The Princes of Power Pop

Sometimes a song, an album, or even a whole band gets tied up in your head with a particular place or event, so that you’ll never be able to think of the one without the other again. The Pernice Brothers will always take me back to a bitterly cold afternoon at Common Grounds not long after the place opened. This was before it became a neighborhood fixture and long before the free wi-fi, so there were only a handful of people there. Brad, one of the managers at the time, put on the Pernice Brothers’ first album, Overcome by Happiness and we the patrons experienced what, thanks to High Fidelity, is now known as a Beta Band moment. Everyone sort of stopped what they were doing and listened for a bit. An exquisite sad sweetness filled us from the toes up. When I headed up to the counter for a refill, Brad grabbed me by the shoulders and, after a deep sigh, declaimed the lines from “All I Know”: “All your friends may go / And your luck may go / But you’ll never feel as bad / As when she goes.”

Brad was a little odd, even as coffee shop managers go.

Anyway, with the CG crew boosting them on one hand and my buddy Joe declaring them “the world’s best power pop band” on the other, I got my hands on their music and quickly became a fan. I lack the critical acumen to describe bands without falling back on concepts like ‘peppy,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘cool,’ but if you scan reviews of their albums, you’ll see the recurring words ‘orchestration,’ ‘lush arrangements,’ ‘vocal harmonies,’ ‘layered,’ and ‘awash.’ A Rolling Stone review gets it about right with this: ”[their albums are] as spiffy and catchy as they are timid and wicked.”

The Pernice Brothers frequently visit the DC area; they played at the Black Cat last Thursday night. Sadly, the backing vocals were mixed so low as to be practically inaudible—I didn’t realize what a crucial element they were to so many of the songs until they were gone. Apparently there were numerous other sound-related issues that irritated Joe but got past me. Still, hearing material live from their most recent album, “Yours, Mine and Ours,” raised my estimation of it considerably—it had been taking a while for it to grow on me at home. (“The World Won’t End,” their second, is still their best, and the best place to start.)

I have a fun game that I like to play whenever I see the band: it’s called “Watch Peyton Pinkerton’s Cigarette.” This fine guitarist smokes up a storm while he plays, but his lips cover no more than a millimeter of his cigarette’s filter. No matter how he bobs and sways while he plays, it rarely gets dislodged. Once, when I saw Peyton and Joe Pernice playing at Iota, it did fall: Peyton was sitting, and before the cigarette had cleared the plane of his seat, he grabbed it in midair and gracefully put it back in his mouth. Since then I’ve longed to witness a similar feat, but just speculating about what cartoon laws of physics apply to Peyton’s cigarettes is pretty fun, too.

A Message for the Patrons of the DC Music Scene:

Dadgummit, shake your asses a little more! Maybe it’s easier to look cool when you’re standing still, but physically responding to the music that you hear is part of human nature. I realize that you’re largely a bunch of program managers and policy analysts who haven’t cut loose since your undergrad days at Stanford or Georgetown or William & Mary or wherever, and that many of you are in bands yourselves and thus for reasons of pride try to avoid liking the band on stage too much, but it’s not like I’m asking you to mosh—just give yourselves over bodily to the music a little more than you are. I promise that the band that’s playing will be much happier if you do—they’re not telepaths, and so the way they know they’re getting through to you is by seeing you do something. As an added bonus, if you and the people around you put on your groove thang when appropriate, the band will get your vibe, and play better as a result. And if you have a good excuse for not shakin’ it, like a bum knee or a heart condition, then at the very least don’t look scornfully at those who are. We’re only doing what comes naturally.