In Brooklyn, the epicenter of all things hip these days, the new-old thing of '09 is noise-pop, re-championed by a fresh batch of the borough's most huggable punks. First it was the Vivian Girls, then Crystal Stilts and now we get the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, an affable gang of distortion-loving pop tarts who've had critics recalling cult heroes like the Field Mice, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Black Tambourine.
"It's been incredibly surprising," says Pains singer-guitarist Kip Berman, referring to the overwhelmingly positive reviews of his band's eponymous debut. "I mean, our standard for success had basically been like [the D.C. band] Black Tambourine — having 12 people care and hopefully caring very sincerely. That's obviously been exceeded now. But when we started out, it wouldn't be unusual to see maybe six or seven people at our shows. And we were psyched about that! If anybody cared, we were happy. So what's happened now — it's a surprise, but definitely not taken for granted whatsoever."
Of all the influences routinely cited in the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's sound, Black Tambourine might be the least known but the most significant. An early- '90s, D.C.-area quartet, Black Tambourine never released a full-length album, and they broke up before embarking on a proper tour. With historical context, though, they became legends of noise-pop — a faux genre of sorts that blends punk aesthetics with bubblegum melodies and thick feedback. With these parallels in mind, it comes as little surprise that former Black Tambourine (and Velocity Girl) guitarist Archie Moore served as the mixing engineer on the Pains' album.
"We were really psyched to work with [Moore]," says Berman, "because he was in these bands that we admired so much, and he's a lot more capable mixing engineer than we would have been on our own. In the studio, though, our main goal was just to sound like us. We didn't want to be artificial or phony or try to do anything that wasn't natural to us. We just wanted to record these songs that we wrote and loved, and let them stand on their own."
The Pains aren't keen on being pigeonholed as revivalists, but part of their reputation as such is a result of their own actions, such as signing to Slumberland Records — the iconic former home to many of the band's noise-pop predecessors.
"Once Slumberland showed interest in releasing the album, there was no second thought in our minds," says Berman. "The label has such a strong history of releasing amazing American pop music, including a lot of bands we loved growing up. But even more than that, they're releasing great music by current bands like Crystal Stilts and Cause Co-Motion! I think the Slumberland people are just genuine music fans, and they've done everything they can to support the artists they believe in, so we're very fortunate to be a part of that."
All things considered, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are living the pop geek's dream. Berman — along with keyboardist/singer Peggy Wang, bassist Alex Naidus and drummer Kurt Feldman — started the band as somewhat of a fan-boy novelty in 2007, but to their credit, their music has never drifted from homage into straight copycatism. They can craft a hook with the best of them, and their high-energy shows leave the crowd wanting more. The only question is, will the Pains' reverence for a band like Black Tambourine entice them to vanish as quickly as they appeared?
"I suppose we could try to solidify our status by committing band suicide, so to speak," says Berman. "But that's not really our style. We're having a really good time playing music and plan to keep doing so. So you shouldn't worry about us!"