Pains of Being Pure At Heart

Innovation in music is always a major talking point within critical circles, one that can lead to heated arguments between people of differing schools of thought. A good majority of critics would like to have us think that artists have to push the boundaries of what it is to be music, contending that to sound like another band is an abomination. This is why some bands that are radically different to the point of ridiculous are often covered and praised by these journalists.

However, there is a lot to be said for bands that take a well established genre and using it as a blueprint to create a well put together, enjoyable album. When you stop to think about it, a lot of bands have had much success, both critically and (somewhat) commercially, by taking this approach. The Hold Steady are not the first band to take the bar band sound and fuse it with almost spoken word lyrics, and the Decemberists introduced their literate tales of the high seas and the English countryside years after it was popular to do so. Both of these bands would use the ideas of their predecessors and put a mark on them that was their own, thereby establishing themselves as forces to be reckoned with.

Such is the case for The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, a New York City based group who’s self-titled debut album wears the hat of their forebears with a sense of pride. Their main influences derive from the late eighties and early nineties, a time when noise pop bands were making waves in the indie community. Some of the cornerstones of these kinds of groups was an ample amount of feedback and distortion in their sound, while the lyrical content often wasn’t the kind of thing you would explain to a wide-eyed four year old. That’s not to give the genre any sort of negative connotation, as it was often pulled of quite beautifully. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart are well versed in this style of music, and have made a debut album that recalls the best of these groups.

From the start, it is apparent that the band is in favor of turning the distortion levels up on most of their songs, as opener “Contender” rushes in with a wall of guitar sound amidst a more relaxed rhythm section. More importantly, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart know how to write a hook or two. The distant vocals of lead singer/guitarist Kip Berman, coupled with keyboardist Peggy Wang-East’s backing vocals can used to create a warming effect that can make the songs all the more memorable. This is especially present on album standouts “Come Saturday” and “Everywhere With You”, who’s choruses are so catchy that you can’t help but get them stuck in your head.

Another way their influences are apparent is through the lyrical content of the group. Most of the ten tracks on the album deal with love in some shape or form. For example, “Young Adult Friction” explores admiration from a distance when Berman sings, “In your worn sweatshirt/And your mother’s old skirt/It’s enough to turn my studies down”, upon noticing a girl at a library. This sort of blatant honesty and attention to detail are a mark of the many twee bands that preceded The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, and almost all the tracks on the album follow this sort of motif.

Additionally, the band is a very tight unit musically. While the distortion and feedback from the guitars can give off feelings of in cohesiveness from time to time, when it is combined with the non-overbearing keys of Wang-East, and the rhythm section of bassist Alex Naidus and drummer Kurt Feldman, you get well constructed arrangements that sound very controlled. This works to help engage the listener rather than drown him in a pool of sounds. It also helps to make the songs more memorable and catchy.

However, not everything is perfect, as can be expected with any album. The music does tend to drown out the vocals from time to time, so it would be wise to keep a lyrics sheet close by for your first couple of listens. However, chances are that you might know all the lyrics after a week with this album. Additionally, several of the songs here do start to sound similar, but songs such as “Stay Alive” or “A Teenager In Love” provide the musical variance that show the group’s range and illustrate their enormous potential.

Overall, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart have made a very strong debut album, despite its flaws. In taking what they were given, rather than trying to push boundaries, they have reminded us that music does not always have to be about how ahead of the curve you are. Sometimes, it is about making solid music, and that is what they have done here. This is the kind of album you listen to on a sunny day when you decide to go for a drive, or when you are getting ready to go out. It is just a well executed, fun record, and is very easy to recommend. I am very eager to see what album number two brings.