On the heels of their debut eponymous album, released in 2009, Brooklyn quartet The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have rightfully earned themselves a reputation as masters of the peerless pop song, crafting tender, melancholy gems which shimmered and sighed with the wistful promise of new love, casting a spell over listeners and critics alike.
Which brings us to “Belong”. For this, their second album, The Pains of Being Pure Heart have recruited the services of what, on the surface of it, seems like two unlikely conspirators, in the form of master producer Flood and renowned mixer Alan Moulder. Only a few seconds into the title track however, and it makes perfect sense. Having worked with the legendary likes of My Bloody Valentine, U2, Smashing Pumpkins and PJ Harvey (to name but a few) between them, they have opened up the band’s beautifully self-contained sound and made it vast and magnificent, banishing once and for all any associations to “lo-fi” and bringing it into heretofore unmapped widescreen dimensions. Not that they have abandoned what made them so special in the first place however – quite the opposite. Everything seems more vivid, more lush and spacious now; the emotion heightened, more potent. The majestic “The Body” gallops along and goes deeper, darker than they ever have, painting a bleak portrait of decaying relationships, “Too Tough” is one of the most wrenching, yearning songs they’ve written to date, while previous single “Heart In Your Heartbreak”, with its handclaps, infectious chorus and late-breaking synth stabs, sounds like the very essence of bittersweet romance.
The new single meanwhile, is also the title track, and sounds positively anthemic, with buzzsawing, Smashing Pumpkins-circa-Gish guitars slicing intermittently through Pains’ beautifully jangling wall of noise. And even though it comes equipped with hooks to spare and an infectious climax of “we don’t belong”, the sweet melodies bely its acute study of restlessness and human (dis)connection (“What to do/ nothing new/ we’ve tried each other/ let’s try another”, Berman sighs at one point) and manages to lodge itself in the listener’s brain long after its short but sweet running time is over.
Taken in total, it adds up to a glorious vision of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – vibrant and expansive, more muscular and complex to be sure, but without losing any of the fragile beauty and inimitable charm that marked them out in the first instance. We simply cannot wait to see what the next phase will bring.
You know that indie kid who would mumble through his bangs and stare at his Doc Martens? The one who came back from winter break with a swagger and a few hickeys? This Brooklyn band has gone through the same transformation — its sound is now massive enough to match its big-hearted emotion. On the Pains' second album, Kip Berman's voice floats atop layers of guitar fuzz; think early Smashing Pumpkins or "Friday I'm in Love" Cure. As punk love songs go, it's hard to top "Anne With an E," where he sighs, "Take your sweater off and wear your spikes again."
The 2009 self-titled debut from Brooklyn indie darling the Pains of Being Pure at Heart tends to bring out a polarized reaction: Fans adore it, but others find it overly twee and reverent for the '80s and '90s indie bands that so obviously inspired it. But both camps will agree that it didn't even hint at "Belong," a startlingly confident, poised and powerful rock album that could well vault the Pains of Being Pure at Heart into the big time. A key element in this transformation is production/ mixing team Flood and Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, U2, PJ Harvey, My Bloody Valentine, Sigur Rós, the Smashing Pumpkins). But the sound isn't the only thing arena-sized on "Belong." The band has pulled on some boots and leather pants (figuratively speaking), toning down the twee and slowing down the tempos, making the hooks bigger and letting the riffs linger, particularly on the anthemic "Even in Dreams," the sunshine burst of the title track and the heartstring-tugging closer "Strange." The 10-track set barely has a weak moment and actually ends too soon. It's like '90s alt-rock had a child who suddenly grew up beautiful.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart landed with a bookish and fuzzy aesthetic, the sound of ace indie pop students mimicking their heroes. Yet the band has been forthcoming in their love of crossover alternative rock, and on their second LP, Belong, Pains link up with Flood and Alan Moulder, the superproducers who manned the boards for a number of 90s titans-- Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Depeche Mode, and PJ Harvey just to name a few. Coming after a scrappy, low-profile debut, this is the sort of power move that used to have cred-conscious listeners crying "sell-out!" (remember that word?), but fortunately, Belong is a bigger, bolder, and brighter follow-up that adds new dimensions to the Pains' sound while nearly equaling the songwriting of their debut.
The first three tracks on Belong-- the title track, "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now", and "Heart in Your Heartbreak"-- make up the strongest run the Pains have put together. That's in large part because, while they feature the seamless verse-chorus-bridge transitions the debut had in spades, they sound like actual 90s alt-rock radio hits. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart wasn't as lo-fi as it was often made out to be, but it didn't allow for the thrilling deluges of fuzz or the punchy clarity on this opening trio of tracks. Later, Pains nudge themselves slightly out of their comfort zone, replicating the motorbike roar of JAMC on "Girl of 1,000 Dreams" or the bliss of My Bloody Valentine on "Strange".
