What’s Not to Like? The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

July 23, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 2 3 min read

coverOh, to be so winsome as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart! All aspects of the unwieldily named indie pop quartet are uniformly captivating – their music, their lyrics, their persons, their demeanor on stage and in interviews – and newspapers and blogs from their home city (New York) to LA and San Fran are quite rightly singing the praises of their self titled debut album. Although I’ve always sympathized with Elvis Costello’s view of music criticism (“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”), my profound affection for The Pains prompts me to violate my own prohibition against mansard roof waltzes.

The greatest pleasure of The Pains is that they have made pop music something real again; they (and Vampire Weekend, with a very different vibe) remind me that pop can be more than over-produced plastic-y tween cotton candy. All of The Pains’ songs have a bright, quick, melodic quality that will give children of the late eighties and early nineties alt music scene intense bouts of nostalgia and deja vu. For me, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy album, particularly the song “Just Like Honey” is the dominant topnote in The Pains musical bouquet, but their music is also strongly redolent of The Cure, The Smiths, and more sythesizer-y 80’s stuff like New Order (the lovely Peggy Wang plays the sythesizer for Pains as well as sings whispery and suggestive back-up vocals). There are also echoes of The Stone Roses (songs like “Elephant Stone” and “This is the One”), the short-lived 1990s DC band Black Tambourine (“Throw Aggi off the Bridge”), and other 90s bands like Catherine Wheel, Moose, Pale Saints, Lush, and Chapterhouse. The Pains lyrics remind me of Belle and Sebastian’s dark school stories and psychological subtlety. (Some part of me thinks there might also be a Joy Division component to their sound too, but that is likely because the Pains lead singer Kip Berman has a very slight physical resemblance to the ill-fated Ian Curtis.)

As with the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” the Pains music has a wall of sound-y feel: the instrumentals are thick and echo-y and encompassing, particularly the guitar parts (at their show this week in LA, they had an extra guitarist onstage to accompany lead singer and guitarist Berman). The instrumentation engulfs and softens the band’s vocals and lyrics (a trademark of the late 80’s sub-genre dubbed shoegazing) and their high-energy, happy, heavily melodic sound belies and muffles the sinister tales their songs narrate: “A Teenager in Love” is about “a teenager in love with Christ and heroin” (for months I’d thought, naively, that the lyric was “in love with Christ in Heaven”), “This Love is F***ing Right!” is about incest, “The Tenure Itch” – a “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” for our time – is about a young girl having a self-destructive affair with a professor:

He makes corrections, you shut the blinds
You’re talking less and less,
But the words aren’t hard to find.
His last suggestion, it makes you ill,
Still one more lesson leaves you twisting to his will.

But you don’t feel like this is what the song is about while you’re listening to it casually. The sparkly chorus, “Every night, he comes and goes again,” is really quite sinister and depressing once you know what the song is about, but because it takes pretty concentrated listening to make out the lyrics, I felt only delightfully energized by it the first 10 or so times I heard it. What I think is their best song, “Young Adult Friction,” is an ambiguous account of a sexual encounter in a library:

I never thought I would come of age,
Let alone on a moldy page.
You put your back to the spines
and you said it was fine if there’s nothing really left to say.

Now that you feel, you say it’s not real.

The end of the song describes both participants as damaged by the encounter (possibly rape?), but, again, you wouldn’t know it listening to the music, nor watching the band’s charming low-budget music video.

This cognitive dissonance itself – the incongruity between the Pains music and their lyrics – is really satisfying: All of the adolescent sensual pleasures of pop concealing the menacing complexities and perversities of adulthood.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are touring right now through the fall with shows all over the US and Canada as well as a stint in Europe. They’re playing small general admission clubs, mostly, and the tickets are cheap and well worth it. They’re touring with the LA band the Champagne Socialists who have a striking 50s and early 60s vibe that’s also worth a listen (and a look: their lead singer is transfixing in fishnets and vintage hotpants). For the tour schedule, tickets, free downloads, and more visit the Pains site.

[Photo: Annie Powers]

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. They kind of remind me of Lane's band on Gilmore Girls– cute Asian girl + dorky white boys. Minus the old heavy metal guy with the hair.

  2. Hep Alien. Yes, there is a physical resemblance.
    Also, old heavy metal guy = Sebastian Bach! Formerly of Skid Row–I hadn't thought of him in ages…Remember "18 and Life"?

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