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Endorphin Rush

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart make going down on the upside new all over again

The pains of being pure at heart feel your, um, pain.

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 4/29/2009

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Talking Head May 5.

For more information visit sonarbaltimore.com.

When pop-based indie-rock is able to transform life's trials and tribulations into hummable comfort food, it's doing something very, very right. This is why graying hipsters hold out hope for a Smiths reunion that will likely never come, why Of Montreal shows are frequently jammed, and why anybody still gives a toss about the Smashing Pumpkins. Downer-upper songs are the figurative prescription pills you overdose on when the world has you wanting to swallow a bottle of real ones, the Snuggie you reach for when existence's temperature suddenly drops a few dozen degrees.

Fizzy, frazzled, and feedback-strewn, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart want--oh so badly--to be the go-to thumb-suck or security blanket for a new generation of brittle, misanthropic loners stuck between teen turmoil and young-adult torment. They want to be with you when you shut yourself up in your room for days, when it seems like the center cannot hold, when a private Depeche Mode hit parade just won't do the trick, but you're jonesin' for British-accented soothsayers nonetheless.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland) signals that the NYC-based quartet--vocalist/guitarist Kip Berman, keyboardist/vocalist Peggy Wang, bassist Alex Naidus, and drummer Kurt Feldman--might deserve to inherit that hallowed mantle. Los Campesinos! are actual U.K. natives and may be the snarkily exuberant hipster's tonic of choice, but POBPAH are more interested in wrapping their skinny arms around you and murmuring a half-sincere "there, there."

POBPAH's preferred mode is shoegaze, but they don't go in for druggy My Bloody Valentine poltergeists--they're more like an alternate-universe Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins where D'Arcy and Billy Corgan frequently co-harmonize, keyboards have a seat at the compositional table, and specificity reigns. "Contender," the album's introduction, sets the bittersweet tone even as it rail-grinds through its monochrome two and a half minutes: rousing, sparkly chords stirring polite feedback, the construction of an elaborate put-down, a palpable sense of nostalgia. "At the back of a crowded scene, you saw the boys in white sing 'I'm a Pretender,'" Berman sings. "But you never were, you never were a contender."

We're at the border of Belle and Sebastian country now, where feelings good and bad are inextricably intertwined. "Come Saturday"--with its thrashy guitars slicing through pea-soup neon keyboard drone and apeshit-yet-precise drumbeats weaving all over the bottom of the mix--leads us through customs. This is a conflicted, long-distance relationship song; the protagonist pines for his absent chickadee, but it's a bummer, babe: "I can't stand to see your picture/ On the dresser where I left you/ Another sunny day, and you're 80 miles away/ Tuesday."

"Young Adult Friction" is a wistful, peppy ode to quickie sex in the library stacks so stuffed with observational detail ("We came they went, our bodies spent/ Among the dust and the microfiche," "You're taking toffee with your Vicodin") that the narrator's between-the-lines wish for something more substantial than a hurried flesh-press on "a moldy page" is inescapable--even as the double-ententre "Don't check me out!" coda suggests a flippant nonchalance about the whole affair.

Grippingly adhesive as the aforementioned songs are, POBPAH are somehow at their melodic best when they wade into more disturbing topical waters. Consider "Teenager in Love," which is just a few melodic doors down from the theme from Footloose and Jackson Browne's Fast Times at Ridgemont High classic "Somebody's Baby." But the pinprick-chandelier synths, shuffling drums, and chummy riffs--which would fit in nicely on the playlist of the next faux-'80s prom held at the local hipster haven--serve to spin the tale of a dead-and-gone "teenager in love with Christ and heroin."

"Stay Alive"'s kaleidoscopic chiming, meanwhile, urges stiff-upper-lip resilience in the face of crushing inevitability: being stuck in the shithole town you grew up in with someone you don't really love. Tripled, glowing guitars cruise the song's gloamed, misty confines like a hobbled Ford Escort in search of an exit that doesn't exist, Wang and Berman dangling the optimistic chorus like a rope ladder from a hovering helicopter: "Don't you try to shoot up the sky, so shoot up the sky/ Tonight, we'll stay alive." This is POBPAH at their most anthemic, their most nakedly Pumpkins.

"Hey Paul" kicks into three-chord punk, with all manner of melodic blood-boiling happening behind the hook--which instinctively sucks us into the title character's quagmire, his enduring mystery: What happened to Paul? The narrator's as baffled as we are: "Have you gone away or been left behind/ You know that I don't mind/ You know that you're my kind." It's almost as though Paul is a metaphorical device, a manifestation of a younger, less centered self that Berman--and by extension, the listener--has somehow lost track of amid time's ravages. "Hey, Paul, where have you gone?" he wonders. "I wanna come along!" There's something inherently reassuring about feeling bad, or remembering eras when we routinely did--something endorphic that POBPAH understand and capably exploit.

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