The Pernice Brothers' show at the Black Cat proved what their albums have hinted at: They are probably the most underrated indie-pop band around. No one argues the merits of Belle and Sebastian and The New Pornographers. But maybe that's because everyone has already heard them. The Pernice Brothers haven't the luxury. Yet. (OK, they probably never will.)
Most impressive was the band's restraint. Their songs all feature the acoustic guitar and mellow, sweet vocals of leader Joe Pernice, and it's a pleasant change of pace to see a band embrace that in the live setting. Many bands eschew the acoustic for an electric stage show, but Joe played that guitar for every song, and the band fell in line, letting the quieter older brother be heard, unafraid of the folkieness in this music. There is enough bounce in these songs to let them rock out -- and certainly there appeared to be enough jumpiness in the band to betray that they wanted to -- but they hold themselves in check and fall in step behind Joe.
The bounce was evident as the band led off with "High As A Kite" from the new album, Live A Little (the set drew a lot from that record, as it should, but sprinkled in tunes from all five LPs), and the head-bobbing increased with "Weakest Shade Of Blue." And it rolled on from there. "Automaton," another new song, is a wistful burst of sunny '60s pop. The vibe continues in the more downbeat heartsickness of the title track of the debut record, Overcome By Happiness.
As rockist as I am, I remain a sucker for good sap, and it was omnipresent in the forlorn "Ballad of Bjorn Borg" and, to a lesser extent, "There Goes The Sun." The latter was the lone representative from 2005's Discover A Lovelier Your, for which I still have a hangover (I went hoping but failing to hear "Saddest Quo," "Subject Drop" and "Pisshole In The Snow"). I'm not as well-schooled in the newer material, but Pernice apparently is churning out songs at a pace too fast for me, and I'm left playing catch up.
Most impressive was the choice of cover -- The Zombies' "Butcher's Tale." While it suits the band's aesthetic -- this psychedelic '60s pop-rock is exactly the music you'd expect Pernice to listen to on the tour van or in his living room or on the juke at his corner bar -- the more obscure Zombies songs are relatively uncharted cover territory for bands these days.
Another bonus was the sax solo from keyboardist/guitarist James Walbourne on "PCH One," also from the new album. And another new track, "Somerville," pleasantly wrapped the set, leaving the crowd with the silly but indelible line: "Don't care if she's pretty as we leave suck city." It seems that there, and elsewhere through his words for the Pernice Brothers, Joe Pernice is taking old clichés and rewriting them for his own purpose, but then, clichés exist for a reason. We can identify with them. He takes that sentiment and puts it to new phrasing.
The band came back after a short exit. Well, Joe came first to serenade us before the band joined him for the first two songs from what is probably the band's finest album, The World Won't End. "Working Girls" and "7:30" soared and left the audience feeling happy. Because that's what the Pernice Brothers do as well as anyone (and let's be honest, a lot of songwriters tug at these strings): They make you feel happy about feeling sad. Because they're keeping you company.