Even with their shiny makeover, the most noticeable alteration is that Kip Berman is no longer just a lead singer-- he's a frontman as well. While maintaining his soft, lisping lilt, he's now much higher in the mix, giving the singalong hooks of "Heart in Your Heartbreak" and "Too Tough" an underlined emphasis. His lyrics are also more inclusive; he's dropping the puns and arch prose of its predecessor for magnanimous songs about you, we, and us. But this newfound stress on speaking directly to the listener doesn't come without its awkward growth spurts: It's worth questioning whether striving for the perfect chorus at times comes at the cost of fully thought-out verses. The group's momentum also gets occasionally jarred by a stray lyric that can be overreaching or undercooked.
And yet, even the dodgiest lyrics on Belong don't really come off as pandering to me so much as a reminder of the margin for error inherent in a move this brave and necessary. Having dabbled in brighter production and a Saint Etienne remix on their Higher Than the Stars EP, it was evident that the Pains were trying to figure an exit strategy from a narrow, reverent sound they utterly nailed the first time around. And considering the game plans of recent New York bands that faced the same struggle-- either buy time by repeating themselves (like the Strokes or Interpol) or screw the pooch with a charmless, big-budget disaster (like the Strokes or Interpol)-- it's no small achievement that Belong transcends its time-coded sound as expertly as their self-titled did. (8.2, Best New Music)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart often resemble the 120 Minutes generation's most earnestly obsessive latchkey kids, poring over the Clinton-era's finest gilded guitar fuzz and downer pop and reconfiguring it all into the swooniest band Dave Kendall never got to introduce.
Their self-titled full-length was like the Jesus and Mary Chain if they got stoned in a basement and just wanted to cuddle, with sharper hooks than most of the lo-fi set. For Belong, they step up in class with producers Flood and Alan Moulder, who have overseen alt-classics from Depeche Mode's Violator to PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love. The pair give Peggy Wang's keyboards a widescreen "I Melt With You" swoon and remind the rhythm section that My Bloody Valentine could be a dance band. Hilariously, the biggest beat ended up on "The Body," which concerns feeling too awkward in one's skin to enjoy anything, which is perfect.
Frontman Kip Berman's guitars get the arena shoegaze treatment as well, with stacks of black-hole implosions and whale-moaning riffs. His lyrical scope has also widened, from simply hiding away to building a place for all the misfits. Or as he puts it on the album's closer, "I can tell you're strange like me." How '90s of him.
On its 2009 debut, this blog-beloved Brooklyn combo paid overt homage to a bunch of indie-pop bands many of its college-age fans were too young to experience firsthand: the Field Mice, Velocity Girl, the Jesus and Mary Chain. That vintage inspiration still looms throughout "Belong," the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's sophomore disc; you can hear it in the way frontman Kip Berman elongates his breathy vocal melodies and in his passive-aggressive attitude toward grown-up romance.
Yet with its pulsating rhythms and swirling guitars, "Belong" also updates the Pains' sound with (slightly) fresher flavors: "Heavens Gonna Happen Now" shimmers like Bob Mould's early-'90s group Sugar, while the title track wouldn't sound more like the Smashing Pumpkins if it came from L.A.'s Silversun Pickups. Some of the credit for this unexpected expansion should probably go to the band's production team of Flood and Alan Moulder, who've made their names working on high-end records by Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and — oh, yeah — the Smashing Pumpkins.
But Berman and his bandmates also play more purposefully here than they did on their debut, as though the bigger arrangements finally provided the shy-guy contrast they'd been looking for. Their move toward muscle feels genuine.
They say that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart came out-of-nowhere to release their self-titled debut in 2009. While this isn't true, it would be an act of tepid historicism to go on and on writing about the splendours of their self-titled EP from 2007, from which "This Love Is Fucking Right!" and "Hey Paul" were re-recorded for the debut album, and the two split 7" singles they made in 2008 with the Parallelograms and Summer Cats. Luckily for the innards of our ears, getting to grips with the band's biography is kind of important, so we can trace their progress from the macrobiotic noise pop of their early material to the golden thrashing nu-gaze sound of Belong. That's not to say, though, that the band have forgotten where they came from. Professing their undying faith in the dated glamour of the 7" format, and named after an unpublished children's story, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart tap into all our deepest twee-as-fuck fantasies, clad in an oversized knitted jumper and brandishing a battered old copy of Emile and the Detectives.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart EP was rough and ready, a slipshod slingshot firing off clanking, saliva-swapping, pop songs. However, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart LP was nothing short of a pocket-sized miracle. It sounded like a lost college rock classic: all dreamy, shimmering guitars promising to find little silver linings behind Kip Berman's overcast sighs. Perfect pop trinkets like "Come Saturday", "Young Adult Friction" and "Stay Alive" were somehow both pretty and perturbing, a warped and coquettish take on shoegaze, twee pop and the noisier end of what we can (just about) call indie.
