Comparing artists to My Bloody Valentine is one of the most ubiquitous clichés in music criticism. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, a four-piece hailing from NY, are the latest group to be wedged into this suffocating context, and, as usual, the comparison pays neither a compliment to the band nor to Kevin Shields (especially not to the latter). "Perfect" and "beautiful" pop say the music blogs; the band to "watch," according to Pitchfork and Sterogum.Comparing artists to My Bloody Valentine is one of the most ubiquitous clichés in music criticism. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, a four-piece hailing from NY, are the latest group to be wedged into this suffocating context, and, as usual, the comparison pays neither a compliment to the band nor to Kevin Shields (especially not to the latter). "Perfect" and "beautiful" pop say the music blogs; the band to "watch," according to Pitchfork and Sterogum. I've lost count of how many reviews I've read attempting to further "legitimize" their sound by tracing it back to obscure bands from the late 1980s and early 1990s (The Pastels, Black Tambourine, etc.).
It's a bit surprising, then, just how middling the album is to my ears. Crafting a "singular" sound is as idealistic as the next musical virtue, but this album -- the band's debut -- is glaringly commonplace. One of the album's stronger tracks, "Come Saturday," with its well-worn melodies, transparent production, and cookie-cutter structure, is everything you might expect from a band seemingly content on adopting its sounds from those who already did the legwork. And while the lyrics can be occasionally intriguing ("In a dark room, we can do just as we like/ You're my sister, and this love is fucking right"), they're mostly uninspired ("Come Saturday, you'll come to stay/ You'll come to sway in my arms").
Essentially, the band's ability to assume a penetrating presence is continually undermined by its utter insistence on safe, sheltered pop. (Some people are even calling this stuff noisy!) Of course, pop of this variety was never meant to shake foundations, yet their cloyed approach seems like a cop out. I can't fault their enthusiasm -- they just want to have fun, writing songs they love to play -- but the album just reinforces the idea that musical style doesn't get lost over time, it gets appropriated, stripped, hybridized, mashed, steamrolled. And that's fine -- I ain't no essentialist -- but if pop is supposed to be "fun," why does it anger me when I hear the MBV-inspired tremelo guitars in "Gentle Sons"? Am I an asshole or is it okay to be critical of what I listen to?
Clearly, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart aren't keen on innovation, but their story never worked under that conceit in the first place: "The only ‘experimentation’ we do on tour is with various chocolate bars and gummi candies," says Kip, the band's guitarist and vocalist. And my problem isn't that they fail to approximate MBV's reverb-soaked, fuzzy sound or the jangly guitars and melodicism of C86 bands, it's that legitimizing the band by drawing tenuous connections to artists past is like lauding every band that sounds like The Beatles. And once this approach is exhausted, then the ahistorical tautology comes out ("Good songwriting is good songwriting"), perhaps the laziest of the critic's rhetorical ammunition. But when has ahistoricism inspired anything but willed shortsightedness?
The cycle merely perpetuates non-subversive derivation as an aspiration, emphasizing solely the sounds themselves, as if music has a presumed autonomy on which we judge with a shared belief system, as if the context that initally shaped the sound's discursive value was immaterial because "it sounds so good, dude!" and "it's about the music, man!" Some might call me jaded, others might call me snobby (update: Pitchfork says I'm a "dick"), but there's nothing wrong with having principles with taste. And, hey, I admit it: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart can write a catchy tune, but so what?
2. Come Saturday
3. Young Adult Friction
4. This Love is Fucking Right
5. The Tenure Itch
6. Stay Alive
7. Everything With You
8. A Teenager in Love
9. Hey Paul
10. Gentle Sons