“I only recently noticed that the first half of the album is about sex, and the second half about drugs,” giggles Kip Berman, lead singer of Brooklyn’s cumbersomely named The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. “Maybe, for the next album, we’ll write about rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Rock ‘n’ roll” is about the last thought that comes to mind when you gaze upon Berman’s gawky, stripe-shirted frame, which doesn’t scream “frontman” even with a Fender Jaguar slung over it. But his music doesn’t fuck around: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, launched to Pitchfork acclaim in February, grew into summer festival fare, fielding comparisons to the Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain (the Tune went as far as calling them “a rock version of Joy Division”). An EP out September 22, Higher Than the Stars, promises a more stratospheric direction and a dozen more band names to reference.
Two years ago, Berman started playing around Brooklyn with keyboardist Peggy Wang, bassist Alex Naidus, and a drum machine (“which I couldn’t really program well”). They’d self-release early discs (on Painbow, perfectly), but it was a few shows after Kurt Feldman signed on for drums that the quartet was given a handshake deal (“more of a bear hug, really”). Slumberland—sort of the East Coast answer to twee-pop pioneers K—put out the debut and a few spin-off singles, the most notable being the excellently titled “Young Adult Friction,” supposedly concerning library sex. But when I nudge Berman about it, he’s quicker to liken the song to Pride and Prejudice, downplaying the lecherous aspects for the more common theme of two people who like each other—not necessarily at the same time—and both ending up heartbroken.
Wang adds that the wanting chorus of “Friction” (“Now that you feel/You say it’s not real”) has universal appeal beyond the stacks and the microfiche. That’s not so much the case with the equally melodic, incest-themed “This Love Is Fucking Right!” which might be a true story. (All Berman allows is that he’s stingy with poetic license.)
Juxtaposing upbeat music with bummed words is old hat, but the quartet takes indie-pop clichés to catchy, slightly perverse places, celebrating the beautiful weather as an excuse to stay inside on “Come Saturday” and hiding “A Teenager in Love” ‘s titular inamorata in the lyrics: ” . . . with Christ and heroin.” Berman muses, “I remember in my freshman year of college, I thought I was so cool with my Sonic Youth tape, listening to Luna and Elliott Smith, like Yeahhh! I’m gonna be Lou Reed when I grow up!”
Despite these ominous leanings (which buoy their teensploits from lapsing into, say, M83’s Sweet Valley High nostalgia), the band politely shrug off the Joy Division and Reid brothers comparisons. And they’re right—Feldman’s drum bursts expel hooks, and the guitar fuzz is there for drive, not décor. Yet this has to be the fastest alt-rock to sound the least like punk-anything since . . . Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? Who’d know something about cumbersome names.
“It’s almost like an ethos,” says Berman. “You can’t be half-assed if your band name is the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.”
“No mere band can be called that,” says Wang.
“Like Rage Against the Machine,” I offer.
“Right. It’s like they always had to rage against the machine. They couldn’t take any time off from raging and go, ‘I’m gonna cleverly undermine the machine.’ ”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart play October 3 at Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street, websterhall.com
Fall Music Picks
If your first reaction to the words “Brooklyn Country Music Festival” is “Does irony know no bounds?” you’re not alone, but the silliest that Brooklyn septet Defibulators (whose influences on MySpace include Buck Owens and “beef commercials”) get is naming a track “Steal Harmonicas” and finding cleverer rhymes for “Chester” than “molester.” Mostly, they craft raucous tunes you could affectionately affix the “-billy” tag to, like the brassy “Get What’s Coming to You” and the cordial “Your Hearty Laugh.” Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, spsounds.com
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Probably the only onetime Sleater-Kinney openers to play Radio City, Karen O and her scrawny cohorts are sonically massive. The brawniest practitioners of lo-fi ever took a mumbly shoegaze ballad global (“Maps”) and poured on the glitter with this year’s It’s Blitz, all while trailing riot-grrrl credentials and a beer-spitting stage show. And the odds aren’t entirely off that O will perform in a ripped-up Rockettes costume. Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Avenue of the Americas, radiocity.com
This Vancouver duo has been championed by old-school emo heads for bringing girl problems back to the indie fold, but the Promise Ring never expressed any desire as horny—or hooky—as Brian King and David Prowse’s to “French-kiss some French girls,” and they certainly never interpolated “The Boys Are Back in Town.” In keeping with the late-’90s crud that these dudes look back on so fondly, their name is almost stupid enough to work. Mercury Lounge, 217 East Houston Street, mercuryloungenyc.com
