Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Lonely Moans

Pernice side project ultimately a mixed bag

By Noel Murray

MARCH 13, 2000:  Massachusetts boy Joe Pernice has recorded under the names Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice Brothers, and now Chappaquiddick Skyline. In all three cases, his high, whispery voice spins fragile sugar around mostly hushed, acoustic-based folk music distinguished by morose lyrics and a pretty twang. His music leads one to imagine what The Beatles would've sounded like if they had gone country, instead of The Byrds.

Pernice has said that the reason for all the name-switching is because the projects are distinct in his mind. Scud Mountain Boys were a straightforward, stripped-down alt-country outfit, which Pernice dissolved to form Pernice Brothers and to follow a poppier, more orchestrated trail. Chappaquiddick Skyline is reportedly a side venture to Pernice Brothers, which he claims to be his "real" band; it's as stripped-down as the Scuds, but with the same poppy emphasis as his current main outfit.

In fact, the eponymous Chappaquiddick Skyline album features moments of such delicate sublimity that one wonders why Pernice didn't just save them for the next Pernice Brothers album. "Solitary Swedish Houses" has an idle, kicking-stones-down-the-street sort of arrangement--two guitars and a loping drumbeat that drop in and out of the mix at different times--and a hushed vocal that switches into aching mode only as a last resort. The waspy buzz of the guitar on "Courage Up" (similar to George Harrison's solo on The Beatles' "Something") ties together the piano, strings, and choral backup as it puts across Pernice's simple, clap-on-the-back lyrics. Elsewhere, tunes as disparate as the gentle lullabies "The Two of You Sleep" and "Nobody's Watching," the Eagles-esque country ballad "Hundred Dollar Pocket," and the faithful cover of New Order's minor-key technopop classic "Leave Me Alone" show a musician with an expanding range and a facility for making downbeat music sound romantic and lovely.

But there's something moderately troubling about the setting for these gems, surrounded as they are by duller stones. Two of the greatest weaknesses of contemporary rock artists are indecision and junk collecting, both of which have led musicians to feed their audience a steady diet of half-baked songs that should've been either finished or scrapped. Such is the case here, although Chappaquiddick Skyline is a heck of a lot better than most time-wasting side projects; still, it's a disappointing road for someone as talented as Joe Pernice to travel. If he wants us to take him seriously, he should drop all the aliases and stand as he is--a melancholy tunesmith with floral prints on his clothes and heart bleeding beneath.

Steely Dan Two Against Nature (Giant/Reprise)

The critical consensus on Steely Dan has seesawed in the three decades of the band's existence. When it emerged in the early '70s as a jazz-influenced boogie band, the group was hailed for breaking apart the strictures of rock song structure without the pretension that fouled the similar attempts of British prog-rockers. Also in focus were the lyrics of the band's co-leaders, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who artfully and archly dissected the perverse lives of desperate hipsters, using colorful lingo that only the songwriters seemed to understand fully. All of this precise music and hazy wordplay worked against Steely Dan as the '70s became the '80s, and punk and new wave made raw directness the new virtue. But by the time the '90s rolled around, rock scholars began to admit that they missed the pretty sounds and ugly images that Becker and Fagen used to put together.

Now, after almost 20 years in solo-act exile, Steely Dan have returned to a world where contemporaries like Bob Dylan and Santana are practically tripping over Grammys. But unlike those revitalized icons, Becker and Fagen have made no substantial changes to their sound on the new Two Against Nature. For better or worse, they're still pumping out long, discursive songs with skeletal funk beats, supple choruses, and plenty of tasteful touches of sax, flute, and virtuosic rock guitar. Given that Becker's and Fagan's solo work has shown a little more variety--and given that the inventiveness of the Steely Dan sound pretty much peaked in 1977--Two Against Nature has to be counted as something of a letdown.

But all letdowns should be this pleasant. Call it wistful nostalgia, but even without a melody as plaintive and poignant as "Deacon Blues" or "Rose Darling," Steely Dan's sophistication and aloofness still have the power to make the listener feel both relaxed and edgy--it's the musical equivalent of Irish Coffee. And in the middle of the record, Becker and Fagen catch hold of three straight songs that are almost up to their old standard.

"Almost Gothic" is the prize of the entire set--a warm, swaying ballad that's heavy on watery electric piano, giddy come-ons, and a tune that breezes past like a summer memory. That track is followed by the softly swinging, endlessly receding "Jack of Speed," which is then followed by the cheerful "Cousin Dupree," a wickedly toe-tapping song about creepy "kissing cousins." After that, Steely Dan quickly retreat to their likable rote, but for a brief, wonderful moment, the band hits a stride, and it's like the listener is driving through a rainy West Coast night, heading from one sour party to the next and feeling powerfully alone.

Fu Manchu King of the Road (Mammoth)

For the past 10 years, Fu Manchu have been trying to do for Foghat what the Ramones did for Eddie Cochran--make retro teenage rock into a punk statement. For the most part, the California quartet's concept has been best realized in its cover art and song titles. The cheesy '70s iconography that accompanies each Fu Manchu record is the first thing that catches the eye--custom vans, Trans Ams, corduroy pants, skateboards, dirtbikes, beach sunsets, and puffy, decal-like logo letters. Just read the names of songs like "Neptune's Convoy," "Sleestack," and "Eatin' Dust," and see if you don't start smelling the aroma of bong resin ground into the shag carpet of some wood-paneled basement.

On their fifth full-length LP, King of the Road, Fu Manchu keep on truckin', with no apparent creative advance over their established style. Dual fuzz-tone guitars blow out power chords over a thundering, bottom-heavy rhythm section, and what melody exists is carried by the central riff alone--the choruses typically consist of the band shouting the songs' goofy titles. Some tracks are fast, some are slow, but all crank up the volume until the EQ needle is trembling in the red. About the best that can be said is that Fu Manchu have polished their shtick until it sparkles. King of the Road is slick and highly listenable, in a one-note kind of way.

But a funny thing has happened in the past few years. The grunge "movement"--which attempted to achieve the same sort of '70s alchemy as Fu Manchu, only sloppier and with more punk attitude--died a messy death. Since then, almost all the fist-in-the-air hard rock bands have disappeared. Almost by default, Fu Manchu have gone from being a dime-a-dozen goof to the best of a vanishing breed. If you want that irresponsible, Saturday-night, cruising-the-Kroger-parking-lot, 12-pack-and-eight-track feeling, Fu Manchu is just about your only connection. Unless, of course, you actually want to listen to Foghat.

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