This line from a story by Jocelyn Mackenzie of Pearl and the Beard got quite a laugh from the audience at CSPS Hall Sunday night. I do have to say that bad songwriting is only in her dreams. The tunes that she and fellow band member Emily Hope Price write are insightful, evocative and inventive.
Take “Black Hole of Calcutta” for instance. Penned by Emily after she read an article on this horrific event, the song itself belies the subject and title. It is a deeply touching ballad supposing what one of the prisoners might have been thinking about regarding his love back home. That’s a fairly straightforward way of thinking on the subject: there are a lot of songs about prisoners missing their families. What is different about Emily’s song is that not only is it a soulful blues style number, but she accompanies herself by strumming and plucking her cello.
That is one of the things that makes Pearl and the Beard a unique and exciting band to watch. The trio-Jocelyn on vocals and percussion, Emily on vocals and cello, and Jeremy Stiles (the one with the beard) on Vocals and guitar-constantly surprised and delighted the audience with their inventive style and awesome vocal harmonies. They mix of a variety of styles to bring a blend of songs ranging from the driving, uptempo “Sweetness” to slow ballads such as the aforementioned “Black Hole of Calcutta”, all of which add up to a program that is hard to categorize and ultimately irresistible.
To me, there were two aspects of the performance that are truly unforgettable. One is Emily’s cello playing. There are a lot of groups that have taken to incorporating cello into folk/pop/rock music. Emily takes it one step further by often playing the instrument as one would a guitar, strumming and plucking chords and tapping out rhythms. It adds a unique depth to her songs that sets them apart than if they had been played with standard accompaniment. It’s not a gimmick, either. She has the chops to pull if off.
She also puts such passion into her vocals that listening to songs such as “Black Hole” can be a “hurts so good” experience. You love the song yet struggle with the emotions Emily evokes just in the way she sings it, not to mention the lyrics.
That’s the other unforgettable thing about Pearl and the Beard: vocals that are a rare treat in skill and inventiveness. A lot of bands have strong, solid vocals, but they can often fall into predictable patterns. Some very good singers nevertheless seem to possess a certain sameness to the way they sing. This isn’t to say they sound bad, just there are no vocal surprises in store when listening to their songs. How they sound vocally is predictable, which in some cases is why they’re successful musically.
Pearl and the Beard is anything but predictable. Jocelyn, Emily and Jeremy can engage in a sweet, angelic harmony on a song such as “Prodigal Daughter”, then get rowdy and raucous on a song such as “Reverend”. Sometimes they push the limits of intensity, but manage it without losing the tight harmonies that make them a joy to listen to, or going over the top into sounding forced and unpleasant. They are so versatile and skilled at their vocals that they can mix all these things together-sweet harmonies played against belting out on the edge of going over the top in numbers such as “40K” (what about 90% of the “you don’t love me like you should” songs out there aspire to be) or “Will Smith Medley”.
“Will Smith Medley” is a good example of how the trio takes chances in their music. The medley is quirky, fun and surprising (which sums up the band) and works in no small part because of the unique vocals. It also works because they are so confident in what they are doing. Or is it just that they are having so much fun making their own brand of music that they make songs work that might not work if other groups tried them?
Pearl and the Beard is a band that’s not afraid to head in directions other bands might fear to tread, and they delivered on that potential at CSPS Hall. I’m not the only one who came away from the concert a newly baptized fan, looking forward to their forthcoming new album, as well as a return trip to Cedar Rapids.