Talismans for protection
by William Bowers
Forces conspired, nudging me to canvas Georgia and the Carolinas this week—the final straw was either Miss Teen South Carolina’s circumspect seminar, or yammering about Flannery O’Connor to literature students during the dayjob. I borrowed the sedan of a homeless acquaintance who supplies me with absurd promo cassingles found in dumpsters, and decked out its backside with patriotic and monotheistic magnets peeled from SUVs in a mall parking lot by the plucky anarchist neighbor. Hanging a crucifix and a dreamcatcher to guard the rearview mirror, I set out with an apparently psychic iPod that began with some relatively urbane selections (e.g. Platinum Pete, Out Hud, Lo-Fi-FNK) only to shuffle into more rural territory (e.g. The Izzys, Carter Family, Jim & Jennie & The Pinetops) as the car and I shuffled into more rural territory. Spooked by Apple’s random demographic accuracy, I decided to sidestep its witchcraft and stick to one climate-appropriate CD for the rest of the jaunt, like a No Depression reader self-hoodwinked into insisting on the supremacy of certain musics’ being more “heartfelt,” “true,” “human,” “earthy,” “authentic,” or “soulful.” That CD was Pearlene’s For Western Violence And Brief Sensuality.
I know, I know: Pearlene began as a blues-rock duo, and this world needs another blues-rock duo like it needs another weak album of 50 Cent songs about how much money and trigger-comfort 50 Cent’s got, and yes, blues-rock may not be all that mind-blowing/horizon-expanding, but when it’s done well, it can be very grounding/substantial, like (vegan readers: my bad) a well-wrought grilled cheese. Fleshed out to a four-piece, Pearlene (hailing from the city whose most famous radio station is WKRP) hold its own in that subgenre of uncanny acts from Ohio alongside Devo, Black Keys, Guided By Voices, Pere Ubu, Black Swans, Magnolia Electric Company, The National, the O’Jays, and the Isley Brothers—the disc was even recorded by Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley. RIYL: that bluesy BRMC that few folks liked, memories of Jennyanykind, whiteys with I-can-t-believe-it’s-not-Negro pipes, the idea of Doug Sahm going heavy garage, the idea of the Walkmen going classic rock, or the idea of classic rock going smart.
Which is to say that For Western Violence And Brief Sensuality served as a perfect soundtrack for a trip during which I was told (earnestly!) that the CIA puts chips in our military personnel to blow their heads off if they fudge a mission and that a neighborhood is not historic if it’s predominantly black. Pearlene’s stomp is ominous instead of thrill-seeking—not exactly the stuff that’ll inspire you to chain Christina Ricci to the radiator. More like the beltbuckle-Zeppelin theme music for a horror film about a killer named Crayfish who brains people with a toggle bolt. The Hendrixiana of “All Fears (Have Faces)” was turbo-apropos for my tour of a jingoistic megachurch’s compound, a Repentagon that markets its paranoia and separatism as cornerstones of a mainstream community center. The raucous cover of Fred Neil’s “Travelin’ Shoes” seemed to emanate from the trailer of the carnival worker who hollered at an onlooker during a livestock show what struck me as a Silver Jews outtake: “That ain’t no pony; it’s a full-grown miniature stud!”
Pearlene offered no balm, however, for the letter to the editor of an upstate SC alt-weekly (“Alternative With Attitude!”) rebutting a piece on Wal-Mart’s detrimental sprawl by arguing that the real bane of a new Supercenter was the “type of people” it’d attract: “Mexicans.” An article about a Spartanburg official saying that tattooing is “not a core value I appreciate” left me lingering outside a venue to look into Bill Callahan’s eyes before his Asheville, NC show just to remind me of the beauty that the Drag City label has given the world. (You know things are bleak when Smog equals hope for barely-haired bipeds.) Pearlene lyrics are the shit though: just on “Hosannah,” a speaker confesses that he has “spent up all my feelings,” a crowd “tries not to listen very hard,” and “Nobody knows if this is home/ Or just some shadows on the wall.” You want nouns as adjectives? Check this: “In diesel Jesus static tones…”
That line’s from “High and Dangerous,” probably the best anti-war track I’ve heard this year. It goes for a “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” mysticism and totally works, tossing castles, wings, and whores into its otherwise griddable jeremiad, peaking with a line, presumably from a soldier’s perspective, about the techno-oil-war’s effect on his/her ability to picture his/her beloved: “I dream of us as two machines.” This track escorted me through a memorial library for an ex-girlfriend killed in the Iraq war. Morgan Freeman, please tell me I’m too young to have had orgasms at the Plaza Hotel with a hero who went out in a whoosh of—what, glass, steel, fire, and sand?
Yup, lots of the thrills afforded by Pearlene’s ilk are cheap in that they involve the rush of re-enactment. Still, this band could soothe enthusiasts not only of heritage-pageantry, but of acts ranging from the Make-Up to Urge Overkill to Bobby Bare, Jr. A couple songs even—ultimate Reese’s!–dip Abbey Road into the Stones’ Muscle Shoals excursions. Closing track “The Shot,” though, is Cormac McPocalypse bleak, delivered a tad too Tom Paxton/John Hiatt-ly, but whatever, if the dramatic/sensible singer-songwriter thing keeps someone from drinking their bad self to death or hurting someone else, let Pearlene have it. Every band can’t be Liars.
As I escaped the South’s pull, my own systematic superstitions resurfaced: I told my luggage, “For Western Violence And Brief Sensuality would be so much better on vinyl.”