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"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 early 2009, grew into summer festival fare, fielding comparisons to the Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain. An EP out last September, Higher Than the Stars, brought a more stratospheric direction and a dozen more band names to reference.
Two years ago, Berman began 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 when the quartet was given a handshake deal ("more of a bear hug, really").
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Slumberland — sort of the East Coast answer to twee-pop pioneer K — put out the debut and a few spinoff singles, the most notable being the excellently titled "Young Adult Friction," supposedly concerning library sex. But when nudged about it, Berman is 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 the titular inamorata in the lyrics of "A Teenager in Love" — " 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 those ominous leanings (which buoy their teensploits from lapsing into, say, M83's Sweet Valley High nostalgia), the bandmates 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 in a while.
"It's almost like an ethos," Berman says. "You can't be half-assed if your band name is the Pains of Being Pure at Heart."