The band worked well enough to get good grades in both the "mainstream" and the "underground" music press. And while this inevitably compounded all those wheezing, spluttering media diagnoses of Difficult Second Album
Syndrome, the standalone single "Say No to Love" from last year robbed that fear mongering of its potency. Lucky, then, that they were given the all clear by über-producer Flood and mix-master Alan Moulder in the recording of Belong.
Flood is responsible for the Rococo rock opera of Smashing Pumpkins' Melon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, the forlorn allure of Depeche Mode's Violator, and the 14 concentric circles of angst that was The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. Moulder, meanwhile, has worked with My Bloody Valentine on their Glider and Tremolo EPs, and Smashing Pumpkins on Siamese Dream. They're a formidable production team, no doubt, and they certainly put their own spin on Belong: this is a more animated, more audacious, Pains than we have ever heard before.
Belong is a giddy swoon of swirling guitars and big, bold choruses. Glistening, sleek, it has big ambitions that it announces in cooing little confessions. Bits of it sound more like Sugar ("Girl of 1,000 Dreams", the last stirring chorus of "Even in Dreams") or, yes, Siamese Dream-era Pumpkins ("Heaven's Gonna Happen Now", "Belong"), than Black Tambourine or the Pastels. It's overflowing with drifting dream pop elegies, and it has the confidence to not only dream of outer space (as on 2009's Higher Than the Stars EP), but to build a rocket out of cardboard and tin-foil and to have a good go at reaching them itself. Indeed, Belong isn't an album worried about the prospect of pricking its finger on the serrated edges of the stars, like Carl Sagan leafing through a Dorling Kindersley book about being an astronaut.
Belong is relieved of the squalid lo-fi strumming, the squealing guitars, and the mushed keys that once obscured Kip Berman's vocals on, say, the debut's "Gentle Sons". Instead, on "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now", they are replaced by a more controlled use of feedback scrawls used to express something big and bright and wide, instead of being a purely functional noise pop signifier. And on "Heart in Your Heartbreak", "The Body", and "Even in Dreams", Peggy Wang's synths are majestic, like a church organ playing out the praises of our favourite new wave songs. Gone too is the Roger McGuinn jangle present on songs like "Stay Alive" and "The Tenure Itch". On "Belong", "The Body", and "My Terrible Friend", it's replaced with a puckering, overdriven ecstasy as if the Pains are really relishing the scope provided by Flood and Moulder.
Ultimately, Belong is a concept album about the struggle to make eye contact with someone who you're think is unaware of your existence. Opener "Belong" fades in with a dulled flash of feedback, initiating these longing glances, but looking away as quickly as possible in a flurry of distortion. "Anne With an E" is the sound of self-reflection wracked by 12-stringed doubt, of a nervous interior monologue conducting its own romantic inquisition. "Girl of 1,000 Dreams" is that interrogation's distorted aftermath. It's upbeat, with tiny traces of manic punkish bouncing as a response to the pains of unrequited love. "Too Tough" is the back end of a weirdly quixotic version of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle: acceptance.
But, by closer "Strange", all parties are magically pardoned. Everyone is redeemed. It turns out that the love object also likes My Bloody Valentine, dusty old bookshops and acts of mild, totally ironic, vandalism. And guess what? They like you too. When it's finished, you'll probably need to sigh, to catch your breath against the breeze, to accommodate your disbelief at your own damn luck.
Then again, Belong isn't going to be everyone's cup of ethically-sourced vegan tea. It's probably too precious for its own good, a sort of gelded pastel-coloured blur of embarrassed smirks and misread intentions. But, then again, such criticism would ignore how super close they come to making perfect, unapologetically simple, pop songs. And we've been sorely missed that sort of stuff for quite some time. In era hell-bent on pornographic, hyper rational, techno-networking, where we'd be led to believe that every day was Halloween, and that marketing was the most important thing in the whole wide world, we've been forced to forget about the simple things. The sole purpose of artists like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart is, of course, to remind us that nothing could be further from the truth, that the simple things are definitely the best: things like French stationery products, hearing about your loved one's pre-teen low self-esteem, and sitting on faux-leather sofas giggling at Kate Beaton's Hark A Vagrant.
Like memories of unkept promises, and the tension between lust and mistrust weathered by long periods of painstakingly verbose overanalysis, Belong is drowned in melancholy. It catches itself between getting a masochistic kick out of moping and anticipating the delirious rush of sweetness that comes from its resolution. It's an irresistible confection, a document of cherry-flavoured kisses, of social inadequacy, of general brow-beaten oddities captured in the most wide-eyed romantic monologue this side of a teenage Tumblog. And you can't really argue with that, can you?
Two years on since their celebrated, self-titled debut The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart return with second long-player Belong. Ok, so they haven't reinvented the wheel, but does it really matter? This is a fine record, guarantee to dazzle in a live setting. Unsurprisingly, the ace production team of Flood and Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails) tinkered a little. The uncompromising distortion, noticeable on TPOBPAH's debut, is toned down somewhat, without discarding the fuzzy edge and twee tendencies that made them so distinctive in the first place.
