Jemina Pearl is congested. She punctuates conversational pauses with coughs trailed by an apologetic “excuse me,” hardly resembling the fearsome, fearless lioness her old brat-punk band, Be Your Own Pet, made her out to be: the psycho hose beast given to brute-force food fights, bouts of psychological/emotional extremism, and devil-may-care, cross-town bicycle jaunts.
No, at the moment, she doesn’t so easily fit the “Wild Woman Out of Control” slot in the “9 Types of Boyfriends & Girlfriends” rubric Matt Groening conceived for his Life in Hell comic strip. Instead, we’re calmly discussing Break It Up, the twentysomething’s breakout solo debut, the title referencing both Pearl’s favorite Patti Smith song and her recent move from Nashville to NYC, along with, perhaps, BYOP’s dissolution. These day-glo yet meticulously arranged songs channel her former willy-nilly punk energy into oft-chilling, omni-rock self-examinations. If 2006’s Be Your Own Pet and last year’s Get Awkward were charmingly slapdash portraits of the young artist as a whirling, flailing dervish, Break It Up represents an attempt to evolve—personally and artistically. Thunderous, turbo-charged “So Sick” revels in BYOP’s trademark anarchic ecstasy, but it’s as much of a red herring as Pearl’s insistence, on “Looking for Trouble,” that “I feed on your nightmares/I’m living your worst fears.”
Instead, “No Good” is a study in total-breakdown disarray: “Last night’s still on the back of my eyelids/The faded embarrassments of what I did.” Blunt rocker “After Hours” vacillates between sauciness and a gnawing fear of self-destruction; the glittering “Ecstatic Appeal” is a roiling defense of Gemini-sign duality that splits the difference between No Doubt shrillness and a deft Strokes pulse. The mid-tempo, measured glide of “Retrograde” almost disguises its chilling thematic conceit: that our heroine has (or had) a split personality responsible for a serious cutting problem. “Go on, cut a little bit deeper/Let’s see how far we can go,” Pearl sings, later adding, “She says, ‘C’mon, let’s go to the edge/Let’s find out what it’s like to be dead.’ “
Pearl describes the new songs as “little vignettes” addressing things that have happened to her. “Break It Up is far more autobiographical than any BYOP stuff,” she explains. “I had to figure some shit out—I think maybe this record was me figuring some shit out. It’s like a journal entry, but you get to put it to music. It’s cathartic to put it in a song, but way too personal to talk about in person with anyone.”
To that end, “Nashville Shores” swathes her former hometown in surreal, bizarre-o non sequiturs that recall early B-52s: “Stinky skies, trash runs deep/Neon bikinis and purple hair/It’s all picked over, like no one cares/Coca-Cola kisses and sunburned eyes.” This nostalgia and revulsion commingle with a Slurpee’d guitar blare courtesy of former BYOP guitarist John Eatherly, who served here as Pearl’s co-writing partner and handled primary instrumental duties. The sentiment, of course, is hers. “I think moving away from the town you grow up in is good, for everyone,” she says. “When everyone has known you for so long, you can’t grow.”
Pearl perks up when talk rolls around to tender misanthropes-in-love ballad “I Hate People,” a duet with none other than Iggy Pop. Producer John Agnello suggested the collaboration; the Stooges frontman recorded his vocal in Miami and mailed it out. The veteran’s willingness to contribute—Pearl and Pop met briefly at a 2006 U.K. All Tomorrow’s Parties fete—moved her deeply. “I’ve been a fan of Iggy Pop since I first found out about punk, when I was 13 or 14,” she gushes. “I felt so overwhelmed when I heard the vocal, I started to cry—not only that Iggy would know who I am, but that he would like a song I wrote enough to sing on it.”
Jemina Pearl plays Bowery Ballroom November 5