Goodbye, Killer (Ashmont)
What we talk about when we talk about love: the ’75 World Series, Anna Karenina, Annie Hall, David Foster Wallace, Star Wars, Sex and the City, the Big Bang. It’s all pop music, basically, and pop is what we talk about when we talk about metaphor. Or something.
Joe Pernice is not the loving kind, or so he’d have us believe. The Toronto-based songwriter looks longingly to literature and film in his pop songs, reaching for Leni Riefenstahl, Ford Madox Ford, and Jacqueline Susann on the latest Pernice Brothers record, Goodbye, Killer. Pernice the writer has been compared to Raymond Carver, and he has the highbrow know-how of Woody Allen: sloughing off romanticism—never one to out-and-out luff or lurve—in favor of roman à clef. So Goodbye, Killer’s confessions come as a surprise from the married dad, collecting more unrequited lust than Singles Going Steady. “Please don’t think I’m cruel, I’ve been through this too many times to bullshit you,” he sings in the slide guitar-heavy ballad “The Loving Kind.” In other words, please do not resuscitate. Pernice’s most enduring love songs are beatific puzzles (see: “Amazing Glow,” “She Heightened Everything”), while the usual misanthropy is dosed with affection.
And that’s not the only sign of new life. Somewhere between Somerville and Toronto the Pernice Brothers morphed into the Flying Burrito Brothers, with twangy guitars and tart travelogues. On Goodbye, Killer there’s an unkempt, upstate vibe unheard on previous records, with their concentrations of pop perfection. Instead, Goodbye has the air of drop-in studio time. “We Love the Stage” delves into the enduring love affair of a rock band: “I nearly drowned on my motel room floor/Even so we made sound check by four,” Joe Pernice jokes, adding, “I chose this life, this life chose me.” “Fucking and Flowers” returns the jangle with a sweet interlude to counterbalance the track’s title. “Bechamel” underscores manly lust and flirtation with a hastily-gulped aperitif, and rings softly into “Jacqueline Susann,” with its Krautified rhythm guitar and exasperated chorus. Pernice plies his paradoxes into a well-crafted personal ad: “Would that I was a book in her hands / She’s reading Ford Madox Ford and Jacqueline Susann.” One day he’s waking up in some girl’s Art Deco murphy bed, demanding: “Tell me why my love was so easy to leave” (“Newport News”); the next he’s letting someone get close when they’re about to give up: “If you love me like a bullet loves the sky / Like a perfect of shade of color loves the eye” (“Something for You”). It’s easy to believe his love letters have margin notes.
Teenage Fanclub, on the other hand, have never shied away from heart-to-sleeve confession—with three songwriters, Gerard Love, Norman Blake, and Raymond McGinley, well, that’s a lot of sleeves. The long-running Scottish band has always looked more to the sky than the page. Mellowed from their bubblegrunge years, Teenage Fanclub still get the gooeys over Big Star guitars and bigger melodies, even as they’ve eased on down the middle of the road—notably with the sublime, tranquil Man-Made (2005). But give the guys credit for being straightforward: Love, to Norman Blake, is sunrises and morning mist, headlights and three-part harmonies; it’s feeling—the Fannies’ favorite word. Their latest, Shadows, opens with a hit of transcendental smelling salts: “Waking up before the mist has fully lifted in the morning light,” is among the rose-scented sentiments reminding us to take it all in (“Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything”). Their lyrics have always been a little soft on paper, but layered melodies, pastoral strings, and tra-la-las make up for it—because a tra-la-la is pretty much the perfect antidote. And they’re esoteric when they want to be. This is a band that took a seamless breakup rocker, with its sing-along chorus and direct questions—“Are we together? I guess we’re not / Do you still want me? That’s what I thought”—and called it “The Cabbage,” ensuring it would hide in plain sight on Thirteen (1993).
Norman Blake is comfortable watching from a distance. He’s smitten with “Baby Lee” and comfortable with old-fashioned courtship, like Ray Davies penning Jane Austen. “I’m enchanted, I’ve fallen under your spell/How can I resist when you cast it so well,” he states, seeking her hand in marriage. “The Fall,” meanwhile, is a slow, searching lament—“I light a fire underneath what I was / I won’t feel sad, only warmed by your loss”—that grows into a choral round over a mournful guitar solo. Those marshmallow guitars can distract from any kind of serious conversation. What were we talking about again?