To simply classify Belong as 'noise pop', though, is doing it a massive disservice. On face value it's relatively uncomplicated and generously peppered with the substantive influence of grunge and early shoegaze. Instantly gripping, noisy and hook-laden, it bursts forth with all the effervescence of emotionally charged adolescence. Opener 'Belong' begins like a gentle breeze then rapidly descends into flurry of crunchy guitars. However, it's something of an anomaly when compared with the record as a whole. Like a long-lost B-side from the Siamese Dream vault, the song's mood, structure and sound strongly evoke the Smashing Pumpkins in their early Nineties pomp. Is this cynical targeting of trend-conscious, cool kids eager for that Nineties revivalist sound? Maybe it's simply the heavy hand of the veteran production team? Either way, this blatant aping doesn't extend beyond the icebreaker. From there on, the album sparkles with true integrity.
Its enthralling combination of anthemic chord progressions set against Kip Berman and Peggy Wang's wistful, whispery vocals is inspired; each hum-along blast the perfect soundtrack to the heartbreaking lyrical narrative. The album drips with the atmosphere of nostalgia, tales of blissful, youthful romance and failed liaisons, all wrapped up in a dramatic, soaring chorus. Granted, the music rarely strays from its trustworthy template, but it retains interest due to the unfailing quality of songwriting.
Amongst the many highlights is the misdirected teen torment of 'Heart In Your Heartbreak'. It's truly compelling stuff, decorated with jangling guitars, sweet choral melodies, moody synth and a driving, four-to-the-floor drum/bass rock structure. The fantastic 'Even In Dreams' reels you in with its gentle synth/guitar progression before gushing forth in a glorious, thunderous clatter. Kip's mournful vocals are met head-on in a noisy, guitar led, tour de force, the calmly passionate chorus, "Even in dreams, I could not betray you", soaring majestically above the instrumental fuzz. Sure, it doesn't all dazzle like the aforementioned, but then again not much does. All in all, Belong is a blast of pure alt-pop excellence from a band moving effortlessly in the right direction. (9/10)
Kip Berman's heart has been broken, and he's doing what any brooding indie-pop frontman would do to deal with it—he's taken to his guitar and commissioned his bandmates to console him through song. Belong is Berman's coming to terms with his sad state accompanied by fellow Pure At Heart musicians Peggy Wang, Alex Naidus and Kurt Feldman doing their best to cheer him up. But never fear, this story has a happy ending.
Calling on both well-known and unknown influences for its sophomore full-length, the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart brings back memories of the Cure, the Pretenders, the Smiths and the Smashing Pumpkins, among more obscure references. Still incorporating a bit of the fuzz that defined its first release, the group has opted for more crisp production amid air-like vocals on Belong.
It's this contrast that defines the album, which Berman wrote about feeling out of place. While the guitars, bass and drums are heavy and hard-hitting through most of the album, Berman's vocals remain almost nonchalant and light while conveying his heartfelt messages. His voice is a mix of Billy Corgan and Morrissey that never quite matches what his predecessors' did in terms of power.
Lead single "Heart In Your Heartbreak" is a combination of the catchy indie pop from the group's previous releases and Berman's witty lyrics and wordplay. Berman sings, "She was the heart in your heartbreak/She was the miss in your mistake," following a Smiths-like melody while Wang's synth soars over top. The bass stars on this track, breaking from its repetitive line at the end of each phrase. But it's Feldman's drumming that drives each song with an infectious beat. He shines most on "Even In Dreams," where the drums take a surprise turn in the song's pre-chorus, then continue to plow through the rest of the tune.
Berman finally opens up his voice on "Girl Of 1,000 Dreams," his aggression accentuated by an especially fuzzy guitar and percussion that's dominated by bass and snare. Though the shortest on the album, the track is one of the best since the group is finally letting us in beyond its "everything's OK, I'll just sing about it" façade. Despite the heartbreak overtones, Belong is not a depressing or down-tempo album. It remains upbeat and concludes in a manner that ties up the loose ends of the story, all while raiding your new-wave album collection for inspiration.
Two things are apparent after the first listen of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart's Belong. The first is that they have never heard of a sophomore slump. The second is that they must love John Hughes movies. Belong is still shoegazy enough to satisfy those thrilled by the genre revival that POBPAH helped usher in while also sounding like the ideal soundtrack to a lost brat pack flick. The first three tracks dare you to sit still and "Anne With An E," is a classic high school movie slow dance number. It's easy to say now, without the benefit of time, but this album sounds transcendent. It could be as comfortably heard in a dance club as on college radio. It is sincere and sappy without segueing into cheesy. It's an album a macho guy could be embarrassed to like if it wasn't so damn good. Their debut was the best album of 2009 and, while it is very early, Belong may be the best album of 2011. OK, I'm going to stop gushing now. This album brings out the sap in me.
