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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
(Slumberland; US: 3 Feb 2009; UK: 9 Feb 2009)
It’s hard not to be excited when a great new band, filtering an intimate knowledge of pop music history through a lively sound, gets recognized and raved over. In the span of a year or so, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart went from playing to small audiences to selling out shows and appearing on late-night TV. As the year wore on and the flames of hype got thinner, their songs still shone brightly—snappy, fuzzy, immediate, with great melodies and witty sensitive-youth lyrics. They have obvious debts to the Pastels, Jesus and Mary Chain, a lot of Sarah Records bands, and other indie-pop legends, but they have their own charm and style. It’s impressive to hear a young band so in love with music and the rush it gives you, so able to convey that glorious rush while burying within it deep sadness.
Laptop whiz Jona Bechtolt, who has long run in indie-pop circles, boosted his electronic-music cred this year by signing YACHT to DFA. More importantly, YACHT, now a duo, took leaps and bounds in every direction on See Mystery Lights, their most focused, thoughtful, and invigorating recording yet. This is expansive, colorful pop music that takes as inspiration a freewheeling variety of musics, from ‘70s post-punk to ‘80s new wave, ambient mood to hip-hop. As philosophical as it is infectious, See Mystery Lights explores “what’s out there?” and “what’s next?” questions, while musically embodying that same boundless inquisitiveness. YACHT takes Bechtolt’s long-held interest in belief systems to new places, more thoughtful, touching, and rewarding. The epitome is one of the year’s best singles, “Psychic City (Voodoo City)”, an infectious mix of hope, skepticism, and belief.
(Track and Field; US: Import; UK: 26 Jan 2009)
The “pram town” of the title is Harlow, Essex, England, a planned community in commuting distance of London. The album isn’t entirely a loving ode to the place. Rather, it’s a critical look at the whole notion of planning communities. But it’s also an understanding look, an album-length story of people with their own hopes and dreams, who live out the differences between expectations and reality while also dreaming their own dreams of a more ideal life. And it’s gorgeous, a catchy pop album with an overly tuneful yet melancholy sheen. It’s a loving tapestry built of human stories, childhood memories, and contemplation of what places mean to us—the ways the romance of places butts against the reality of them. It’s bittersweet, funny, and touching, a human drama played out amidst lawns, motorways, and roundabouts. Hayman narrates with an eye for detail and a care for human weakness, but also doesn’t pull punches—“They built high rise towers / In medium sized towns / They didn’t stick around / To see the towers let us down”.
Bonfires on the Heath
(Merge; US: 6 Oct 2009; UK: 9 Nov 2009)
It’s no surprise that the Clientele consider autumn “the loveliest season”. Their music has always held a fascination with changing environments and the feelings they carry—light changing to dark, mirrors reflecting, seconds ticking by. They manage to tie those times of uncertainty to a feeling of strangeness, here as well or better than ever before. Songs like the title track, “Harvest Time”, and “Tonight” feel like they could roll on forever, while evoking specific surroundings and holding us still for a particular moment. Within this autumnal setting are people looking for each other, losing each other, and wondering about each other, and by relation themselves. We begin on the dance floor, where identities morph in time with the beat, and end walking in the park “on a dying afternoon”. If this is indeed their last album, as they’re saying it probably will be, then it may well stand as their finest moment. It contains their most beautiful songs, fully realizing the ideas and song-forms they’ve explored throughout their existence.
I have instant skepticism towards bands that are hyped too much, and am instantly protective of bands who are backlashed against too strongly. That should make me a yo-yo in this case, but I heard Girls before all that started, and was won over right away. Across their album, titled with awareness, they’re pulling templates from various periods of pop music to have a go with them: the teen-idol love ballad (“Laura”), the anthem for lost youth (“Lust for Life”), shoegaze (“Morning Light”), the come-hither romantic interlude (“Headache”), the summer of love theme song (“Summertime”), drag race/surf anthems (“Big Bad Mean Motherfucker”). With every moody guitar part and contortion of Christopher Owens’s singing voice, they put their own weird, playful, dramatic, epic stamp on each song type. Their lyrics are simple in a classically pop way, and not afraid to be dumb (always a plus). The way they pull our strings exemplifies the star-listener dynamic, the way music makes us feel. At the same time, they’re always commenting on that action, on how a singer makes us feel like we can express ourselves better. For example, “Every time I hear you sing / I love love love you.” Or even better: “I knew it when I heard it the first time / I knew it when I heard it the last time / ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’.”