The Pains of Being Pure at Heart created quite a splash earlier this year with their much talked about self-titled debut, and critics were quick to lump the band in with vaguely similiar-sounding acts like Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls. The comparisons, though, based on the thin layer of fuzz the band draped over their songs, never felt apt. The melodies were too sugary sweet, the songs too overtly lovelorn and wistful to be bunched in with the latest crop of lo-fi rising stars.
The Higher Than the Stars EP, featuring four new songs and a remix of the title track by Saint Etienne, should end those comparisons. These four new songs are impeccably recorded, and frontman Kip Berman’s voice sounds so intimate and close it’s as if he’s whispering a secret into your ear. “Nostalgic” can be a cheap and easy word to use when describing a band like this, but the Pains, drawing heavily from ’80s indie-pop, excel at making you feel young and heartsick and yearning for someone.
“Higher Than the Stars” sounds a bit like Set Yourself on Fire-era Stars, another band intent on tugging at your heartstrings. Berman and keyboardist and co-vocalist Peggy Wang-East sing about keeping secrets from events in the back of someone’s car. It’s a seductive line fraught with emotion, one Saint Etienne narrows in on on their remix of the song.
“103” most closely resembles the tracks from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, with a simple guitar chord progression covered in woolly distortion. It’s short and a bit unmemorable, but the band hits pay dirt with “Falling Over,” a song featuring a guitar line Johnny Marr would be proud of. I almost expect Morrissey to start crooning over the bright, jangly instrumentation. Wang-East’s background vocals here are the secret weapon. She adds depth and emotion coming in behind Berman, a talent she has employed often over the course of the band’s brief discography.
The final new original song, “Twins,” underscores Kip Berman’s skill in turning an otherwise uncomplicated song into something memorable. The music behind him is uncomplicated, almost rudimentary, but he weaves a melody over it any ’80s pop band would be jealous of. The closer, the Saint Etienne remix of “Higher Than the Stars,” nearly double the length of the original, is terrific. It sounds like the soundtrack to sitting on a tropical beach on some faraway planet. Of course, Saint Etienne made their name doing this stuff like this, but it’s still thrilling to hear them manipulate the Pains’ earnest pop into a lush, steamy seaside jam. It’s a good partnership, one born out of both bands’ ability to create evocative, longing music.