The Pains' new songs are as humble and catchy as ever but boast a crisper, heavier sound, which isn't hurt by the big-time Brit pop production team of Flood and Alan Moulder. There's nothing cute, quaint, or half-ass about its second LP's bold mix, which seems right for a group that has grown out of its DIY roots and has become as big as many of the the classic new wave and misfit indie bands that it cites as influences. Possibly as big as Teenage Fanclub ever got yet nowhere near New Order at its peak, they balance somber lyrics with exuberant keyboards, jangly guitars with fuzzed-out bass, and remain as honest and exposed as can be on the other side of world-class knob tuning. "Sadness hurts, and that's okay," one song goes, and that's especially true when it sounds as gorgeous, lush, and realized as this.
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart have always been a band defined by their influences. Their much hyped 2009 debut was steeped in the sounds of the 90s. It was a scrappy, blissful affair about being young and being in love, which tempered the abrasive qualities of shoegaze of bands like Ride and Black Tambourine, with the twee sensibilities The Field Mice and The Pastels. The album had that rare quality of sounding familiar yet fresh, and on their sophomore LP Belong they've extended that sound even further.
Extended isn't the right word though. Perhaps tightened would be more appropriate. For Belong- the band recruited legendary producer Flood, a man whose producing credits read like a who's who of 90s alternative music. Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and My Bloody Valentine, it's a pretty impressive resume, and from the first squall of feedback on the title track of Belong, you can hear his influence.
There is more space between the instruments than on POBPAH's first album, the guitars sound cleaner, more defined. It seems that every element of the track has a definitive purpose. The noisier elements of their music no longer seem like a texture or an aesthetic choice, they're a way to create emotion, like the hazy peaks and builds on stunning ballad 'Anne With An E' or Jesus and Mary Chain soundalike 'Girl of 1000 Dreams.'
With obvious help from Flood, POBPAH have expanded their musical palette to embrace elements of grunge rock. The searing guitars on Belong and the following track 'Heaven's Gonna Happen Now' wouldn't sound out of place Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Lead single 'The Heart in Your Hearbreak' shows how far the band has come. The track has everything; chiming guitar lines, bass breakdowns, Kip Berman's breathy vocals, awesome puns about love, a huge, smile inducing chorus, and all in under four minutes. It's hard to imagine them producing a track so well structured, with such glistening production, when they first appeared.
Thankfully though the band still sounds as bright and vital as they did two years ago. The choruses are still huge, cathartic, the harmonies as gooey as ever. They still sing about teen dreams and breaking up and getting back together, and it's still pretty brilliant. Album closer 'Strange' is a perfect example. It's all swirling guitars and pounding drums, Berman's soothing croon and Peggy Wang's soaring keyboards. It's a sad song, but not in a depressing way. Of course, the influences are there for all to see and yet the sound is completely their own.
POBPAH would have been teenagers in the 90s. They would have been living the songs that they sing about. And while their music's matured, it's refreshing that they still sound so young, like they haven't grown up.
Consequence Of Sound
Very much to their own surprise and delight, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were one of the biggest breakthrough bands of 2009. Their self-titled debut is a testimony to awkward adolescence, and in an Internet age where band names usually intertwine with the genres they associate with, theirs was spot-on: an emotional, melancholic entity focused on heartbreak and coming of age. With a devotion to capture that 80′s dream pop context, Pains were painstakingly indie, coming out on a label with a history as vital to the movement as Slumberland, and most likely to appeal to the hard-line indie kids in Brooklyn who were just as depressed and confused as they were.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is far from alternative rock; it's a nostalgic album soaked in reverb and recorded with a drum machine rather than an actual drummer, reeking of that bedroom indie pop candescence. When the band announced that their sophomore full-length would be produced and mixed by two of the greatest 90′s rock icons, needless to say the entire hipster community was a tad bewildered. Supporters of the group would fear that gargantuan producers like Flood and Alan Moulder (PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins) would alter the band's aesthetic and result in a sound unlike the heart-soaked jangles that comprised their debut. Fear not, devoted fans, for Belong, though certainly louder and bolder than its predecessor, is still indubitably Pains, a natural progression that finds them continuing to ponder heartaches, dreams, and love affairs while displaying a confidence and maturity that hitherto did not seem possible.
Belong opens with the title track, a sure ode to Smashing Pumpkins circa Siamese Dream, frontman Kip Berman presenting themes of uncertainty and solitude as he did on the debut, but over noisier guitar riffs: "I know it is wrong, but we just don't Belong/In their eyes, in the sun, no we just don't Belong." The track sets you up for the premise beset here; whereas, Pains of Being Pure at Heart was undoubtedly 80s dream pop, Belong takes the best parts of that merged with a 90s intricacy that screams alternative rock. Didn't see that coming. The band's coming-of-age motif and tales of perplexed teenage-hood continue to dwell. On "The Body", Berman sings, "Tell me again what the body's for/Cause I can't feel it anymore/I want to hurt like it did before/We shouldn't sin."
