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The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

(Slumberland; US: 3 Feb 2009; UK: Available as import)

Name the influence. It’s a fun game for both critics and fans of music to play, and we play it often. Over conversations at the bar, it’s good to talk about who sounds like who, where new bands are coming from and where the next hip trend may be popping up. But when we rely on influence-naming in criticism, aside from being sloppy, it can be a bit misleading. Too often it is used to assert an unearned authority. To say a band sounds like early My Bloody Valentine doesn’t make a statement about either band so much as a claim you know what early MBV sounds like, and therefore, you are an educated voice worth listening to. With the growing presence of the Internet, and private blogs in particular, in criticism, naming influences is a quick way to align yourself with your audience and imply you are knowledgeable, since you don’t have a name like Rolling Stone or Filter behind you to give you immediate credibility.

In a perfect world, reference-naming would run its course, as Internet criticism gains more credibility, and we could all move on to better conversations. One problem persists: Some bands feed into this trend. Enter the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The band’s eponymous first full-length surely classifies as a decent record, front to back, but talking about this music without talking about bands who came before them seems impossible. Bands like the aforementioned My Bloody Valentine, the Cure, Belle and Sebastian and—perhaps most out of left field—Superchunk come to mind.

What makes this band so difficult to shake from its influences? Well, its members don’t seem interested in being separated from them. Where most bands use their favorite sounds as a jumping-off point, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart live in the sounds they love. What makes them successful, in spite of this, is how they combine all these found sounds. The band marries well the harshness of a Superchunk or a My Bloody Valentine with the soft melodies of twee pop.

The band achieves success mostly when at its most energetic. The first half of the record, and in particular “Come Saturday” and “The Tenure Itch”, shows the band performing its tight-pop songs with a bratty sneer. They speed through “This Love is Fucking Right!” so that the jangly guitar sounds are strummed too fast and run into each other to create a sweet wall of rock music, and opener “Contender” draws you into the record with a warm gauze of distortion over reverb-touched vocals.

The second half of the record, with the exception of the quick burst of “Hey Paul”, feels a little slack in comparison. The songs slow to a mid-tempo and seem to run out of energy. The melodies sound a little too simple, the vocals almost anemic, and the songs take on a dreary-afternoon trudge.

In the end, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, again, classifies as a fine-sounding record, which is what the band wanted. It is a love song to the bands they grew up on, at times purely imitation as flattery, and, in those modest goals, it succeeds. But now we know what bands these guys like. The next time out, it might be nice for them to give us something a little more personal.


Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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