There are many reasons to be an Anglophile, many reasons to appreciate the relationship between Brit journalists and Brit musicians, and C86 epitomized them all. It was a cassette tape (really, how twee) packaged with an issue of the NME (which used to mean New Musical Express) in, yes, 1986. “Here,” said editors, “are the indie bands that could own the future. “Oh shit,” said listeners. “You are correct.” The tape began with “Velocity Girl,” a track from a band called Primal Scream, some sort of side project by the Jesus and Mary Chain’s drummer. It happened to feature one of the great jangle-guitar breaks of all time, and its authors would soldier on for — here I check my calendar — 29 years and counting. Its name would be nicked by a pretty okay American band with at least one great song (“I Can’t Stop Smiling”). And it was just the first fucking song.
My point is that British “indie bands” had a distinct style that influenced but was not fully supplanted by the Britpop of a few years later. It echoed American “power pop,” which by then had faded, in boppy sincerity and reliance on guitars over keyboards. My secondary point is that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are a self-consciously twee revival band that knocked around the Ouija board and summoned C86 sounds while adding very little of thir own. And there is nothing wrong with this. There is nothing wrong with music meant to be played at reasonable volume as a boy (probably with wispy beard) snoggles a girl (probably with an art history degree). It’s not very new; then again, people still pay to see new generations of tenors sing the same old operas.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (2009)
Best Song: “Young Adult Friction.”
Worst Song: “Hey Paul,” but the distance between the highs/lows is minimal.
Put the needle on and there are no illusions. “Contender” begins with feedback, as if the band has just plugged in or finished a song you’ll never hear. A distorted guitar comes in, being strummed at 4/4 time — D chord, G chord, D chord, G chord. Then comes the jangle, then the voice of Kip Berman sigh-singing about a romantic difficulty. “Look what you’ve done,” he goes. “Look what you’ve done. What do you have now?” By the time he gets to the chorus, there’s a female voice — that’s Peggy Wang, the very unobtrusive keyboard player — and the only suspense concerns when the drummer will count off and the song will explode.
That never happens. The rave-up only begins with “Come Saturday,” which was a single, as the licks and the “woo-woo-woo!” vocals should make clear. The intentions are almost clear now. You are in for a collection of songs ripped from some Manchester or Newcastle student center circa 1986. The guitar break on “Come Saturday” puts an exclamation point on the song without doing anything drastic. Pleasant music, no danger of blowing minds.
Then comes “Young Adult Friction,” and the skill of this band becomes apparent. It’s a perfect pop song, one of at least three on the record, getting the dynamics just right between a Buzzcocks drum pattern (go compare it to “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”), shimmering guitar chords, and teen-journal vocals. (It describes a hook-up in a library, “our bodies spent among the dust and the microfiche.”) The album keeps delivering songs like that, with Alex Naidus’s bass line sounding just too cool for everything around it, in immaculate C86 style. “Stay Alive” is a little quieter, but adds some Dream Syndicate-style synthesized bells. “A Teenager in Love” is… again, basically the same song, but it pulls off the quiet-quiet-loud trick you were expecting in the first place.
Best Song: “Even in Dreams”
Worst Song: “Anne with an E”
Well-l-l-l, look who discovered The Cure! Belong begins with the title track, an on-the-nose statement of intent from a band that’s already fairly blatant about its influences and view of rock history. There’s another burst of fuzz, except this time, it’s faded in, then interrupted by a ringing guitar riff, which is crushed like the baker’s wife by a Black Sabbath crunch riff. Back to the full band, fully committed now to a loud-quiet-loud song with a melody that can bear up to 100 tons.
The beauty part of being a revival band is that, theoretically, you can always vacuum up more influences and improve. That’s what TPoBPaH did, for a record that is song-for-song much better than the debut. The opening three-song suite of the title track, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and “Heart in Your Heartbreak” is immaculate; “Heavens Gonna Happen Now” has the band’s first guitar solo that can stack up next to “Velocity Girl.” Not RIGHT next to — maybe it’s Estonia, on the same Olympics winning platform as Canada. Again and again, from “My Terrible Friend” to “The Body,” the band builds a decent rhythm and slathers it with melodies and precious lyrics like “I want to hurt like it did before.”
It works. “Even in Dreams,” like “Young Adult Friction,” is an anthem that coheres everything good about the band’s style. The keyboards burble softly, the bass carries the melody, and the guitar plays at a nice, controlled buzz. Kip’s vocals are pushed to the front, falling into the mix only at the choruses, when a series of strangely tuneful air-raid sounds creep in. The weakest track is “Anne With an E,” which cops the “Be My Baby” drum-and-cymbals rhythm, which is the sort of thing you do if you have no intention of getting away with it. The song isn’t strong enough to grow beyond the influences. It’s the only one on the record of which that could be said.
Days of Abandon (2014)
Best Song: “Kelly”
Worst Song: “Beautiful You”
The Pains’ journey through the 1980s takes them out of the curated indie garden and into the sweaty gymnasiums of pure pop. This is not a bad thing. The fuzz is almost totally gone, smoothed away, no feedback even in the traditional album-intro time slot. No, this time, you are welcomed in with the acoustic bedsit musings of “Art Smock,” and it includes a spoiler of a lyric: “Like a Felt song, I’m off the throne.” This, as any anorak worth his raincoat could tell you, is a reference to the song “Dismantled King Is Off The Throne,” by the aforementioned Felt, and as earnest as that bad was they sound like goddamned Judas Priest next to the Pains.
Sorry for cursing: I’m not saying this music is bad. “Kelly,” with a rare female-led vocal, is a good example of the band’s new, learned softness. It bounces along with percussion that could have been dreamed up by Wham!, and with lyrics that suggest our heroes have been aging at Peter Pan’s pace: “Passed out on the train again, woke up at the end of the world.” When the band gets loud it does so with a trick like the one that starts “Simple and Sure,” a collection of cute glottal stops that turn into a sing-a-long. (That song was sold for a commercial, and it says something about me that I can recall a decades-old Felt track before I can remember which cell phone company licensed which indie rock popper.)
There are fine pop moments like that all over the record; the only suspense is in how the band arranges them. “Beautiful You” becomes a slog because it contains only as many ideas as “Coral and Gold” and stretches them over twice as much time. Seemingly every song has a moment in which the keyboards reproduce the sound of a far-away harp, and on a trifle like “Until The Sun Explodes,” it feels like the center of a pocket symphony.