Joe Pernice

Could It Be Magic

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Joe Pernice

Photo: Colleen Nicholson

Could It Be Magic

Barry Manilow’s music is a part of anyone and everyone who was anywhere near a radio in the 70s and 80s and the decades since. I’m not saying I was a big fan, growing up. But Manilow was the sonic, floral wallpaper of the era, as ubiquitous as the airwaves on which it sailed. Back then, I hadn’t yet picked up on Frank Sinatra’s ring-a-ding, either, but both artists were already linchpins of the American songbook. Of Manilow, Sinatra once said, “He’s next.”

His name was Rico / He wore a diamond

They are both, of course, quintessential showmen. Some years ago, I saw Manilow perform at the Illinois State Fair in a milk-of-magnesia-blue blazer; He immediately commanded his audience, putting on a dazzling performance of hits. Yet, despite the pageantry and the lights, the sequins and sing-alongs, aside from the intricate and uniquely Manilow melodies, I felt as if he was transporting me to moments in his life, a life of hope and despair, longing, believing, dancing. And love—when you’re ready to take a chance.

While Manilow is a great songwriter, many of his hits were written by others. Which also strikes me as important. He didn’t write them: He chose them. He selected honest, generous, intelligent music with story and style, delivered it with passion and gusto and showbiz razzle. He’s had tremendous highs and his share of lows, and he finds music that bares his soul—I think, to help us feel, too.

Caught up in a world / Of uphill climbing
Tears are in my eyes / And nothing is rhyming

I’d heard “Mandy” a thousand times, and never caught that “nothing is rhyming” line until Joe sent me some demo recordings for this album. Devastating. It is Music, not Manilow nor me or Pernice that writes the songs, and the day could come that Music declines to provide. The boy with the schnozz from the then-rough neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn certainly knows that sad songs, they say so much.

So, what does Joe Pernice bring to the picture with this beautiful collection? From a man whose Pernice Brothers music I’ve loved for years, the joyously jangly guitars, soaring harmonies, and arch, sardonic lyrics, this homage to someone else’s work is, in some ways, the most personal music Joe has released. For me, his vulnerable interpretations strip away the showbiz entirely, invite us into a quiet room with two very soft and comfortable chairs. Maybe Joe pours us some tea, and then, he plays this music as simply as it could possibly be played; no sequins, no orchestra, just Joe and you.

The plan was to call this album, “Barely Manilow,” but Joe discovered that a tribute band had already claimed that name. And now, he’s pleased to have dropped the jokey title. “I want to avoid even a whiff of irony,” he says. “I remember hearing ‘Mandy’ as a kid, and it was so beautiful, I cried—and I was surprised by the tears. So I wanted to treat these songs with the same respect Barry did. I'm hoping my interpretations help them get inside people in a different way.”

There's a boat on the line / Where the sea meets the sky
And another that trails far behind.
And it seems you and I / Are like strangers a wide way apart
As we drift on through time.

There it is. In your hands, a statement of love for music and humanity, at a time when a lot of us could really use it. Even the sad songs make you not only feel, but feel better.

Like so many things you realize with the passage of a few years, I’ve come to realize that I’ve always loved Barry Manilow’s music. And, here, Joe Pernice offers an intimate, carefully curated set of songs that feel—feel—like you’re hearing them the moment they were written.

—Ted Allen


Over a 20-year career in music, Joe Pernice has made 19 full-length records. He began in the mid-90’s, with Scud Mountain Boys, who released two albums (Pine Box and Dance the Night Away, later compiled as The Early Year) before signing to Sub Pop and releasing Massachusetts, considered by many to be an alt-country masterpiece."

In 1998, Pernice disbanded the Scuds and assembled Pernice Brothers, recording Overcome By Happiness (Sub Pop), called “a startling slice of beauty” by The New York Times and “A thing of pernicious beauty indeed” by The Irish Times. In 1999 and 2000, he released two records, under the names Chappaquiddick Skyline and Big Tobacco. More or less considered solo records, they do feature assorted members of the Pernice family circus, so that designation is a bit misleading. (This naming inconsistency also dogs the enterprise to this day, and therefore, Pernice promises to call everything Pernice Brothers from now on, until he changes his mind.)

In 2001, Pernice and his manager decided that they were as capable of not selling many records as anyone. They founded Ashmont Records, releasing a series of Pernice Brothers records, featuring various players, beginning with The World Won’t End, which was called a “lush, perfectly realized record” by The Onion (not ironically). 2003 brought the release of Yours, Mine and Ours, called “a monumental record from a towering talent” by Magnet. A live record and DVD, Nobody’s Watching/Nobody’s Listening, was released in 2004. In 2005, Discover a Lovelier You came out, and the song “Amazing Glow” was included in the legendary “Partings” episode of Gilmore Girls. Pernice performed the song on the show. Live a Little, called “a stunning album” by Spin, was released in 2006.

In 2009 Joe Pernice published a novel, It Feels So Good When I Stop (Riverhead/Penguin), and Ashmont released a soundtrack of the same name, more or less, featuring Pernice covering songs referenced in the novel. (A novella, Meat is Murder, was published by Continuum Books in 2003, as part of their popular 33 1/3 series. It remains one of the best-selling books in the series.)

In 2013, after a 17-year hiatus, The Scud Mountain Boys released their fourth full-length album, Do You Love The Sun, on Ashmont Records. That same year Pernice teamed up with hip hop producer and musician Budo (Joshua Karp) to record an album under the name Roger Lion. That self-titled album was released by Team Love Records.

In 2014, Pernice, Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) and Mike Belitsky (The Sadies) formed the group The New Mendicants. Their debut album was released by Ashmont Records in North America and One Little Indian worldwide.

In 2017, Pernice took a brief hiatus from music to take a staff writer position on the Canadian homicide cop TV show The Detail. He co-wrote the sixth episode of season one. He has yet to determine how this very positive experience influenced his songwriting.

2019’s Spread The Feeling was recorded in Boston, Toronto and Washington State. It features appearances by a regular cast of players including Peyton Pinkerton, James Walbourne, Patrick Berkery, Bob Pernice, Ric Menck, Neko Case, Pete Yorn, Liam Jaeger, Budo, etc., etc.

Released in the summer of 2020, the quiet, intimate Richard is a solo quarantine record. Said Joe, "I made this in my basement bicycle shop during lock down. It’s a very special record for me. The songs all felt right as they were written and recorded.”

Could It Be Magic is Joe Pernice’s carefully curated re-imagination of a slice of the Barry Manilow oeuvre, offered with reverence and not a single bit of irony.

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