Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
If Joe Pernice flies below the radar, it’s seemingly with a bit of pride, or blithe indifference. Consider the title of his live concert DVD: “Nobody’s Watching/Nobody’s Listening.” That didn’t come from a branding consultant.
He’s released 17 recordings over the years, but all under different monikers. The Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice Brothers, Chappaquiddick Skyline, Roger Lion, and The New Mendicants, to name a few. He’s even recorded and performed as Joe Pernice on occasion. A restless artist unconcerned with continuity, he’ll disband a band only to reform it decades later. He’s been known to ditch a completed album at the final mixing phase. And now and then Pernice falls into radio silence: during those stretches he is writing poetry, fiction, and (to pay bills) tv cop show scripts. However an artist gets on the radar in the music biz, this is not the recommended flight path.
Nothing changes the fact that Pernice is a top-notch singer and composer. When it comes to covers, his choices are inspired. They appear quirky at first, or even jokey in some cases. But then you listen, getting drawn in by Pernice’s plaintive voice. You then get stirred, you find new admiration for a song that you had condescended to or shrugged off. The song needed the Pernice treatment to get through.
See for yourself. Here’s a half-dozen choice covers from a quarter-century worth of Joe Pernice output. Add them to a playlist and name it “Somebody’s Watching/Somebody’s Listening.”
The Scud Mountain Boys – Please Mr. Please (Olivia Newton-John cover)
“Please Mr. Please” took Olivia Newton-John to the top of the Pop music charts and the Country music charts in 1975. Its simple story and premise is sweet as pie. The Scud Mountain Boys, an alt-country outfit founded in Pernice’s kitchen, took at run at the song for their debut recording. This is one of those covers where you wonder if you are to take it seriously. But then you do.
The Scuds stripped down their covers (and their originals too) so that the story, the lyric, comes across unimpeded. No string section, no woodwinds or artificial sweeteners to tell you how to feel. Pernice’s melancholic voice is perfect here. The cover is more convincing than the AM radio version, even though Pernice doesn’t bother to flip gender (the singer insists he could be the richest girl in Nashville). They take other liberties, like dropping the last verse, and adding a hair-raising repeat of the last line, a-cappella style. “I don’t ever want to hear that song again” they sing, drawing out the last word in church choir fashion. You probably will want to hear the song again.
The Scud Mountain Boys – Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves (Cher cover)
Once more we catch the Scuds plundering early ’70s soft pop, and utterly transforming it. This time they are all over Cher’s first solo hit, “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves.” The song is a piece of Pop perfection, full stop. But Cher’s performance of it is less than ideal. For one thing, the song is driven relentlessly fast—it edges out Led Zeppelin’s “Rock And Roll” in beats per minute. A song about desperate sorrows deserves a more gentle pace.
Pernice and company slow “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” to a crawl. They leave space, they let things breathe. Each guitar note reverberates, and each syllable counts. You can admire how much the singer implies: “I was 16, he was 21. Poppa woulda shot him if he knew what he done.” Other parts of the song hint at further depravity and exploitation. This is real songwriting. Hats off to Pernice and the boys for this rendering of it. And to Bob Stone, who deserves to be better remembered for having written it.
The Scud Mountain Boys – Theme from “Midnight Cowboy” (John Barry cover)
Here we are talking about “Theme from Midnight Cowboy,” the John Barry composition. It’s not to be confused with that more popular song from the same movie, “Everybody’s Talkin’” (by Fred Neil, as covered by Harry Nilsson). The cover is an instrumental, and as such it’s an outlier in the Pernice catalog. Yet the song itself is so golden, and so overlooked by cover artists, that it earns a place here. Nothing can beat Toots Thielemans’ harmonica work on the original, but to hear this theme voiced by a mandolin is a definite treat. An unexpected but inspired choice of material.
Joe Pernice – That’s How I Got to Memphis (Tom T. Hall cover)
And now we return to excellence in storytelling. Songwriter Hall of Famer Tom T. Hall has something in common with Pernice: both men wrote novels on the side. In taking on this particular song, Pernice isn’t reacting against an over-produced precursor. Hall’s original is about as unpretentious and spare as you get. The aim here is to sing a classy and classic song in straight-up fashion. This version appears on a curious Pernice project from 2009. With the publication of Pernice’s novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop, he also issued a covers album in conjunction with it. Each song on the album comes up in the novel or otherwise ties in. We’ll take his word for it.
Chappaquiddick Skyline – Leave Me Alone (New Order cover)
Pernice put down his guitar some time after the Scuds disbanded, picked up a pen, and wrote a novella called Meat is Murder. It doubles as a meditation on The Smiths’ Meat is Murder album. (The book is title #5 in the popular “33 1/3” series of books on great records.) What’s surprising is that a Smiths obsessive like Pernice sidesteps British music when it comes to covers. Here’s an exception, his redo of New Order’s “Leave Me Alone.” Pernice and friends are working here under the name Chappaquiddick Skyline. They back off from re-imagining the original, going for a straight translation instead. It’s the opening track on Chappaquiddick Skyline’s one and only album (self-titled). If you believe Spotify data, it’s by far the most popular track on it. Listeners evidently leave the rest alone.
Joe Pernice – Soul and Fire (Sebadoh cover)
Pernice is not always looking to the past. Finally we come to Pernice paying tribute to a contemporary. It’s fellow musical journeyman Lou Barlow (of Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr., and Folk Implosion fame). It’s not just age and restlessness the men have in common: Barlow’s a Sub Pop label mate, and both writers have Roman Catholic backgrounds that influence their work. This live version of Barlow’s “Soul and Fire” is a marked change from Sebadoh’s sludgy original. Pernice plays it unplugged and unaccompanied, in a sedate but soulful performance.
For more about Pernice, visit his website over at PerniceBrothers.com. Or listen to his most recent work (hint: you won’t find it on Spotify or any of the major streaming platforms). And if it’s more covers you want, here goes: it’s Pernice and others taking on Todd Rundgren.