By Jim Schutze
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It's hard to say whether Rock Band will result in more musical acts forming at some point down the line. But one would have to assume it would, right? Especially in these times, when the line between geeking out on music and making it is so thin.
Surely, the members of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had no intentions of really becoming rock stars. When the group of friends threw a birthday bash for Peggy Wang, now the band's keyboardist, it invited some established bands (Titus Adronicus, The Manhattan Love Suicides) and decided to throw something together, as well. After all, it was their party. They just wanted to make some music like that of their favorite bands. But one thing led to another, and the group of friends was transformed from adoring music lovers to much-blogged-about objects of adoration.
"We were just the kids that were obsessed with records and would hang out in late-night diners and talk about bands all the time," guitarist Kip Berman says while on his way to a show in Madison, Wisconsin. "We really identify so strongly with bands that the music that we liked became an important part of who we were, how we saw ourselves and how we identified. We wanted to meet other people who like the kinds of bands we liked, and it was a dream to find people who did."
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So let's be honest: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is not a collection of amazing musicians. Indeed, Berman notes that the band's drummer, Kurt Feldman, is actually a much better guitarist than he is. But the group's fuzzy indie pop jangle is based more on catchy hooks and heart-baring sentiments than instrumental prowess.
"I won't ever be on the cover of Guitar Shaman magazine," Berman cracks.
Still, the Pains' sweet, shambling sound works quite well, shrouded in low-level buzz and descended from the late '80s twee pop of British acts like The Pastels, Heavenly and Talulah Gosh and later American counterparts such as Black Tambourine, Small Factory, Beat Happening and Rocketship. A much-beloved, if rather fringe movement, the spirit of this sound lived on in the fey warmth of Belle & Sebastian and innocent spirit of K Records (started by Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson). These acts were the group's inspiration, and it's clear from first listen. Whether singing about an awaited weekend homecoming for a long-distance love affair ("Come Saturday"), a fling in the library stacks ("Young Adult Friction") or "A Teenager in Love" (with Christ and heroin), the Pains' songs are rife with painful self-awareness and an ingenuous heartache befitting their name. (It was taken from a friend's children's story of the same name.) Holden Caulfield would love these guys.
"We're all very emotionally honest," Berman says. "We're not too-cool-for-school kind of people. We're dorky and nerdy kids from the suburbs."
And the band's timing has proved quite fortuitous. After years as a style largely appreciated by a coven of bespectacled music geeks, twee's witnessed a sudden resurgence with similarly minded Brooklyn acts Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and Cause Co-Motion! Meanwhile, Slumberland Records, home to a cast of '90s-loving kindred spirits, has returned from a several-year hibernation to seize the style's mantle, releasing albums by Crystal Stilts and Cause Co-Motion! in October of last year. Around the same time, Slumberland owner Mike Schulman offered TPOBPAH a gig opening for British twee revivalists The Lodger while Berman was ordering a reissued Black Tambourine 10-inch from him. Schulman was so impressed with the band's show that night, he signed them on the spot. Then Berman and company got former Black Tambourine/Velocity Girl guitarist Archie Moore to mix their record.
"[Moore] really understood the sound we were going for and really helped us shape the way it sounds today. I don't think that record would have been half as good were it not for his involvement," Berman says. "It just seems like all the indie pop stars aligned, and everything was perfect for the kind of music we played."
The group's self-titled debut arrived in February to breathless plaudits from The Onion, Pitchfork and even NME, which called the album "effortlessly effervescent." After touring and struggling in near anonymity for two years, the band almost overnight became the act on everyone's lips, and suddenly, the shoe switched feet.
"It's definitely an interesting phenomenon because we've been so often, throughout our lives, on the other side of things," Berman says. "Recently, it seems like the people like us the way we like bands, which is really cool and something we don't take for granted at all.
"The bands we draw inspiration from have never really been popular or commercially successful, but were meaningful to us growing up," Berman continues. "We always wanted to make music for the few people that care a lot about what we did, rather than try to be large for largeness sake. It was never something we thought was even possible."
Just goes to show that great music's never completely forgotten. It just bides time, waiting for rediscovery and further appreciation.