Rarely have songs so down in the dumps sounded so blindingly sunny as those on the Pernice Brothers' The World Won't End. Like famous pop depressives such as Brian Wilson and Ian Curtis, frontman Joe Pernice appears to transform all the things that bring him down into pure bah-bah-BUH-bah sing-along beauty. Come to think of it, "Beach Boys meet Joy Division" -- plus the Beatles, lots of Beatles -- isn't a bad description for many of the sounds here, though these influences are always updated, rather than simply mimicked. In Pernice's songs, strings soar, melodies smile and guitars crackle brightly, even as their protagonists stay huddled under blankets while "another year does suicide."
This is a beautiful bummer of an album. "Our Time Has Passed," for example, hints at seasonal affective disorder, likens heartbreak to a neutron bomb, and on some level finds all its darkness irresistible ("I fall in love with the way I'm shaking"). It would be the catchiest song of the year if only "Let That Show," a bouncy remembrance of what an asshole the singer used to be (and the price he's paying in loneliness), didn't turn up two cuts later to bob its head and chug along like a heartbeat that refuses to flat-line. And maybe that's the point of all this joyously depressive music. After all, you don't title an album The World Won't End unless that conclusion has come into question at some point. And you don't make pop records this stunning without trusting, big time, that the answer you've settled upon is more blessing than curse.
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On Maroon, brothers Christiaan and Justin Webb (sons of songwriter Jimmy) stuff their hummable, modern pop with some awfully dark centers of their own. Except that along with all the Beatles and Beach Boys, the Webbs have tossed in some Randy Newman and cranked the Pink Floyd. Instead of sounding sunny like the Pernices, the Webbs' music feels hazy, dreamlike and luxuriously indolent. The brief "All the Cocaine in the World" (next line: "Can't bring back the girl") is gorgeously surreal, like the saddest addict you've ever known trapped inside a snow globe. Throughout, the Webbs' characters, smiling bright and summery lest anyone spot their misery, dance mad waltzes of self-delusion, sometimes to fragile music-box melodies, sometimes to bending, grieving synths, sometimes to guitars that rip and tear like those on Radiohead's "Creep." At some point, though, they always have to look in the mirror. "My skin is such a pale hue," a man admits in "Low Grade Fever." "It's blood-tinged and it looks maroon."
Maroon's best moment is probably "I Can't Believe You're Gone," a virtual anthem of romantic despair set to a heavy, slowly intensifying rhythm that feels like an assembly line for broken hearts. Just like Pernice's odes to melancholy, it deserves to be a big hit on pop radio. There are all kinds of reasons why it won't be, of course, and every one of them is depressing.