The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Review

Hey, do you miss that brief period around the turn of the decade between the 80s and 90s? Specifically, the pink noise dream pop that was all the rage for all of about three weeks? Do you remember the short-lived bands that made that beautiful music? Here-today-gone-tomorrows like Black Tambourine and Ride (okay, they survived much longer, but their peak period was marked by both brilliance and brevity)? How about bands with more staying power like 14 Iced Bears or early Flaming Lips? Okay, I know you miss My Bloody Valentine. Well, if you think you've heard a hundred bands just like 'em, it's time to make it a hundred-and-one. Say hello to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

If you think I'm being deliberately sarcastic, I'm not. The fact is, no matter how much you hear of that style, it'll never become tiresome so long as it's done right. For further proof, look at last year. You want something more retro? You had a delicious helping of M83. Something a bit more modern? School of Seven Bills fit the bill. Wanted something a little rougher, a little more lo-fi? There was always Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls (hell, they even share a drummer). But what (besides their music) do all of them have in common? They all had really good releases last year. Why? Because you gotta have it.

And hey, TPOBPAH don't even bother to hide their influences. “Contender” is like early My Bloody Valentine, with sparkling guitar flickers and heavy-lidded vocal droning buried beneath drapes of cotton candy. The organ sound during “Hey Paul”'s bridge is pure Rocketship. You can't miss Tiger Trap on “Come Saturday” nor will fans of the Field Mice be left cold by “This Love Is Fucking Right!” And there are multiple references to groups as diverse as the Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain and Arrogants. But if they lack originality, they make up for it in aesthetic—you'll know right away what the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are bringing to the table, and you'll know even sooner how much you're going to like it.

What's most surprising about their sound is how precise it is. Usually, when a band dabbles in layers of noise, the guitars sound ramshackle and the hooks seem accidental. But here, their jangle couldn't sound more pristine even if played without the fuzz. The catchier songs showcase this better than the others: the pop-tastic climax of “Young Adult Friction,” the keyboard that stabs on every fourth beat of “Stay Alive,” the clean tom pops of “Hey Paul”'s unexpectedly muscular distortion (it might even be a drum machine, it's so perfectly timed), the parting of the clouds for the second verse on “This Love Is Fucking Right!” This doesn't make them sound any more manufactured or less daring; it's proof that they're beyond the luck of the amateurs and they just know how to get things done.

The songwriting also seems to favor wry observation far more than affairs of the heart, something rarely heard of in the realm of twee/dream pop. “Teenager in Love” uses a sweet jingle to mask its bleak story: “And when you'd finally gone/He tells me, 'She was dead all along'/He was wrong, he hadn't lived a day/The way you lived your final days/A teenager in love with Christ and heroin.” Then, on “Gentle Sons,” vivid imagery comes front and center—“You stumble down the diamond path...the sunken eyes you just can't see.” Even when they do express themselves more plaintively, it's about the swell and the cool, not bedroom wishes. “You don't have to dress to please/Perhaps undress for me/I know that when you come we'll be staying in.” The most memorable lines belong to “This Love,” where the words, “Can you go home, look your best friend in the eye?/No, you can't go home after where you slept last night...You're my sister and this love is fucking right,” can be interpreted in different ways, ranging from grimly serious to just plain icky.

Peeling apart the layers to get to the band's pure heart is a waste of time; like all of their ilk, the melodies stick with you because they imitate the haze of dreams, the sweetness of fantasies and the melancholy of reality. Whether it's Kip Berman alone, or if he's joined by keyboardist Peggy Wang-East, the words float from their lips like deep sighs and turn to vapor just slow enough to make out before disappearing in the swirl. Unlike the syllables, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart record songs that will linger with you long after. Following three straight go-throughs while prepping the review, the half-hour after in the quiet of my room never stopped ringing of that crisp jangle buried in gauzy pink flurries. If you can hear a song even when it's not playing, that passes every test there is on whether it should be played again. Hey, you have my word.

"The Pains of Being Pure at Heart" is on sale February 3, 2009 from Slumberland.

Matt Medlock


New Reviews