Tuesday, March 17, 2009

S/T - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Slumberland Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Wearing artistic influences on one’s sleeve is only a crime when the results lack a twist of personal conviction. Anyone with enough talent to get backed by a label has aptitude to spare when it comes to simple mimicry, and every generation has branded its share of bands – both good and bad – as purveyors of stolen inspiration. From the Beatles to Oasis, Gram Parsons to Ryan Adams, Nirvana to Bush, or Radiohead to Muse, contemporary bands are critiqued more often for their reference letters than their songwriting chops. As the end of this decade finds indie-rock delving ever deeper into the shadows of 80s cult heroes, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are likely 2009’s poster-children; delivered via the ultra-retro Slumberland Records while citing Jesus and Mary Chain and The Smiths on their sleeves, how much room is left for personal conviction?

With a vocalist who sounds like Morrissey after a bottle of Robitussin (or Stuart Murdoch after knocking out his school-yard rival, take your pick) and guitar squalls blurred into non-descript fuzz-chords, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart should be as forgettable as, well, every imitating Slowdive band since the early 90s. Yet as illustrated in the hook-laden ‘Young Adult Friction’ or ‘Contender’s heavy balance of melody and distortion, this Brooklyn four-piece have laid down some memorable pop songs for bloated bloggers everywhere. There’s ‘The Tenure Itch’ spinning late-night tales with a nod-approving pulse, ‘Everything With You’ romancing one-month anniversaries everywhere and ‘Come Saturday’, which announces itself like maxed speakers at the peak of a party. At a scant thirty-five minutes, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart serve up a surprising dose of pretty, predictable conviction.

In fact, this debut is almost too easy to like, crossing a much-flirted-with twee-boundary that results in some syrupy nonsense. Remove the goofy F-bomb and exclamation mark from ‘This Love is Fucking Right!’ and you’re still faced with the lamest song on record; a smear of open-strummed redundancy, notable only for its suggestively incestuous narrative. In a better league altogether is ‘A Teenager in Love’, which delivers some much-needed melodic variety even if the chorus sports broad clunkers like “a teenager in love with Christ and heroine”. Is that irony? Parody? Wait... nostalgia? That changes everything! Genius!
SCQ’s Fortune Cookie of the Year: a goldmine awaits those who borrow wisely from the old. Anything that can be shaken from its age and tweaked into underground cool can become a trend all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Recalling Zach Braff’s Garden State soundtrack - a tourist’s mix of old, safe niche-singles (The Shins, Nick Drake, Coldplay and, unsurprisingly, Thievery Corporation) strung up with a few sentimental, newer acoustic tracks - and its dumbfounding feat of selling over 500 000 copies in the United States, I’m blown away at how easily the recent history of music can be torn up and re-sewn into a cooler yet identical version of itself. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are thriving through a similar approach of tailoring the Smiths’ mopey vocals and MBV production to mid-90s chord progressions. The song that best encapsulates this young band’s sound is ‘Stay Alive’ and like most indie critics and blogging hipsters, I’m enjoying its cloudy wash of guitars, its innocuous harmonies, the band’s photo like indie mannequins. That said, none of this superficial hipness makes The Pains of Being Pure at Heart any less of a Gin Blossoms record.

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