Chappaquiddick Skyline

(Sub Pop)

From Brian Wilson and Nick Drake to Elvis Costello and Billy Bragg, rock and roll has never been short on guys who've been kicked around by love and roughed up by romance. Northampton, Massachusetts, singer/songwriter Joe Pernice has his share of bruises and scars, and he's used them as the basis for some of the most achingly beautiful ballads of the past ten years -- first with the now-defunct Scud Mountain Boys and, most recently, with the Pernice Brothers, whose 1998 debut Overcome by Happiness was one of that year's overlooked masterpieces. With Chappaquiddick Skyline, a side project that is basically the Pernice Brothers minus brother Bob, Pernice has conceived a consummate statement of longing and despair, a relentless travelogue through an endless highway of broken hearts and shattered dreams.

The opening cut, a gorgeous little suicide note titled "Everyone Else Is Evolving," sets the mood. The first line: "I hate my life," sung in a hushed voice that fuses the pathos of Nick Drake with the breathy melancholy of Dusty Springfield. Pernice spends the rest of the disc convincing you of just that sentiment. Like a glutton for misery, he can't help but dive to the furthest depths of despair, forcing himself to spy on his ex-lover in bed with her latest flame ("The Two of You Sleep") and ruminating on a failed relationship in the scab-picking "Hundred Dollar Pocket" ("Do you ever wonder where I am right now?" he asks, knowing full well the answer is "No"). In the symphonic "Courage Up," he resigns himself to the fact that things are "never gonna be the way you want." "Theme to an Endless Bummer," meanwhile, is self-explanatory.

It's a relentless piece of work, to say the least, one that would be exhausting and draining if the music weren't so lovely -- if the piano and acoustic and electric guitars didn't wind so deftly around both the tugging melodies and Pernice's sadly poetic lyrics of longing and self-hatred. It's ironic, then, that one of Chappaquiddick Skyline's most unforgettable outpourings comes not from the pen of Pernice, but from British electro-popsters New Order: "Leave Me Alone," one of that mopey group's first coherent stabs at tangible emotional expression. And naturally it's a perfect fit for Pernice, who turns the bleak anthem of depression into majestic pop catharsis. He almost makes you believe that, if he indeed can have a few days to himself, he'll be okay. Here's hoping he's right.

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John Floyd