Unlike their debut, the band had ample time to focus on songwriting and construction, experimenting with new repertoire during live performances, picking and choosing which songs captured what they were trying to achieve. It shows. Belong is not about Pains maturing into adulthood, nor do they desert their visions of startled innocence; the indie dream pop explication continues to play a very vital role here. The difference is the disparity between songs, the little, seemingly irrelevant sounds revisited anew. On their debut, the transitions between cuts were barely noticeable and at times, musically, it felt redundant. Belong forces you to notice, moving from the dangling indie pop of "My Terrible Friend" to a power jam like "Girls of 1000 Dreams". Pains still cater to those indie kids in Brooklyn that fell in love with them back in 2007 when they released their self-titled EP, but certainly thanks to Flood and Alan Moulder's involvement in shaping this record into something grander and livelier, their music reaches brand-new heights and can appeal to a much broader audience.
In a recent interview with Stereogum, Berman and Co. discussed Flood's involvement and their aspirations for the new record. "We didn't want him to make us sound like a 'big' rock band. We didn't want to iron out all of our rough edges. In the end, he was really into the ways in which we are bad at playing music, and he kind of celebrated it. He wasn't trying to make us U2. He just wanted to make us become a better version of ourselves — to get to the heart of what makes us good as a band. That was the coolest thing." What's striking about Belong is just that, how far away it is from their debut but how close and homogeneous it is all at once. They definitely sound like more of a band now, merging their despairing lyrics and indie pop demeanor with an alternative grunge that's certainly worthy of praise, perhaps even more now than ever before.
With the resurrection of Slumberland Records and a renewed interest in '80s indie pop, Brooklyn, NY's the Pains of Being Pure at Heart dropped their self-titled debut at an opportune time in 2009. That album's sonic cocktail of loud, jangly guitars, wistfully soft melodies and awkwardly starry-eyed lyrics felt like a Frankenstein monster assembled using the best of NME's legendary C86 comp as the raw material. On their anticipated follow-up, the Pains opted to make the most out of their surprise success by bringing in the highly renowned team of Alan Moulder and Flood (Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins) to do the mixing and production, respectively. Belong doesn't waste time putting the hired hands to work. The opening title track cranks up the overdrive to an excessive level as the band proclaim their outsider status. They keep the guitars thunderous for the better part of the record, stepping on the pedals for the extra crunchy "Even In Dreams" and the strident distortion of "Girl of 1000 Dreams." The adjustments the Pains have made are minor: more whimsy, rhythm-heavy tracks like "My Terrible Friend" and "The Body" won't seem like such a surprise if you kept up with the singles they released in between albums, and they've heightened their shoegaze fixation to perfection with closer "Strange." Some might perceive the graduation from the modest self-production of their debut to the premium service provided by Flood and Moulder as blowing their load too quickly. But with Belong, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart have stayed true to their songwriting and simply done what any goods parent would do for their kids: give their songs the best education money can buy.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the alt-rock era (and there are many lessons to be learned from the alt-rock era), it's that high-end studio production can be a highly valuable investment for those who know how best to harness it. Part of the reason that albums such as Siamese Dream, Nevermind and Loveless have permanently embedded themselves in the canon has a lot to do with their expansive, monolithic sound. Certainly, the songs are great, but the massive sound of the recordings is what made them godly. Yet, despite a few years of modern rock sovereignty, the ensuing years produced a lot of soft-boiled post-grunge that eventually resulted in an indie rock market correction following a Joy Division bubble, and eventually nobody sounded like Nirvana and everyone sounded like the Vaselines. One band that tread a middle ground more closely aligned with the latter, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, seemed unlikely candidates for a gargantuan studio effort, their twee-as-fuck name and lyrics of library romance a far cry from grunge-era angst. Yet the band's shoegazer influences suggested great potential for something bigger and brighter, were the band ever to luck into, say, working with famed producer Flood.
Somehow, that did actually happen. The Pains' second album, Belong, boasts a similar kind of dreamy, fuzzy songwriting as its predecessor, but thanks to Flood and mixer Alan Moulder, the band now sounds gigantic. That the production/mixing duo has worked behind the boards for the likes of the Pumpkins, PJ Harvey and Nine Inch Nails should suggest just how great of a leap this actually is, but the opening title track makes it even more explicit. With only a slight moment of warning, "Belong" explodes into a spectacular fireworks display of distortion and major chords, the kind of endorphin-rush of gigantic sound and melody that even Billy Corgan hasn't been able to replicate since 1993.
