Red Roof Inn."
His rally couldn't have been timelier: A cross-country tour in support of the newly released Discover a Lovelier You (Ashmont) commences in five days. Filled to its period-hopping brim with sardonic situations suspended in a luminous, unabashedly Anglophilic musical matrix, the Pernice Brothers' fifth album's sole salient flaw is that it's not available in the format that would most behoove it—250-gram vinyl, die-cut, gold foil-stamped, Morocco leatherette jacket (choice of black, white, or red), and lavishly printed, full color inserts. A sympathetic visualist could generate more universes than DJ Spooky on 11 turntables with Pernice's transportation accident songs for inspiration—especially the sexy auto crash tutorial "Snow."
"There is a car," Pernice coos breathily over backing suggesting a rich, focused update of the Who's "I Can't Explain" run through a set of early-R.E.M. conceptual filters. "There is an icy street/There's an intersection you're gonna meet/Around the bend again/There is a light/It's at tunnel's end/There's a sympathy wreath you're gonna send." His tone is sly until the chorus' expansive "Make it go by slow," whereupon it opens up into something perverse and seductive enough to make you wonder if fatal collisions really are that hot.
"I'm not sure exactly where it came from," the songwriter says. "Definitely not from a real-life incident. I never write straight from life; all my songs are inventions. It probably just slithered up from my subconscious." Still, he acknowledges possible inspiration from everyday life in his hometown. "Boston drivers are pretty awful," he enthuses.
They're also less and less his problem. Currently in the process of relocating to Toronto with his wife, Canadian- born former Pernice Brothers pianist Laura Stein, Pernice is dividing his time between cities until his visa arrives. "Toronto—Canada—is so different in so many little ways. It freaks me out a little. It's like, 'Is the blue money a five? Is the pink money a 10?' And all their Kit-Kats are in red wrappers, not orange. It's not right. I'm very much in a period of adjustment. But I love it. Toronto is a beautiful city; I don't even drive there because I don't have to. I walk everywhere."
You can't help but suspect that the former Scud Mountain Boy's new pedestrian lifestyle might have helped inspire the album's instrumental title track, a buoyant marriage of Durutti Column–esque hypnotics and the kind of relaxed lyricism exemplified by A Hard Day's Night's incidental music. "I never deliberately try to overlay '60s and '80s mannerisms," he says, "it just tends to come out that way—although I did go for sort of a Robyn Hitchcock Fegmenia vibe on some of the album. I think it's just the way my influences rear their ugly heads, but I'm not even sure exactly what they are. A lot of people say we sound like the Smiths. I don't hear the similarity. But I consider it a compliment. I love the Smiths."
So much so that 2004 saw the publication of Pernice's Meat Is Murder, the only work of fiction in Continuum Books' "33 1/3" series. Thanks to the slim volume, Pernice's affection for the band will soon become celluloid reality. "About a year ago, this actor, Neil Huff, called from New York and said he really liked the book and wanted to do a film adaptation," says Pernice. "I looked him up on the Internet, and it turned out that I'd actually seen him in a couple things. He's sort of a character guy, does a lot of Broadway stuff. After we started working on the screenplay, I thought, I've already got a record label, how much harder could releasing a film be? So we're doing it ourselves."
"We" is Ashmont Records, the vehicle for nearly all Pernice-related materials since his breakup with Sub Pop early in the decade. Typically, the film finds the label's founder taking chances with his own work that he'd never attempt with anyone else's. "I'd love to release stuff by other people," he says, "but at the moment the label is just me, my business partner, Joyce Linehan, and this guy we hire every now and then. The last thing I'd want to do is put something out by an artist whose work I really respect and then do a half-assed job of promoting it. To do it right, we'd need a couple more people, and the money just isn't there at the moment. Besides, if I can start a record label, anyone can start a record label."
The Pernice Brothers play Neumo's with Royal Gun and the Can't See at 8 p.m. Tues., July 26. $12.