The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: The Echo of Pleasure
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are back to show us that '80s alternative synthpop isn't dead, and it's perfectly fine to be mopey as long as there's a good beat.
While it may be inaccurate or even unfair to refer to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart as a “predictable” outfit, this much is true: they’re very good at what they do, and they follow a formula, albeit an intoxicating one that’s easy to love.
The band, in the studio, is essentially Kip Berman with a small circle of musical guests (and a full band on tour). While Berman is American born-and-raised, his musical influences are most definitely from across the pond: virtually all the songs on The Echo of Pleasure, the latest album from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, can be traced back to British ‘80s alternative rock. Songs thump along to big drums and keening keyboard hooks while Berman sings about love, death, and dancing, his painfully pure heart clearly on his sleeve. The melodic ennui of New Order is most definitely in the mix, but there’s also a bit of Cure-like mopey shoegaze. I’d wager good money that Low Life and Disintegration were in heavy rotation during recording sessions. Helping out with production duties is Andy Savours, whose previous work with My Bloody Valentine (as well as the Pains’ last album, Days of Abandon) brings plenty of experience to the proceedings.
The Echo of Pleasure is the Pains’ fourth full-length album, and Berman is ably assisted by Jen Goma (A Sunny Day in Glasgow) on vocals, Jacob Danish Sloan (Dream Diary) on bass, and Kelly Pratt (Beirut, David Byrne) on horns. Even with a relatively small amount of outside help, Berman’s songs are beefy, melodic throwbacks to college radio staples of decades past. “My Only” leaps out of the gate with a fairly standard pop chord progression and the layered keyboards, guitar, and front-of-the-mix drums give the composition plenty of heft. “Anymore” has an irresistibly funky backbeat that masks the lyrics’ mortal dread (“Anymore / I couldn’t take it anymore / I wanted to die with you”).
Berman certainly knows his way around a good single -- “When I Dance With You” is all punchy synths, four-on-the-floor beats and the idea that a dancefloor is sometimes all you need. “I don’t know how I’ll make money / Just want enough so you never have to worry,” Berman sings. “When I dance with you / Everyone else just slides out of view.” The title track bounces along with the same kind of frenetic, frothy dance-pop, ably propped up with keyboard patches heavy enough to compare to classic Gary Numan singles.
Although Berman is clearly front and center on The Echo of Pleasure, Goma provides a nice bit of vocal contrast by taking the lead on “So True,” a thick slab of hummable New Wave that sounds like a Human League single in heavy rotation on MTV circa 1983. Berman and company clearly take their musical cues from another era, but it’s a dependable template and never seems like a cop out. Berman is a bit of a one-man synth-pop revival, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The Echo of Pleasure closes with “Stay” and is the album’s lone outlier. The only ballad, it occasionally comes off as a bit forced, as if Berman seemed obligated to throw the fans a slow jam. The song itself isn’t much but its saving grace is the lush arrangement -- subtle horns come and go, Goma harmonizes, and layers of keyboards wash over the whole thing. It works nicely for what it is: a last-song-of-the-night cooldown after eight previous tracks of frenetic synthpop dance numbers. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart may seem stuck in time, but if Robert Smith and Bernard Sumner are hovering near retirement age, isn’t it time to make room for someone new?