It’s been 17 years since the 1996 release of Massachusetts, the Scud Mountain Boys’ last studio album for SubPop—basically the entire lifespan of a medium-sized dog. Eerily in sync with (but much quieter than) the emergence of Brood II, the East Coast Brood of cicadas, they’ve now released another one, this time on singer and primary songwriter Joe Pernice’s Ashmont Records label. One might logically assume that, in like fashion, the Scuds would probably re-emerge to “spend their short, two-week adult lives climbing trees, shedding their crunchy skins and reproducing,” but, in fact, it sounds like all they’ve done is dust off guitarist/pedal steel player Bruce Tull’s old kitchen table, sit down and have another go at it, possibly rocking even more softly than before.
The new album is titled Do You Love The Sun?, and in many ways sounds like the band picked up exactly where it left off. The dualistic nature of the unit remains, channeling both the countrified, old-time traditional-sounding tunes that a cowboy might play by a fire outside the entrance to an abandoned mine and the more melodic, 1970s and/or 1990s pop-influenced material. Both are interesting in their own ways; it’s cool to hear Pernice channel Johnny Cash (which he does pretty well), singing dark, ambiguous murder ballads like “Orphan Girl” or mimicking backwoods Christian hymns in songs like “Crown of Thorns” or “Drew Got Shot,” which documents a dying soldier’s last words: “Give me another shot of morphine if you please/ I feel nothing like the boy I was/ Don’t tell my family how I screamed when I died, don’t tell my father or the one I love/ The hands of Jesus will lift me from this flooded, dying ground/ The hands of Jesus will lift me till I will not fear a sound/ Bury my body in the river underground/ Send my mother my Purple Heart.” Depressing stuff, but—and this is obviously one of Pernice’s talents—rich in visual imagery.
Fans of more contemporary alt-pop will, however, likely prefer the other side of the band’s sound, which frequently employs more than three chords and mixes much more interesting melodies with more accessible lyrics. Here, agile, melody-enabling chord progressions, combined with a tasteful use of relatively simple piano parts, set The Scuds’ old table for eminently hummable tunes that recall Imagine-era John Lennon or Paul Simon-via-Elliot Smith, pop cutlery that Pernice wields rather well, though his voice isn’t quite as strong or distinct as those icons’ timeless presences.
Still, what the vocals lack in power or tone is made up for by content, as the lyrics on some of these tunes are quintessential examples of eloquent, honest and therapeutically reflective examinations of the self and its surrounding environment, notable scenery and supporting cast. “She Falls Apart” somewhat obliquely observes the dissolution of a person through latent fear and anxiety, while “Learn to Love Him” paints an image of quiet seething and self-imprisonment brought on by ill-informed choices: “This ring it burns like fire on my skin/ And I’m deep in something I wish I wasn’t in.” “Mendicant” seems an autobiographical statement of how people might misunderstand who you really are: “I eat a chocolate rabbit and watch Captain Kangaroo/ My wife trades her life for money while the kid’s at school/ Then I toast the crotchless chat rooms and smoke out in the yard/ I wash my face and comb my hair, I can’t be seen for what I am/ Don’t be fooled, I’m a mendicant.” If there’s one thing Pernice understands innately, it’s a good brood.•
Addendum(!): I have just been informed that, in fact, it was Scud Stephen Desaulniers who wrote and sang "Orphan Girl," "Crown of Thorns" and "You're Mine," which may at least partially explain the two such different styles on the record. In my defense, the advance review (digital) copy I had access to contained nary a trace of liner notes, songwriting or instrumental credits (it's even unclear if Tom Shea is actually on the record, as he is not listed as a band member on the promo download page). My apologies and appropriate shift of praise and/or blame to Mr. Desaulniers for Johnny Cash-channeling (and to Mssrs. Shea and Tull if they're due any songwriting credit for Do You Love The Sun?)