However drastic a production transition The Pains of Being Pure At Heart have undergone on Belong, they are still very much the same band that captured cardigan-covered indie hearts in 2009. Still, the polish and sparkle suits them well here, amplifying their best qualities and turning their understated charm into rock star dazzle. From "Belong" they soar through "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" and "Heart In Your Heartbreak," two of the strongest melodies they've written, made all the more impressive with the extra pop of their jet-engine guitars and soaring synths. Even Kip Berman's gentle croon is mixed higher, giving a pointed directness to typically witty and awkwardly emotional lines like "What is your take?/ 'cause that's what I'd take/ but I can't take it without you."
Even though the group hasn't made any massive alterations to their identity as a band, a few moments arise throughout Belong that show The Pains pushing some new boundaries. "Girls of 1000 Dreams" espouses a shrieking, Jesus and Mary Chain-style noise rock din. And the effects-laden closer, "Strange," finds the band reveling in shoegazer ecstasy, layering on even more effects in blissful juxtaposition. There probably isn't enough distortion in the world to obfuscate The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's playful nerdiness, but it's precisely that lovable, bookish quality that makes the band so endearing. And that's all here on Belong, but this time, it sort of kicks your ass.
The Line of Best Fit
Belong, the blissfully fuzzed-out sophomore album from the New York quartet The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, is the type of music you listen to whilst you get drunk and smoke cigarettes in the limo you rented – even though your prom date ditched you at the last minute for another guy. There's an inherent sadness within Kip Berman's easily identifiable outsider lyrics, and when drenched in enormous, shoegazy guitars and the irresistibly catchy choruses featured throughout the record, it becomes a far better time than anything that would have happened at the dance anyway.
The songs here are vividly coloured in a pronounced sense of nostalgia, either for a time when you didn't know any better and still gave your heart away carelessly, or when the rough edges of the world hadn't gotten to you already, turning you into a jaded version of your true self. Whatever the case may be, these simple but indelible songs can surely soothe the sting of a recent heartbreak or a desperate longing to go back to a simpler time, or you could just turn the volume up and dance until your heart is content.
There are distinct hints of Smashing Pumpkins layered within the crunchy guitars of the title track which kicks off the record, which could be laid at the feet of both Flood, who was brought in to produce the record, and Alan Moulder, who mixed it. Both of them clearly put a distinctively seductive, stylish polish on these numbers, immediately making this album feel far more expansive and prodigious sounding than the Pains self-titled record. But these lush songs have an allure all their own, no matter who is manning the dials, and the band easily give themselves up to their explicit influences while crafting their own compelling, modern take on emphatic, brooding twee-pop.
There is more of the Cure in their current sound than there was on their debut (due in no small part to Peggy Wang's keyboards being placed much more prominently in the mix), but rather than hide within the gloomy dark clouds that hung over Robert Smith's tales of woe, there are clearly bright days ahead for the downcast characters in Berman's songs, so that they can at least deal with their angst while driving around the sun-drenched city with the radio turned up. And while their first record was a tentative snapshot of awkward adolescence, Belong finds Berman's characters all a bit older and (some of them, at least) wiser, but still making poor decisions and youthful mistakes based on passion and a desire to be accepted.
After the bombast of the opener, Berman gives a command to anyone unsure of themselves to make the best out of their bad moments: "Come on, nothing's gonna turn us down / So don't stand there like you don't care, cuz heaven's gonna happen now." And that ebullient optimism shades all of these numbers, with Berman prudently identifying with the emotional anguish we're all familiar with, but also providing a spirited alternative to just laying around while wallowing in our own sorrow. As he sings on 'The Body,' "Won't you come out tonight, like I know you want to, cuz the city's alive and even though it haunts you, I want you." And you'd be a fool to turn him down, because the unpredictable promise of the bustling metropolis is always going to be more fun than staying home with a broken heart.
The Pains don't attempt to be overly profound or pretend to be pioneering on Belong (their influences are easy to spot, and the band never tries to hide them), they are just seem intent on keeping their melodies soaring to offset their frequently crestfallen subject matter, all while creating relatable songs that can hopefully transport the listener away from a bad situation. Lead single 'Heart In Your Heartbreak,' 'Even In Dreams,' and 'Too Tough,' are just massive, majestic tracks that take flight whether you identify with their message or not. The striking, stellar hooks are consistently enormous throughout the entire album, with palatial, swelling choruses featured on each track. And the moment you decide to give in and start singing along to these infectious numbers the unshakable melancholy you might have been feeling will undoubtedly start to fade away.
Currently the "Best Band With The Worst Name" title holder, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart debuted in 2009 as a twee indie-rock act whose sound owed more than a little to Belle And Sebastian. But Pains showed a stronger propensity for rock, which explains the band's choice of producer Flood (U2, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails) and mixer Alan Moulder (The Jesus And Mary Chain, Ride, My Bloody Valentine) for the new Belong.
