Short Cuts

The Pernice Brothers
Overcome by Happiness
(Sub Pop)

Back in the mid-'90s, singer-songwriter Joe Pernice and the Scud Mountain Boys created a kind of minimalist altcountry infused with staggering, unwavering melancholy. Their three albums were littered with alcoholics, drug addicts, suicide victims, and losers in love and romance, with Pernice's whisper of a voice underpinning the tragedy in his characters' lives.

Now, having shed the late-night twang and country purism of the Scuds, Pernice, his guitar-playing brother Bob, and assorted friends have draped his weary, red-eyed confessionals in the shimmering finery that recalls '70s-pop landmarks from The Ballad of Todd Rundgren to Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos. More important, Pernice has turned his songwriting vision inward, examining the many facets of his aching. With Overcome by Happiness, he's come up with a masterpiece of romantic despair.

Pernice still sings like he's this close to nodding out, but the music throughout the brothers' debut is lush, lavish, ornate but seldom fussy, majestic but never bombastic. Strings swell through the jangling guitars on "Crestfallen," sweetening the bite in Pernice's acidic remembrance of a good-riddance girlfriend ("When she speaks she's like a mime/It's hard to read a simple mind"). Michael Deming's piano echoes the desolate chorus in the title cut, while both piano and a longingly stroked cello (compliments of Katleen Shiano) heighten the drama in the brief but striking "Sick of You." Droning acoustic guitar intertwines with delicate flYgelhorn flourishes on "Dimmest Star," as Pernice pleads, "Don't ever leave my troubled life."

Despite the title Overcome by Happiness is a downer, to be sure, with Pernice's pessimism permeating even the two most sonically gorgeous songs on the album, "Clear Spot" and "Wait to Stop." The former is a jubilant tune, with popping bass and bouncy piano juxtaposed against a bitter lyric ("I feel better now/You're gone"). The latter is the centerpiece of Happiness, a heart-on-his-sleeve weeper with soaring strings, a melody worthy of the Raspberries, and Pernice ruminating on a curdled affair he can't seem to forget ("And I want to be with you so bad I feel like I'm dying/Or I've died," he moans, sounding like he already has). It's a grand moment of self-pity and misery, a sour valentine that, like everything else on the album, turns romantic decay into a thing of unshakable beauty.

-- John Floyd

Agents of Good Roots
One by One
(RCA Records)

Rare in popular music today is the ability to transcend the clutter and splash of effects, techno-industrial bombast, pop-culture kitsch, and wild-eyed showmanship and just write a song with an original melody. Andrew Winn -- guitarist, vocalist, and primary songwriter for Richmond, Virginia's Agents of Good Roots -- understands this and has created some wonderful rock and pop melodies that exhibit a rare depth.

One by One kicks off with three songs that showcase the band's proficiency in building on simple riffs with funky grooves, jazzy chords, and understated guitar and saxophone solos. While the songs send One by One screaming out of the gate, the fourth song, "Upspin," elevates the band to a higher level. A salute to redemptive love, the song blends Steely Dan chords, Motown-style background vocals and a deliriously inviting chorus. The simple but engulfing hook makes the song a virtual primer on how to write pop music.

"Upspin" is no fluke. "Miss Misbelieving" takes a countrified approach to broken relationships and also offers a memorable hook. The CD's first single, "Smiling up the Frown," does it again, with a haunting and simple piano riff echoed by Winn's raspy vocal, a sax solo that never strays far from the melody, and a bridge that sends the song soaring. "Hoping, Waiting, Longing" is further proof that the band's hook-writing ability is intrinsic and unflappable.

Winn's larynx was crushed in a skiing accident at age 14, leaving him with a raspy vocal style that sounds pinched without being constricting. The band -- which includes Stewart Myers on bass and vocals, Brian Jones on drums and vocals, and J.C. Kuhl on saxophone -- explores various styles without restraint, handling blue-eyed soul and hard-rock wailing with equal ease.

But while the crisp instrumentation may pull you in, the punchy songwriting will make you stay. Agents of Good Roots have shown with this, their major-label debut, that you can have all the virtuosity, showmanship, fashion sense, and style in the world, but in the end it's the song that matters.

-- Larry Getlen

A Series of Sneaks

Spoon's third album, A Series of Sneaks, consists of 14 jagged, underdeveloped songs that seem as if they're about to take off but usually don't. Making use of repetition and a rough texture that almost buries some decent harmonies, Spoon delivers a pleasantly punkish album without any truly memorable song.

Britt Daniels plays a distorted, psychedelic guitar. Jim Eno, who cofounded the band with Daniels in Austin, Texas, provides serviceable grunge drumming. Joshua Zarbo plays bass. And Brad Shenfeld does some occasional "Revolution No. 9"-type sampler and percussive work. Overall it's the kind of stuff that might emanate from the loft of the talented but unfriendly guys next door. But these songs need decent bridges, a memorable break -- something.

Spoon always seems to be just on the verge of writing a pop song, and the group's work is solidly melodic. But as soon as Spoon gets anywhere near something catchy, it wanders off. The tracks sound more like ideas than full-fledged songs.

In "The Guest List/The Execution," the music builds with determined chops with guitar, a drum solo, rhythmic clapping, and suspense. But it all leads to nothing special -- some basic guitar lick we've heard once or twice already. "No You're Not" could have included harmonies reminiscent of the early British invasion. But before it gets that far, it stumbles to a halt.

"Staring at the Board" rocks along beautifully but still sounds like three guys screwing around in the den. "Car Radio" is neither stupid nor outstanding; it simply serves up a few reasonable remarks that sound good with five chords behind them: "Car radio. That's what I've got. Voice of authority from here until Empire State. Car radio. Quash. Out on a mission just a mile on the interstate."

But with songs that usually last a minute or two, at least the band never wears out its welcome. And the more you listen, the more you hear the songs being suggested -- the sharper, more polished stuff that Spoon might have done if it were into that sort of thing.

-- Barry Lank

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