2009 release. Since forming in early 2007, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart have become one of the most talked-about Pop bands in years. Their distinctive style tidily distills all the great Noise-Pop precedents (early My Bloody Valentine, House of Love, Pale Saints, Rocketship) with incredible exuberance and energy in every song.
Review by Tim Sendra
The New York indie pop quartet the Pains of Being Pure at Heart built up a pretty rabid fan base in the indie pop community prior to the release of their self-titled debut record in early 2009. For this, they could thank a string of excellent singles and EPs that began in 2007 (songs from which appear on the album) but more than that they can put it down to the fact that their sound melds together the trademarked sounds of many beloved indie and noise pop bands into one shiny ball of sound and melancholy. Mixed in skillfully are the sonic assaults of early My Bloody Valentine, the hazy sweetness of Ride, the introspective and usually morose lyrical approach perfected by the Field Mice, the sensitive and tender vocals purveyed by most Sarah records bands, and the rhythmic drive of early-'90s Amer-Indie bands the likes of which more often than not found themselves on Slumberland (Lilys, the Ropers, Velocity Girl -- whose Archie Moore ably mixes the album). It all could come off like a pastiche with little more than nostalgic value but the band acts as if it were the first time anyone ever captured this kind of sound, never sitting back and aping the past but instead giving it a healthy boost. Plus, they write some very good songs. "Come Saturday," "This Love Is Fucking Right!" (their answer to the Field Mice's "This Love Is Not Wrong"), or "Young Adult Friction" all would have been in serious rotation on a hip college radio station in 1992. Best of all is the amazingly hooky "Everything with You," which stands as the equal of anything the shoegaze poppers or pop losers cranked out back in the day. If you had gone out and bought the 7," after one play you would have tacked the sleeve up on your wall and played the record until the grooves wore out. It's that good. It lifts the album from pretty good to almost great. A little more variation from song to song, a little more of their own sound, or another song or two as compelling as the best stuff here and the POBPAH's debut would have been classic. Settling for impressive is fair enough and good enough for fans of loud, fuzzy, and heartfelt indie noise pop.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart:
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Like plenty of other bands in the internet era, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart seem poised to attract an audience that will far outstrip that of their easily identifiable precedents-- in their case, groups like Rocketship or Shop Assistants, each obscure these days even by Approved Indie Influence standards. A few other twee/noise-pop revivalists arguably pulled off that same trick last year, but Pains of Being Pure at Heart are likely to appeal to listeners beyond online name-droppers and Brooklyn scenesters.
That these second-wavers are getting first-rate attention shouldn't be a worry unless you're into dick-measuring contests about the late-1980s (but I was there) or still holding a grudge against Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts. Despite being such a streamlined listen, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart acts as something of an indie Rorschach: Once our staff got a hold of the fuzzy, major-chord fizz of "Come Saturday" or "Stay Alive", it raised comparisons to everything from Sleepyhead to Black Tambourine to even Peter Bjorn and John (at their most shoegazy) and Ride (at their most heavy-lidded). In other words, you'll dig this record as long as you're a fan of trebly, melancholy pop music. Which is quite a lot of people reading this review.
What distinguishes POBPAH from the rest of their modern peers is a sense of craft located in the sweet spot between wilfull amateurism masking incompetence and not gumming things up with bells and whistles. It's immediate and substantial, but initially, it can seem distracting that the band is built more for speed than muscle. Yet these aren't songs that need anchors-- as much as Alex Naidus' bass plays an integral role in pushing everything forward, he's more likely to contribute melodic counterpoint than low end. Kip Berman's voice is appropriately unaffected, working in melodies that almost feel like 45-degree angles-- exact, acute, and just right. Keyboardist Peggy Wang-East doesn't harmonize in a traditional sense with Berman very often, but particularly on "Young Adult Friction", her vocals are a hook in themselves, taking an already strong chorus to a higher plateau.
So yeah, they've got the sound figured out, but what ensures that this will be something that'll make it past the point where the indie cycle of life goes on and bands are inevitably starting to cop the sounds of, say, Archers of Loaf? Regardless of the b&w cover art, there's more gray matter than initially appears. The title alone of "This Love Is Fucking Right!" is enough to set off the sugar shock factor (it's a nod to the Field Mice), and that's before the chorus which renders the f-bomb "feckin!," but the invocation of "you're my sister" before the title is as dark as you want it to be.
"Stay Alive" is the record's centerpiece, boasting the most anthemic chorus; initially, it could pass for cloyingly optimistic, with bell-like keyboard pinches accenting thumbs-up signifiers like "shoot at the sky" and "you'll stay alive." But once again, after closer listens it takes a darker tone, possibly talking down a suicidal friend. Most tellingly, "Come Saturday" sets the stage for the rest of the record with a promise of ignoring parties for a summer wasting and spent indoors. It's every bit as heartfelt as the later lyrical nod to Another Sunny Day.
