Stifle your groans and suppress that grimace. Sure, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart may be the most emo-ish band name in history. And, yeah, their Belle & Sebastian-esque cover art and cutesy band members are as twee as kittens sliding down rainbows. So, what does that make them—tweemo?
Thankfully, no. The Brooklyn band's self-titled debut full-length was among this summer's best releases. It's been repeatedly billed as shoegaze, and while POBPAH's music does build into walls of blissful sound, it's bolstered by the scaffolding of serious songcraft. Unlike so many bands that barely peek out from behind pedals, POBPAH's got pop hooks and boy-girl harmonies galore.
The POBPAH name has a sweet back-story, too. It's the title of an unpublished children's book written by a friend. And it just happened to resonate with the band's frontman, Kip Berman.
“I'd never heard a phrase that was more perfect,” he says. “The message in the book itself was really meaningful and kind of prescient. It's about important things, like the adventures you have with your friends and the kind of person you are as opposed to fame and power.”
And don't mistake purity for naïveté or tortured earnestness.
“It's more about doing what you believe in and striving toward those ideas,” Berman adds. “It's not always easy, but if you struggle through it, that makes it even more beautiful.”
That sounds a bit heavy, but Berman's tone is absolutely effervescent. As for POBPAH's lyrics, which can come off as a bit mopey: “Oh, no, we're not downers,” he says. “We don't want to bum anyone out.”
Take the track “Staying Alive.” Loaded with lush bell-tone synth swells, it's one of the most memorable. The lyrics, though, belie the brightness. A critic for Pitchfork.com wondered if the song was about “talking down a suicidal friend.”
Nope, says Berman. It's the classic tale of a barely legal burnout.
“You know in high school, where there are a couple of kids who don't live with their parents anymore? They graduated and they get an apartment that people hang out at. They work at the gas station and spend their money on drugs and they seem really cool at the time. But they're actually not that cool in retrospect.”
Speaking of youth, several enthusiastic bloggers have pointed out that POBPAH somehow captures the very spirit of it—like the music takes them back to the moment they first touched a girl's boob or smoked a joint or something.
Berman, 29 (his three bandmates are in their mid-20s), says his own high-school years in the suburbs of Philly were the exact opposite of the “Staying Alive” guy.
“Normal, suburban, average,” he points out. “I'd hang out with my friends and go to Denny's and talk about bands all the time. We'd stay out really late, but we'd never do anything cool or rebellious. Mostly we'd drink a lot of coffee and talk about anarchy. It's not like I have any coming-of-age stories, like, you know, a Fiona Apple video.”
If critics and fans reminisce about their glory years while listening to POBPAH, it probably has more to do with the music they listened to way back then. My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub and the like—the shoegaze-y stuff, an obvious reference point for POBPAH.
The band belongs to a sparkling indie-pop scene in Brooklyn, counting bands like Zaza and The Crystal
Stilts among their contemporaries and friends. “A lot of those bands share a similar record collection, though not exactly the same sound,” Berman says. “We all interpret those interests differently.”POBPAH has gotten more attention than many of those others, and Berman says that was wholly unexpected.
“We set out to be a band that wouldn't be important to many people but would be to a few people. The bands I loved growing up weren't super-famous, but they were really super-important to me.”
True to the meaning of the name, POBPAH is just trying to keep it real.
“It's not like we'll ever be arena rock. I'm sure there are bands that say, ‘We're going to be Gods of Rock; we'll write some songs about our feelings and go on tour with Coldplay.' Not us. We never expected more than a dozen people to like what we do, so we're pretty happy if two dozen people like what we do.”
Not that “everything has to be DIY and basement to be good,” Berman quickly adds. And then, with an apropos-of-nothing cultural allusion, he reveals that while they may not be emo, POBPAH is definitely a tad twee.
“Maybe we watched too much Mr. Rogers when we were growing up. If you think about it, he wore cardigans, too.” The Pains of Being Pure at Heart play with Depreciation Guild and Cymbals Eat Guitars on Monday, Sept. 21, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/thepainsofbeingpureatheart.
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