Let’s take a quick history lesson for the artsy Chicago band California Wives. They formed in 2009, self-released an EP in 2010 to a fair amount of buzz, and started touring nationally. One of their biggest career highlights so far came last fall when Peter Hook, formerly of Joy Division/New Order, invited the band to open for him on the Chicago date of his tour demoralizing performing Joy Division’s Closer. Considering California Wives sound a lot like classic New Order, the selection made a lot of sense. After fully solidifying their lineup earlier this year, the band signed to Vagrant Records in the spring and began to prepare their debut full length album. The result is Art History, and like so many bands it features a collection of the best songs they’ve written since their earliest days. That means 4/5ths of the Affair EP is here, plus a bunch of stuff they’ve been performing for awhile now but have never officially recorded before. Producer Claudius Mittendorfer (Interpol, Neon Indian) helped the band reinvent their sound a bit though, and as a result even the stuff you might otherwise have been familiar with is tweaked in such a way that it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again. Songs like “Blood Red Youth” and “Purple” get 30-60 seconds chopped off their runtimes in the interest of being more concise. Some of the more jangly guitar parts and heavy bass lines get whitewashed over or placed further back in the mix to streamline the songs just a bit more too. The New Order comparisons aren’t quite so apt anymore, though they retain that ’80s sheen thanks to the heavy use of synths. Now they’re probably best classified as The Cure filtered through the more modern lens of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. That works well enough for them, as Art History winds up being a day-glo pop journey that satisfies at every turn with melodies and hooks that will get stuck in your head for days. The highlights are mostly carryovers from the Affair EP, and they’re spread out generously across the album, making minor moments like “Los Angeles” and “Better Home” seem like better songs because they’re sandwiched in between two great ones. A couple brand new songs like “Marianne” and “The Fisher King” do well on their own too, with the former perhaps making the band’s strongest single to date. So yes, there are plenty of things to love about this album. There are also some not-so-great things too. Creatively speaing, Art History doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it even try to. It is by all accounts a very “safe” record, and that lack of exploration can make you feel like you’ve heard some of these songs before and done better. While many of these songs have memorable hooks, you’re sometimes left wondering if they stick with you because they’re genuinely good or simply because they repeat them so many times. How many times, you ask? Well, in the nearly four minutes that are “Tokyo,” the hook hits you 10 times. On “Twenty Three” that grand total is 8. Both are quite a bit higher than average, and that’s just two examples of many on the album. And while they don’t have to abide by traditional song structures to make an impact, the lack of a bridge in pretty much every song is just a little confounding too. What Art History amounts to in the end is a promising debut from a band that needs more time to develop and find their own niche. These songs are superficially pleasing enough to build a strong worldwide audience for California Wives, and if popularity is what they want it’s within their reach. As for critical acclaim, that one’s going to take some work.
Tag: the pains of being pure at heart
Some of the greatest things about becoming successful are the opportunities that come your way as a result. Two years ago, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart earned themselves a huge wave of buzz thanks to their self-titled debut album. As you need to do when being the recipient of such praise, they followed their record with extensive touring and a couple of stopgap releases to keep everyone from forgetting about them. So an EP and a 7″ single later, POBPAH have readied their sophmore full length “Belong”, and this time things are different. They’re still signed to one of the more decidedly indie record labels around in Slumberland, but that doesn’t mean the record sounds that way. The ultra lo-fi haze that hung over their debut has been cleaned up significantly this time around courtesy of a 1-2 heavyweight combo of uber-producer Flood and uber-mixologist Alan Moulder. Those two are basically a dream team for the band, given their long history helping make some of their favorite records by some of their favorite bands – from My Bloody Valentine and Ride to The Smashing Pumpkins and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Together they’ve been responsible for more than a dozen classic records, and the hope is probably that “Belong” will wind up among them.
The change in The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is immediately noticeable from the very first notes of “Belong”, leading straight out of the gate with a broad, energetic and fun title track. Granted, POBPAH have always been those three things, just a little hazier and with a more “head down” mentality prior to now. Here not only are the guitars more polished, but so are Kip Berman’s vocals and the hook. This newer, fuller and more confident version of the band comes across like an announcement of purpose – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are going mainstream. Listen to the next two tracks on the album, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and the irrepressably catchy first single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” and those implied notions of going huge become that much more vivid. It also creates something of a debate amongst the independent music community about crossover acts and the consistent shunning of them. Embrace Kings of Leon when they put out “Youth and Young Manhood”, but patently reject them when “Sex On Fire” catapults them to fame and fortune. Just the use of the word “mainstream” has a taint to it, like bands that wear it are polluted with some sort of fungus. The thing about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart though, is that they’ve not yet reached the point of success on a massive scale. “Belong” sounds like it’s trying really hard to though, but before you have an adverse reaction to the thought, take under consideration that success on your own terms and from a tiny label such as Slumberland is an accomplishment thousands of bands can only dream of.
More importantly, the wealth of hooks and sheen on this record, translating to a super-easy-to-digest sound, only helps The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Instead of hindering their intentions, “Belong” finally feels like the first time they’re actually able to fully realize their sound. Underneath the haze and shy demeanor of their debut was this juggernaut, and now its legitimately exposed. Not only that, but the songwriting has improved this time around too. Instead of implying a number of things and leaving the listener to reach their own conclusions, we get direct references and things spelled out, though never to the point of treating us with kid gloves. These are songs that feel personal and upfront rather than colder and mysterious, and that’s a great thing. With that also comes the risk of running afoul by being too vanilla or alternatively too conceptually strident, and this record has only a couple of those moments. Everything else is above board and smartly written, in line with all the other elements at work here. The slower ballads like “Even in Dreams” and “Too Tough” particularly stand out lyric-wise, mostly due to their under-reliance on hooks to get their point across and the necessary drama to warrant toning down the upbeat charm that’s pretty much everywhere else.
Given that Flood and Alan Moulder (many times in tandem) were responsible for some of the best records of the 90s and since The Pains of Being Pure at Heart take many of their influences straight from that decade, the coming together of all these parties was divinely inspired. “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” comes across like a direct decendent of Ride, while closing cut “Strange” bears a strong resemblance to the more pop-friendly side of My Bloody Valentine. Slices of shoegaze mixed with slacker rock and heartbreak pop congeal to make for a very special record that’s wildly interesting and majorly successful. The real shame would be if this album didn’t score POBPAH the exact things they seem to be aiming for, which is tons of radio airplay, placement in commercials, and a devoted fanbase of millions. Prior to this they were just indie darlings, but here they’ve proven they can play in the same league with the big dogs and do it better than most of them to boot. So long as they don’t fall prey to the pitfalls that normally handicap great indie bands that blow up huge (sign to a major label, give in to “pressure” to change, show no love to their earliest fans, etc.), things will be a-ok. Otherwise, we might wind up living out the heartbreaking tale that is “Anne with an E”.