But then again, sincerity never made me turn up the volume. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart simply made a slyly confident debut that mixes sparkling melodies with an undercurrent of sad bastard mopery, and you're just being a dick if you think the past has some kind of patent on that. That's just the way good pop music works.
- Ian Cohen, February 6, 2009
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
(Slumberland Records; 2009)
Combined Rating: 81%
Given enough time, and bands, every genre expands and stretches to the point of faceless variegation. That new musicians still describe themselves as alternative rock seems like a bad joke (or worse, further donations toward the Billy Corgan Continuing Relevance Fund)—and indie rock, for better or worse, is likely heading in the same direction. Indie pop, or twee, had such identity issues from the start: the U.K. scene codified by the NME’s 1986 C86 tape and labels such as Sarah Records in the ’80s was, sonically, a largely different animal than its early ’90s American cousin, which centered on noisier recordings and a less aloof approach. A decade or so later, extending the genre from the Field Mice to Belle & Sebastian to, well, Los Campesinos! makes for a knotty family tree.
Yet it’s the shared influence of this muddied bloodline that makes the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s debut album so definitively indie pop—it’s an album that could be called little else. And though it carries the domestic cred of a release on Slumberland Records—the newly resurgent Northern California label whose lofty, four-tracked catalog includes seminal releases by Velocity Girl, the Softies, and Rocketship—the band cribs plenty from its foreign forebears as well. With a voice that instantly recalls the Field Mices’ Robert Wratten, frontman Kip Berman sings with a detached, affected British accent that oozes calm and cool even as treble-heavy guitar chords jangle nervously, relentlessly, underneath him. (And of course as he sings about the trademark Euro-twee topics of books, film, wasted summers, and third-person teenage love—but not his own).
It’s a classic Sarah Records device: divorce the singer from the emotions, even as the music gives in wholeheartedly to unrequited longing. The lyrics take a similar tack. In “Young Adult Friction,” the best song about library-related public lovemaking since the Clientele’s “Bookstore Casanova,” Kip deadpans, “I never thought I would come of age / Let alone on a moldy page.” It’s a funny line but he plays it without melodrama, which—no offense to Morrissey—is for the better. There’s the occasional collegiate pun (“Tenure Itch” can only be aimed at corduroy-jacketed men with elbow patches; Stuart Murdoch is currently cursing himself over being beat to it), even at their most jaunty, as on the Cure-like “Teenager In Love,” the band’s concerns tend toward serious narratives: the teenager loves Christ and heroin. The writing is more observational than deeply felt, eschewing the Pacific Northwest twee’s diary-page missives in favor of a British stiff upper lip.
While these traits and tracks like “Come Saturday” and “A Teenager In Love” belie the band’s U.S. origins, where Pains captures that American gusto is in their boundless energy. Through the album’s first half the songs burst forward like preschool kids running for recess, or Tiger Trap circa 1993. The pace is a little exhausting, especially given the engine beneath the insistent tempos; most of the songs hinge on a bricklike electric guitar that chugs, almost tunelessly, under the chiming chords of the less-distorted axes. The underlying noise grounds the album in the Jesus and Mary Chain’s proto-shoegaze, even as it nods toward the fuzzy discographies of bands like Tiger Trap and Rocketship, and it’s an effective move—when noise drops out, as it does in the verses of “This Love is Fucking Right,” or entirely in “A Teenager in Love,” it’s as powerfully felt as when it barrels in on “Young Adult Friction.”
One can’t fault a band for writing rock songs, but even over ten tracks the upbeat onslaught begins to blend a bit—another ballad in the third or fourth spot would’ve served the album well. Still, from song to song, the band’s attention to craft never falters. There’s not a sloppy moment in the blisteringly paced “This Love Is Fucking Right,” even as the searing guitars threaten to explode through their amps. One can only hope it’s as simultaneously refined and face-melting live.
It bears mentioning that the band hails from the decidedly un-twee Brooklyn and arrives on an awkward hype train conducted by the borough’s bloggerati (a certain New York-dwelling website editor-in-chief infamously described them as “lo-fi” in a surreal recent ABC News guest-segment; a spin on decent speakers reveals exceedingly well-recorded, softly reverb-dabbed production and some very distorted amplifiers). But the album’s accompanying trappings do little to dull its impressiveness or the band’s command of its lineage. While recent acts such as Vivian Girls have tugged at the coattails of indie pop past, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart seem to be true students of the genre’s best moments from both sides of the Atlantic. There may be more for them to learn, but on this first test, they pass with flying colors.
David Greenwald 4 February 2009