Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Higher Than the Stars - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (No Ripcord Review)
Higher Than the Stars
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
No Ripcord Rating: 4
SCQ Rating: 46%
Being a hipster used to be pretty straightforward. I mean, I’m no trendy dresser and my opinions aren’t anchored to a megaphone but if someone is describing “some hipster event” or “my hipster friend”, chances are I’ll really enjoy that show and dig their friend. So why do I hesitate embracing being outted and comfortable in my hipster-status? Because like anything old enough to be dated, hipsterism has gone postmodern! C’mon, you know the suspects: the kids who drop a few hundred to dress like bohemians, the hood-wearing teens who picked up Saturday = Youth cause they thought the breakfast club on the cover were band-members, the people who see that ‘Hipsters Must Die’ t-shirt in Urban Outfitters and fail to see the irony. And, in no small measure, the surface-level pastiche that boils to the root of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
I wasn’t always so disapproving; last winter’s self-titled debut had its share of allure, like ‘Stay Alive’s lovelorn and gauzy chorus to ‘Come Saturday’s, spritely and, uh, equally gauzy chorus. And although the press treated them as if C-86 hadn’t happened and been mimed already, I could appreciate small accomplishments like crossing ‘Young Adult Friction’s early twee pleasantness with a dose of tried-and-true NY cool, or ‘Gentle Sons’, easily their gutsiest song to date. Besides giving my dreary February an optimistic soundtrack, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart presented a band largely content to posture on auto-pilot.
Whereas EPs are often seen as outlets for experimentation or as homes for orphaned tracks, Higher Than the Stars aims to accommodate the literal meaning of Extended Play, simply offering more of the same fey pop albeit a tad less homogenized. Proceedings open with the twinkling title track which, beyond the faintly audible strum in the mix, is virtually devoid of six-strings. It’s a commendable decision that finds the quartet’s stargazing no less potent amid such thunderous absence. An early hint at The Pains of Being Pure at Heart moving closer to dream-pop is scoured, however, by ‘103’; a two-minute blast of distorted guitar slabs that, predictable they may be, manages to disguise some goofy, faux-dramatic lyrics. Despite that crater, Higher Than the Stars recovers on the good graces of ‘Falling Over’, which boasts a bass riff and brisk percussion reminiscent of the Smiths’ early swagger. When the EP lags again on ‘Twins’, it isn’t the songwriting to blame so much as the boring arrangement which, as usual, dismisses actual dynamics between instruments in favour of smothered, compressed guitar chunks. Leave it to Saint Etienne to point out these sonic crimes with a remix of ‘Higher than the Stars’ that frees that track’s compelling melodrama with svelte keys, a defined rhythm and up-front vocals.
Beyond flirting with the notion of branching out, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart cling to the same stubborn formula on Higher Than The Stars EP, following each adventurous half-step with a cowardly sprint back to their comfort zone. An EP has never broken a band commercially or critically and even if it could, this isn’t a flagrant low-point anticipating collapse. Instead, this middling release finds the fashionable foursome happily re-writing familiar hooks and expecting hipsters to lap it up. Now this is a super-young group of musicians who’ve been working at a fever’s pace, so in no way am I suggesting that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are past their prime. What I am saying is that the songs on this EP already feel old, excavated from the self-titled record and surgically removed from the romanticized 80s. If The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are in this for the long haul, they’ll have to do more than retro posturing. They’ll eventually have to create something new.
(This review was originally published on No Ripcord... )