FEATURE: The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Live at The Space, 11.18.14
by Chad Jewett
Thanks mostly to chance – or call it serendipity – The Pains of Being Pure At Heart played to a small but eager crowd on the coldest night of the year so far, in a space that looked like the ultimate Americana living room. For a band whose songs have always been at least a little bit about finding shelter from the hardest parts of the outside world, huddling for warmth in mock basement in a New England suburb felt archly apt. At one point singer Kip Berman, who remains one of the more gracious and earnest figures in indie rock, joked about the cold — about it being too freezing to want to leave the stage. You got the sense that everyone there actively wanted to be there. I only ever saw Berman manning the band’s merch table, taking time to sign each and every LP; again, a gesture of connection and appreciation that feels subtly radical and intangibly important.
And if sub-freezing temperatures, on the late-side of a Tuesday night, meant a whittled audience, that seemed right too. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have always exuded an aura of inclusivity that has to be discovered. You’re part of the club when you listen to them, but it’s small and self-selecting, even after the hype boom surrounding the band’s still-compelling self-titled debut. The band’s aesthetic frequently grasps for a back-of-the-record-stack dustiness, as if anticipating and skipping to a later date when you might come across one of their LPs and obsess over it. The group has always set to figuring how to replicate that feeling in the present tense. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s encoded nostalgia is a more subtle, poetic version of the sun-cracked license plates and old arcade game bumper stickers that litter The Space – the venue for Tuesday’s show – but that didn’t keep it from feeling like a more or less ideal setting.
The Pains’ set was largely balanced between their two finest albums: this year’s vastly underrated Days Of Abandon and their now-classic debut. Berman began the evening with the quiet, understated “Art Smock”, a fragile wisp of a song that works wonderfully as a sedate entre to Days Of Abandon’s bright pop, and worked a similar effect on stage. It’s a song that draws you in, playing on all the open space that The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart normally fill in with crisp, washed-out jangle. The rest of the LP benefitted from performance; album centerpiece “Eurydice” was bigger and more athletic, the song’s sweeping chorus gaining added punch from the band’s plucky harmonies, which could at times warp out of key, but charmingly so. The same goes for the sound mix, which left the guitars a slight bit anemic (an issue that also came up during The World Is A Beautiful Place’s set last month, and which might just be a reality of The Space’s acoustics), but which also gave the band’s set a scrappy, lean quality. Each bursting chorus had to fight to get there.
Jen Goma, who sings for the like-minded noise-symphonic A Sunny Day In Glasgow, was on hand to lend harmonies and handle lead vocals for several Days Of Abandon numbers. Her performance on the Supremes pastiche “Kelly” was especially good, and the band dug into the song’s Motown swing with relish. “Simple and Sure”, the album’s finest song and a number that scans like Berman’s attempt at The Smiths’ “Ask” (and who could blame him?), was more athletic — quicker and closer to the Buzzcocks-via-Beat-Happening orbit of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. If, on wax, Days Of Abandon plays as a precise, literate tour de force for the band, the live setting gave the album a different, more lean pulse – a sign of the flexible songs beneath Berman-and-company’s developing grasp of studio texture. Interestingly, the band’s sophomore LP Belong was largely absent from the set, with the exception of an effusive run through the album’s great title track. But feel free to take this as a good sign: that The Pains of Being Pure At Heart remain committed to the energy of their newest ideas and inspirations; that the band might further pursue the mix of hush and radiance that powers Days Of Abandon; that, really, three albums in, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have way more honest-to-god songs than you realize.