Review: The Pernice Brothers’ ‘Overcome by Happiness’ Debut Remains Timeless on 25th Anniversary Reissue

Pernice Brothers
Overcome by Happiness:25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
(New West)
Music: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Reissue package: 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

The term “Baroque pop” may not have originated with the success of the band The Left Banke when their tunes “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” became surprise hits in the mid-’60s. But that description adequately, actually perfectly, defined those songs and others which incorporated swelling strings, tinkling piano, harpsichords, and other traditionally non-rock instruments with soaring melodies, all confined to a three-minute single. The Zombies and especially Colin Blunstone’s whispery voice on “She’s Not There,” The Beatles “In My Life” and the Stones’ “Lady Jane” all predated The Left Banke (whose publicity used the “Baroque pop” adjective), but the style didn’t last long.

It did however catch and captivate the ear of Joe Pernice.

The frontman for Sub Pop’s country/roots Scud Mountain Boys was so enamored with the sound that he dissolved his outfit, which had already released three well-received albums, to follow his muse as frontman/singer/songwriter and undisputed auteur of the Pernice Brothers. The result was Overcome by Happiness (1998), the band’s first, most radical, and arguably finest release.

It wasn’t a substantial departure from some of the Scud Mountain Boys’ more meditative work, but Pernice felt it was enough of a sharp turn to initiate a new outfit dedicated to this approach. It helps that his smooth grainy voice perfectly frames these dozen tracks, all totaling under forty minutes.

Critical accolades immediately poured in after the release of Overcome by Happiness, nearly all referencing the lilting, wistful, music enriched by classical strings and its overall rococo qualities.

One of those initially entranced by the album was Brady Brock, now an executive at New West Records. He floated the idea of an expanded 25th anniversary (vinyl only) edition to Pernice, who jumped on board. The final product—the original 12 songs remastered with a second platter of rarities, a beautifully crafted 52-page book featuring Pernice’s detailed comments on the origin and recording of every selection, along with rare photos and superb liner notes—is deluxe in every sense of that word.

Musically, these songs that always felt timeless, even when new, have proven to be precisely that. From the opening guitar strum of the melancholy “Crestfallen” and Pernice’s lyrics When she speaks she’s like a mime/It’s hard to read a simple mind to the devastating “Chicken Wire,” the tale of a woman’s suicide by inhaling toxic car exhaust fumes (There’s so much I left undone / But it’s too late now in the garage) and the closing stark “Ferris Wheel” with just sparse solo acoustic guitar and piano framing the hushed singing of Oh, I don’t want to die / But you never know till you try, this music exists in its own rarified space.

It’s no one’s idea of an easy listen.

Regardless, these predominantly introspective, achingly beautiful ballads sparkle with an edgy sheen far beyond the boundaries of what might be considered soft rock. Pernice pens his finely honed concepts with a surgeon’s skill. Everything is enriched by the ornate strings and occasional backing vocals that soften the blow for pensive, often depressing ruminations on the futility of life and love. Flourishing choruses circle and spiral around these tunes. Those in the glistening “Monkey Suit” and the relatively upbeat “Clear Spot” help alleviate and balance the music’s more dour aspects.

Like Nick Drake, one of Pernice’s influences, the sensitive vocals feel organic and genuine, as if he’s singing to himself without the knowledge of the tape running.

The demos and rarities provide an intimate picture of how Pernice’s vision was birthed. A stripped-down, raw version of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” the set’s only cover, indicates how that classic influenced him. 

Those who haven’t been exposed to this quarter-century-old collection can now experience it as new, taking advantage of the information and lyrics included in the book to enhance the context. Ignore the deceptively optimistic title (the darker lyrics go You don’t feel so overcome by happiness/You’re broke/Do you think you might scrape your life together) and submerge yourself into the sparkling chamber pop of the Pernice Brothers’ masterpiece.     

Photo by Dennis Kleiman 

Leave a Reply

Marty Stuart Continues Flying High with “Altitude”