Although Pernice Brothers haven’t released a record proper since 2006’s Live a Little, one would be hard-pressed to describe the time between that record and their new album, Goodbye, Killer, as time off. Singer/songwriter Joe Pernice wrote a novel, last year’s It Feels so Good When I Stop, recorded an accompanying soundtrack featuring his take on songs referenced in the book, and went on a supporting book tour. The novel was written in first person, so while Pernice may swear it was all fictional, it was hard not to read a fair dose of reality into the main character. It served to establish Pernice as an indie-rock everyman: beating off into urinals, screwing up in love, eating bad diner food, receiving rejection letters from Sub Pop (though the real life Pernice actually scored that deal long ago). The book, in essence, was about striving to grow up, perhaps the single biggest obstacle guys like Pernice face (and, for that matter, the people who read his books and review his records). If It feels So Good When I Stop could be accused of anything, it was that it was trying too hard.
Goodbye, Killer feels like an extension of that story and occasionally suffers from the same overreach, but in both cases it ultimately doesn’t matter; Pernice’s affable, dirty-mouthed voice remains utterly truthful and captivating. A split of a few rockers, some alt-country, classic pop, and one jazz-handed show tune, the record sees Pernice and co. offering up trademarked sarcasm, artfully executed melodies, and tight, concise pop music. Backhandedly lauded for years as as an under-appreciated cult artist, Pernice and band are breaking slightly from the blue-collar New Wave of recent records. Upfront rocker “Jacqueline Susann” struts harder than anything in the band’s catalog, with its literary references adding up to a “she’s out of my league” conclusion; the title track taps into prime-Faces slide guitar + 12-string jangle; and the vaudevillian rave-up at the end of “We Love The Stage” demonstrates a band determined not to get bored with itself.
Even when fronting rustic alt-country acts, Pernice’s records have never been particularly warm, owing more to the silver-edged clarity of aforementioned New Wave influences — The Smiths, Duran Duran — and Goodbye, Killer doesn’t go far to change that. The vocals still sit high in the mix, multi-tracked and precise. The drums still sound crisp, the guitars and keys still generously wash over the proceedings. This isn’t to say that the band doesn’t wring every last bit out of their sounds; guitarist James Walbourne (who provides support for The Pretenders) steals the show a couple times, letting loose like Johnny Marr doing Slash on “Something For You” and imagining the inverse during the cleverly tagged “Fucking & Flowers.” The hi-fidelity sheen may be a little tough to get over for the uninitiated, but it shouldn’t take more than the intricate interplay during “The Loving Kind” to acclimate to the pleasures of such niceties.
Pernice’s voice is in excellent form, lyrically and vocally, even as his fake English accent reaches exaggerated heights (hear the word “aspartame” in opener “Bechamel”). He stumbles only on the chorus of “The Great Depression” with some painful wordless crooning. The words focus on the gritty aspects of failed love and failed ambition, with Pernice singing, “I’d kiss your ass to kiss your ass again” on “Newport News,” and “We play to six the way we play to ten” with “We Love the Stage.” The same shrugged-shoulder sensibility shines through on “The Loving Kind” with the line “I’ll stay with you/ But that’s as much as I can do.” No one plays the down-and-out sad-sack the way Pernice does; he concludes the sentiment with “Hate me if you must/ But trust me when I say this love will never live.”
Closer “The End of Faith” positions Pernice somewhere between Craig Finn and John Darnielle on the Catholic songwriter line — more skeptic than the former and more devout than the latter — singing, “I don’t know if I believe in you/ If you exist please forgive me/ I want to see my own resurrection come” over folksy fingerpicking. It’s this kind of gravity that has allowed the same guy to sing lines like “Contemplating suicide or a graduate degree” or an utterly downer line like “I hate my life” without succumbing to cheap pathos. Like his book, which settled on a downcast but hopeful note, Goodbye, Killer succeeds not because Joe Pernice is a real-life loser, but because the man knows how to tap into the moments where we all feel like losers — the broken half-smiles and the stare-at-your-shoe embarrassments — when redemption seems a bit too far of a reach, and you just want to convince another human that you aren’t bullshitting them.