The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

There’s little doubt that there’s something annoying about music writers consistently utilising the trusty band comparison in their work; not least, I imagine, for the bands themselves. If you’re a new band*, just starting to fill gigs through your own hard work, there’s probably little worse than some journalist or, dare I say it, blogger drawing a hasty line between your music and that of another, most probably more established, artist. It could influence potential listeners, leading them to expect something that isn’t delivered on or, worse still, make them simply not want to listen at all. At the very least, it will most probably rankle having your own writing, musical or lyrical, made to seem simply derivative. I imagine you can see where this is going by now.

The Quiet Americans, a new band, remind me of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, an established band.

Honestly though, I’ll explain myself. You see, I have no interest in a straight comparison unless I’m actually reading about a tribute band. What I look for in this kind of device is how it sets up an idea and then modifies it – thinking of other music as a base for a new band rather than a guide is not only more flattering to both parties, but actually representative of most music nowadays. Given that the vast majority of music I would consider good is capable of being defined by genre, the fact that I think it’s good means that, generally, it’s doing something different on top of its base to make itself stand out.

So step up The Quiet Americans, who have taken what I loved about PoBPaH’s first album – a knack for an effervescent melody, trendy fuzz and winsome attitude – and went in quite the opposite direction from their second, which I disliked rather a lot. The fuzz is thicker, the feel more intimate – these are songs that manage to sound contemporary without seeming constructed or disaffected. Of course, a comparison is never a complete review, and this certainly isn’t the complete of catgut to The Quiet Americans’ bow.  With some mighty-sounding blues dropping in and out, songs like ‘Be Alone’ and ‘Weird Mountain’ add some heft to the expected meekness of C86 sonics whilst ‘Falling’s steely stomp continues the trend.

Of course, a writer is rarely trying to simply discredit, belittle or permanently sum up a band with a comparison, even if it is an essentially useless, basic one. It’s a useful tool for making the nebulous world of music writing a little more tangible (or at least psychically audible). With that in mind, if you like what you reckon you can hear, then I would highly recommend downloading (or, heaven forbid, buy) the band’s debut EP, Medicine from their Bandcamp or if you want one more hurdle for the band to jump, grab the download below and see what you think.

The Quiet Americans – Be Alone (YSI)

*And frankly I imagine it pisses off big bands** almost as much.
**Not big bands like Harry Connick Jr. by the way. Well, not necessarily.

I feel enough has been seen of my breezy enthusiasm around here recently. What this Green Window needs is some grey clouds, and it’s coming in the form of new single/2nd album disappointment, courtesy of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Smith Westerns. Both bands are young, impetuous and optimistic in their outlook but have simply overdone it on their newest tracks, ‘Heart In Your Heartbreak’ and ‘Weekend’ respectively.

‘Heart In Your Heartbreak’ begins like a Magic Numbers song, becomes something recognisably similar to their original tracks, then descends into almost power-pop territory before fading into synthy nothingness. ‘Weekend’ on the other hand dispenses with almost everything that made this group of ridiculously prodigious fuzz-merchants interesting in the first place. A whimsical little indie number it might be, but the shambling, barely audible charm of their self-titled debut seems to have been lost in the transition. Both tracks suffer from a desire to be discernibly poppy, but both forget that what made them originally popular was not the traditionally poppy route, but how they wove that into a more interesting framework. Take a comparative listen and see if I’m right (I am).

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Heart In Your Heartbreak (YSI)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – This Love Is Fucking Right (YSI)
Smith Westerns – Weekend (YSI)
Smith Westerns – Boys Are Fine (YSI)

So here we are, the final list, my five favourite albums of 2009, I do hope you’ve enjoyed my selections, and maybe found some new stuff for your mp3 players to eat up. Speak to you all soon!

5. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I

When I first listened to this latest effort from New York’s premier anti-folk troubadour/comic book artist I expected what I’d heard before in my brief forays into the Lewis back catalogue; gentle, off-centre ditties about charmingly witty and strangely perverse subjects. In fact, I was kind of wrong. For a start, a lot of this album is a lot louder than I expected it to be, with opener ‘Slogans’ blasting the whole affair into life in a whirl of Libertines-ey razorwire riffs whilst I actually found a lot of the subject matter to be charming and witty, but mostly conventional in its approach. And maybe that was the best way to really introduce me to Jeffrey Lewis, expect the unexpected. The album takes lyrical left turns throughout, with love songs to Greyhound buses (‘Roll Bus Roll’) giving way to existential musings (‘If Life Exists?’) before discussing how whistling prevents hearing corpses talk about you (‘Whistle Past The Graveyard’) whilst musically we’re met with folk ditties, Cake-style freakouts (‘The Upside-Down Cross’) and indie-punk anthems (‘Broken Broken Broken Heart’). It’s Lewis himself who makes this album what it is then, infusing every track with his own irrepressible charm and verve, not to mention his distinctive nasal whine (certainly not a bad thing, by the way). There’s just so much to be told on this album, you just want to hear what he’s telling you throughout, and it’s a storytelling experience as much as anything else and that’s what makes it quite so special.

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – Roll Bus Roll (YSI)

4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

Not having been alive in 1983, nor having done any kind of extensive research into the music of that time, all the talk about how POBPAH (lovely acronym that that is) are simply rehashing the famous C83 tape flies right over my head. I’ll tell you what I hear on this album – some unfairly talented young people making shimmering, occasionally loud, twee indie music in an almost perfectly-realised way. It doesn’t matter that this has been done before, and it certainly doesn’t matter that the band have done their research into what they want to sound like before they made their album, what matters is that this is one of those albums where every song feels like an old friend after one listen. And it’s the second listen that counts, where you realise for the first time just how well made all of these songs are. ‘Young Adult Friction’ is a gloriously sparking love song, ‘A Teenager In Love’ is quietly glimmering pop masterpiece whilst ‘Everything With You’ is a punk-flecked headbanger for kids in NHS specs, complete with a wonderfully out of place stadium rock guitar solo. If I was a bit younger and a bit further back in my relationship, this would be the perfect soundtrack for falling in love to.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Everything With You (YSI)

3. Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another

Future of the Left are quite likely the most menacing band I’ve ever heard. Menacing because they’re not balls-out terrifying like a death metal band, menacing because you can never quite tell whether they’re joking, menacing because there’s always the suspicion that they’re even angrier than they let on, and it might just all tumble out of your speakers and throttle you without you realising. And I love them for it. There’s something in that commitment to releasing your anger through music, but in no immediately obvious way that makes me smile. It seems the intelligent way to do it. Packing barely twelve songs into just over half an hour, this is a tightly-wound ball of aggression, taking in ‘The Hope That House Built’s barely-contained war march, hellish (PUN) anthem ‘You Need Satan More Than He Needs You’ and the spring-loaded punk of ‘Stand By Your Manatee’ before winding down with the spectacularly odd spoken-word explosion of ‘Lapsed Catholics’. It all seems like the perfect follow-up to Curses – it has all the same vitriol, the same mish-mash of the heavier genres and the same sense of deranged playfulness of subject, but something is lying there behind it all, differentiating it, with a bigger grin, and a bigger sense of something truly dangerous behind that grin.

Future of the Left – Chin Music (YSI)

2. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

This was, as any regualar readers will know, my most anticipated album of the year. After three EPs that I couldn’t get enough of and after experiencing them live, I really couldn’t freaking wait for Sigh No More. I was not to be disappointed. Choosing some of their best songs from the original EPs and surrounding them with some excellent new additions to the catalogue was a very good call, appeasing the fans with new material whilst showing new ones what they’ve been missing. This is a group who seem assured of their positions within each song at all times, using each instrument to full effect, and bringing every track to life with incredible precision. We all know they’re masters of the uplifting buildup by now, with tracks like ‘Winter Winds’, ‘The Cave’ and ‘White Blank Page’ all exhibiting that particular talent, but there’s a wealth of different styles on show here, with quieter tracks like the brooding ‘I Gave You All’ being given just as much space to breathe as its more ostentatious neighbours. Marcus’ beautiful keening vocals are another source of wonder, moving from scratching solos to taking its place amongst the rest of the band as they harmonise like nobody else. Not only that, but ‘Dust Bowl Dance’ showed room for expansion, embracing electric instruments and making an almighty racket with them. It has to be remembered that this is a debut album too, they may have had more experience than many new bands do when they recorded it, but for a band to put together such a coherent, beautiful record on their first try is nothing short of amazing, and their new-found larger fanbase is just reward for the hard work they’ve put in so far.

Mumford & Sons – White Blank Page (YSI)

1. The xx – xx

To be honest, this was probably the easiest choice of them all, but I still ask myself one big question whenever I think about this album – where the hell did it come from? In today’s world of leaks, Myspace fame and PR overload, how did The xx seem such an unassuming prospect until they hit us with xx? It was a miracle of timing and possibly purposeful mystery that brought the band to everyone’s attention at the same time, creating a singular (mainly bloggy) fervour to write about them just before the album came out and they played the summer festivals. It’s not just the mystery of their appearance that makes them incredible though, I’m still bowled over by just how assured a debut this is, particularly from teenagers with basically no experience or exposure to the world they were entering. And yet The xx have made an album that should be and, I imagine, is looked at with incredulity to think getting a better sound means adding more to it. These are eleven tracks of quiet, gloomy romance that have been picked back to their bare bones, skeletal reminders of what they could have been, and how unnecessary it would have been to fill them out. Songs like ‘VCR’ get by with so little instrumentation they could almost seem incomplete, but occasional touches of bass or the barest hints of synth high hats push them into their own uniquely quiet territory.

Romy and Oliver’s vocals are the real centre piece though, their interplay, weaving in and out of each other, joining together and overlapping is a masterclass in how boy-girl vocals needn’t be a gimmick or oppositional; they can act in symbiosis, saying the same things in different ways. The instruments act in a similar way, with quietly picked guitar parts following bass throbs while gentle synths wind their way around both. In ‘Heart Skipped A Beat’, the sparse drum machine dance beats lead the way, allowing for other instruments to make their way into the mix, quietly creating an almost imperceptible crescendo that disappears as quickly as it formed. It’s the Jamie Smith’s well-studied exercise in silence-as-production-technique that accentuates these moments, makes them important to the listener, and elevates the vocals above the rest – and it’s the silence rather than anything else that characterises this album. It’s an odd idea, but silence has been the only true new sound this year – almost everything else on this list can be traced back to someone elses’ music, but the silence on xx is so singular it becomes its own feature, and that’s why this album is the most important, and, more usefully, the best of the year.

The xx – Heart Skipped A Beat (YSI)

Just as a round-up, here’s the full list:

1. The xx – xx
2. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
3. Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another
4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
5. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ‘Em Are I
6. The Horrors – Primary Colours
7. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
8. Telekinesis – Telekinesis!
9. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
10. The Maccabees – Wall of Arms
11. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinsons – Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson
12. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
13. Hockey – Mind Chaos
14. Pull Toger Tail – PAWS.
15. Bombay Bicycle Club – I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose

Again, I seem to be a bit late to jump on the bloggy bandwagon here, and I still don’t know much about them but The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart are pretty good aren’t they? The one song I’ve properly heard enough to pass comment on is “Young Adult Friction”, a riproaring romp into twee-land.

The boy-girl vocals, upbeat tempo, happy-go-lucky organ and the general swing of the thing all adds up to a song that cannot help but make you jump around like a 6 year old who just got a dinosaur cake. There’ll always be comparisons to the Belle & Sebastian crowd, but it all adds up to create their own style, and one I’ll be wanting to hear more of.

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Young Adult Friction (YSI)