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

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Artist: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Album: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Label: Slumberland

Review date: Feb. 2, 2009

Really, what can you say about a great pop record? You can break it down into mechanical details, figure out why it works, compare it to older bands from which it takes influence, chronicle how it rights the wrongs of past efforts, or builds upon an existing sound for the benefit of those who can experience it. Or you can let it speak for itself, obviating the need for a formal review. Since the former has been done to death, and the latter not only doesn’t help matters on your end, but puts me out of work, I’m going to talk about some other aspect about and around the debut album by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. This is an important record for these times, a game changer, and in surfacing now, it illustrates a few points of interest with regards to how and why it was made.

Once the great alternarock cycles of the ‘90s shuddered to a halt, a lot of its players on both the artistic and managerial side of the fence were left stranded. Slumberland Records, one of the defining imprints of the indie pop faction of the times, never officially shut down as much as it slowed down. They’d brought us debut releases by Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, the Swirlies, the Lilys and Small Factory, as well as Stereolab’s singles compilation Switched On. By the end of the era, they were releasing oddball records by non-traditional pop bands like Hood, and carried a torch for its remaining artists like Henry’s Dress, Rocketship, and the Aislers Set. 2002 saw no formal Slumberland releases; neither did 2004 or 2005. One of the label’s two efforts of 2003 was a 3.5” floppy disk by San Francisco garage-pop group the Crabapples, surely the sign of a business experiencing a downturn. That a handful of latter-day bands informed by the label’s earlier successes – Cause Co-Motion! and Crystal Stilts among them – elected to return to this dormant imprint is a telling sign of respect; that their records have become critical triumphs speaks to another play. It is not difficult to interpret that the contraction of the label’s operations helped to slow the growth of the very indie pop music on which Slumberland built its reputation.

The activity of indie pop hasn’t necessarily died down, it’s just been scaled down. Without an industry to play to, and with the face of music changing so rapidly from the end of the ’90s to present times, true believers woodshedded into privacy. Pop festivals in major cities were not an uncommon occurrence, but were hardly publicized outside of the scene’s constituency. Ideas became factions, the need to grow outwards no longer a priority. Compartmentalization was the next logical step, as those who participated worked hard to rehab their music into something bigger than it was (e.g., Mahogany), while others puttered off into a dashed future (see Graham Smith, a/k/a Kleenex Girl Wonder, and the tens of people for whom he’s still making double CDs). Label kingpins like Skippy (c’mon, you know Skippy) have retreated to local operations, booking tiny venues in Brooklyn and restricting access to the first 75 people who can drift away from their office jobs to click on the “Order Tickets” button.

When you hear a band like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, with this knowledge in tow, you wonder if the efforts to corral the genre of indie pop weren’t some example of a master plan unfolding before you, some major corrective bestowed upon music. Here is a band that makes no mistakes, has a strong head for songwriting (if not innovation) on its shoulders, and fits all of the other bills – fey vocals, clean production, a blast of volume that settles on bright but borders on heavy, a cute and well-groomed co-ed look. They are textbook indie pop, but have the foresight to revise that book for our benefit. Working in a scene that is just beginning to resurface, Pains eschew any one approach for all of them, and it’s to their credit that they could make a record like this debut, or the micro-pressing singles that came before it.

If you’ve ever listened to any shoegaze bands that veered away from the sweater’d idealism of ’90s Dinosaur Jr, or if you were familiar with Britpop and the college radio charts of the ’80s, then you are already familiar with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Guitarist/vocalist Kip, keyboardist/vocalist Peggy, bassist Alex and drummer Kurt (no last names for these folks) recall dozens of bands in each song, from Belle & Sebastian to the Housemartins to the Ocean Blue to Ride to the whole of the Slumberland catalog, but have found ways to make those sounds belong to them. They’re simply better songwriters than many others in the field, and their ability to recontextualize these sounds into something so subsequently fresh and familiar is a stunning achievement. Songs like “Young Adult Friction” and the chaste “A Teenager in Love” pull back before the onset of cuteness overload, unlike many of their predecessors. They start quietly, with winning jangler “Contender,” coming off like a Wedding Present song in its demo stages. They finish with the massive “Gentle Sons,” finally letting go of restraint and playing as heavily as their template will allow. In between, we find joy, not only in the music they present, but with a newfound appreciation of the sounds they excavate. We’re free of the baggage of the era gone by, and can rebuild on an effort as solid as this.

This music comes at a much-needed time, as the modern day outlook of life before recovery crushes down on us like some sort of booby trapped room filling rapidly with sand, or water, or spike-laden walls push closer towards us. Can we take a lesson from Slumberland, then, by slowing down while we retool? Can we wait for life to save us in the ways that a band like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are saving indie pop? It seems unlikely, but this record is inspiring enough to influence the change we voted for, a sunny stimulus package designed to inform how we can proceed in the ways of the days when we were most comfortable, without destroying our lives and those of the generations to follow.

By Doug Mosurock

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