What an evolution. From über-buzzed British Sea Power, to a side goof that blasted Dick Cheney and toasted Johnny Cash, to full-time band that hit the legal brakes with a name they had to cast off stateside and one of the greatest breakup ballads of the new millennium (2007’s “No Return”), this excellent, somewhat ignored quartet has recently refined their approach to a two-chord drone reminiscent of Black Francis conducting the Modern Lovers. Drunk. Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, boweryballroom.com
Vicious on his own, Eef Barzelay seems to grow another set of teeth with his down-and-out, Naked Lunch–derived band of Brooklyn-cum-Nashvillians, who quietly released the spiritual weirdbook Hungry Bird earlier this year in sharp contrast to back catalog sneers like “Jews for Jesus Blues” and “No One’s More Happy Than You.” Hipsters have little use for his vinegary mix of irony and cruelty, and even critics who gave the excellent End of Love its due might be surprised at how loose his usually hushed country backup can get live. But between the bizarre jokes (“The pedophiles did their rendition of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’/And we all had to admit/It wasn’t that bad”) or Randy Newman–inspired cynicism (“We should just release the doves/Because no one will survive the end of love”), he slips in clues of what life’s really all about: “Summer will come/With Al Green and sweetened iced tea.” Mercury Lounge, 217 East Houston Street, mercuryloungenyc.com
Staking her uncool on a No. 3 debut and a hit politely asking you not to laugh at God, the ivory-tickling songstress comes far after graduating anti-folkdom and surviving a Stroke (who, we hear, wasn’t so hot at editing). We know you discovered “Fidelity” from Grey’s Anatomy. It’s OK—we’re all friends here. And we want you to know about “Hotel Song” and “Ghost of Corporate Future,” too. Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Avenue of the Americas, radiocity.com
October 16 and 17
The classiest soul legend ever isn’t just still alive, he’s preaching to your daughters. Last year’s ?uestlove-helmed Lay It Down laid down more of the workaday ambrosia that the Reverend has been squeezing out since the ’70s, reportedly without a cobweb plucked from the mixing board. But it also added new contenders (“What More Do You Want From Me”) and hit the top 10. If the 63-year-old can sell anything live, it’s consistency. B.B. King Blues Club, 237 West 42nd Street, bbkingblues.com
Justice (DJ Set)
Michael Jackson’s passing has only heightened the appeal of this puritan-fragging French duo’s inescapable hit “D.A.N.C.E.,” a tribute so heartfelt and daring that it utilized a children’s choir to unironically rehash Jackson slogans. Expect anything at their DJ sets, whether their own meter-destroying, blown-speaker take on funky house, or “Master of Puppets” vivisected gleefully for the metal-hating ringer-T set. Accept their dare to distort the danceable into the grotesquely (gulp) rocking. Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street, websterhall.com
Even without her detention pals in Be Your Own Pet, star firebrand Pearl detonates onstage with her perfectly Joan Jett–like fusion of short hair, schoolyard thrash, and Little Eva–style throwback pop. Guest spots from Iggy Pop and Thurston Moore on her solo debut Break It Up fail to quell her brattiness (or catchiness). And only a brat could resist her first non-zombie-related love song, a little valentine called “I Hate People.” Bowery Ballroom,6 Delancey Street, boweryballroom.com
Wu-Tang’s most ferociously enduring rapper is also its tenderest, as his upcoming The Wizard of Poetry aims to prove with plenty of Autotune and exhortations for his babymama to rub his belly and get him Popeye’s. Whether bringing out his rapper son (who “came out his dick”) for second-generation headknockers like “Be Easy,” or rocking standbys like “C.R.E.A.M.,” it’s fair to say that Ghost is starting to rule everything around cash. B.B. King Blues Club, 237 West 42nd Street, bbkingblues.com
The Big Pink
With both a dynamite single (“Dominos”) and a propensity for slow-swelling synths making their name, London duo the Big Pink are poised to be this year’s MGMT—if only they weren’t so obsessed with being its t.A.T.u., flaunting instruments they “can’t play” and faking as a gay couple in photos. But like t.A.T.u., don’t be unprepared when five brilliant words they can-or-can’t-sing run your life for the next few months: “These girls fall like dominos.” Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, boweryballroom.com
The Juan MacLean
It takes some hit to earn that “the” in front of your name, and a decade after his bludgeoning Six Finger Satellite fell from the sky, John MacLean sits proudly behind the 12 ecstatic minutes of “Happy House,” another DFA clubland thrill to notch James Murphy’s belt following the success of the Rapture, Cut Copy, and the Pazz-winning label boss himself. It also takes some hit to exclaim, “You are so excellent.” Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, musichallofwilliamsburg.com
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 8, 2009