MY PHONY VALENTINE: "So many bands spend time trying to deny something — to not be like something else," says Kip Berman.
Last year, DJ /rupture's Uproot pitted dub-step singles against modern classical and experimental music. Meanwhile, TV on the Radio continued to introduce Prince-isms and Fela-style funk into Pixies-esque post-punk with doo-wop vocals. There is a surge in polyglot music, but despite its force, a strain of conservatism (one that has always run through indie rock) is keeping pace. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (along with a handful of other bands — Vivian Girls and locals Pants Yell! spring to mind) are less interested in opening their music toward other languages than in focusing inward and capturing the breezy teenage energy of now-classic American and British twee pop.
With roots in what critic Simon Reynolds calls "the exaggerated wimpiness" of '80s Scottish bands Orange Juice and Josef K, twee came into its own with UK label Sarah Records (Heavenly and the Field Mice) and Oregon-based K Records (Beat Happening and Tiger Trap). The Pains of Being Pure at Heart continue this lineage with trademarks of the genre: jangly and often distorted guitars, fey-boy/whispering-girl trade-off vocals, straight-ahead verse-chorus-verse song structures. More simply, in singer/guitarist Kip Berman's words, their music is "a blast of noise and pop."
Talking about this pop conservatism via e-mail, Berman tells me: "So many bands spend time trying to deny something — to react against what they feel is some corruption of pop ideals, to not be like something else. We feel the opposite — that we're not a reaction against anything. We don't want to define ourselves as what we're not [e.g., by adding horns, a laptop, or a South African guitar player] but as what we are."
Which, if you couldn't tell by the band name, is a bunch of geeky kids trying to have sincere fun in the city. Their new homonymous album is filled with well-worn lyrics: there's the usual anxiety over love and feelings, the nights of woes and triumphs, plus the guilt-ridden morning-after tropes familiar to indie rock, all delivered with an ironic wink. A little bookish pleasure? "Young Adult Friction" is a seduction story set "between the stacks in the library . . . among the dust and the microfiche." Self-conscious pleading for a make-out sesh? The narrator of "This Love Is Fucking Right" asserts, "In a dark room we can just do as we like/You're my sister and this love is fucking right!"
Throughout, Berman eschews proper names in favor of a he-said/she-said impersonality that recalls '60s pop as much as it does the high-school cafeteria. "At times, the ambiguity allows a listener to assume the roles of the characters. In others, it's out of simple politeness to real people." Makes sense — he gabs about friends hooked on Vicodin and heroin. "The songs are about things I've directly felt, seen, or been through. I know it's not quite as 'literary' as, say, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, but I hope people can appreciate that our music is something real and not an ephemeral word-association exercise or creative-writing project."
Berman's honesty is infectious, even via e-mail: I find myself looking forward to his next message over our week-long conversation and thinking of him as something of a pen pal. Same with the music: what it lacks in experimentation it more than makes up for by asking you to be part of its conversation. "What we've always tried to do is just write one song that goes on someone's favorite mix — that expresses something that someone feels 100 percent. That to us is an ideal worth striving for."
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART + PANTS YELL! + THE DEPRECIATION GUILD + SHRINKING ISLANDS | Middle East upstairs, 472 Mass Ave, Cambridge | February 15 at 9 pm | $9 | 617.864.EAST or www.mideastclub.com