Those guys specialize in big rock sounds, and that's exactly what Belong delivers in its opening track, "Belong," which resembles the Pumpkins' "Today" in its guitar dynamics. The guitars are also gloriously huge on "Even In Dreams," and "Girl Of 1,000 Dreams" has a Jesus And Mary Chain ferocity, but Belong still has plenty of nuance. Flood also worked with Erasure quite a bit, so synthesizer-heavy songs like "The Body" and "My Terrible Friend"—which would have fit on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack—don't feel out of place. Those songs, as well as the atmospheric "Anne With An E," actually suit guitarist-vocalist Kip Berman's breathy voice better than their more rocking siblings. "Heart In Your Heartbreak," a perfect example of Pains as a more rocking Belle And Sebastian, hits Berman's sweet spot vocally.
More than anything, Belong shows ambition, with The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart clearly aiming for something bigger—a bigger sound, maybe a bigger audience. It nailed the sound part. A larger audience seems inevitable.
If their breathtaking second LP, "Belong," is any indication, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are growing up rapidly. In 2009, the young band seared their image onto hipster consciousness with their self-titled debut, a record that sounded as classic as its own cover art looked. The album was a perfect cut of early 90's indie—the band's sound inspired by the twee fuzz of bands like Black Tambourine, and hearkening back to the darker, dreamy haze of shoe-gaze monolith My Bloody Valentine. On their new album, The Pains fulfill all the promise of their past work and reveal an inspired and expanded dimension in their sound and song-writing capacity.
The band's rapid evolution is best suggested by the insistently slinky and propulsive single, "Heart In Your Heartbreak." Lacking their typical distortion, the song sounds organic as well as expressive, and contains a sweet and lilting chorus that deceptively adorns the song's theme of utterly crushing and irreversible heartache: "Still your friends don't understand / That the world could end and it'd feel no worse than this." The interplay between the dynamic instrumentals and compelling lyrics reveals a more carefully crafted sound than their last album.
The sharpness and subtlety in "Heartbreak" point to a poeticism that courses through the "Belong." Lead singer Kip Berman's airy voice is less masked by the guitars, and his lyrics are populated with compellingly warm characters, locations, and images. Similar to "Devotion" by Beach House, "Belong" explores the single word concept of its title. Through a core theme of belonging and alienation, the songs here also reach conceptually for reconciliation, dedication and devotion—the forms of love and solidarity shared by the downtrodden.
The title-track "Belong" opens the album and sets this agenda powerfully, with Berman delivering the embittered lines: "I know / It's wrong / But we / Just don't belong." Musically, the song is a revelation for The Pains. With its bombastically brooding guitar riffs and anthemic scope, the song plays like a manifesto for all the lost and weird. The track's placement is even a little jarring, as it practically causes the album to climax on the first track. Yet that role is reserved for the gorgeous height of "Even In Dreams," an even more resonant song that contains a statement of devastatingly pure and simple commitment: "Even in dreams, I could not betray you."
Besides a handful of songs, "Belong" largely sheds the gauzy distortion of the band's former works. Though the heavy crunch of the first ten of seconds of "Belong" might suggest The Smashing Pumpkins as an influence, the conjecture is partially misleading. The sound is like The Pumpkins, but largely more along the lines of "1979" and "Tonight, Tonight." This time around the guitars shimmer instead of crackle, and the flourishes of keyboard player Peggy Wang have become a much more prominent backbone. In fact, the ebullient disco-synth and fat snare drum on songs like "The Body" and "My Terrible Friend", seem to have more in common with other older bands such as Pulp, New Order, or even the Cure.
Though thematically coherent and compelling, the album stagnates a bit towards the end. The band's debut flowed perfectly with Spartan editing and a careful pace. Where that record staved off redundancy by introducing some tempo changes in its last songs, "Belong" falters slightly with the inclusion of some weaker and uninspired cuts. For example, the song "Girl of 1,000 Dreams" begins promisingly with vengeful distortion and vicious toms otherwise absent on the rest of the album. Yet the syrupy verses that follow are awkward, and they seem like the work of a different band. The song isn't exactly a failed attempt, nor is it unpleasant, but it does feel out of place at the end of the album.
Ultimately, though, the second half is redeemed on the gorgeous rush of the band's tremendous final song, "Dreams (sic)." The instruments play the album out, receding slowly in volume. Commencing with an unaccompanied dance drumbeat and moving into an iridescent stream of guitar, the song fades slowly, as if begging for the album to be played again.
Perhaps it makes sense that The Pains of Being Pure At Heart should be so constantly mentioned in the same breath
as so many classic post-punk bands of decades past. After listening to "Belong," it is hard to conceive of a better heir to these classic artists. But The Pains push forward too, having created an incredible and exciting record that will move them past mere genre recognitions. "Belong" is beautiful and even touching—a sonic and emotional kaleidoscope of loves lost and loves realized.
Tiny Mix Tapes
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's second album is a lot like that scene in She's All That when Freddie Prinze Jr. comes to pick up dorky Rachael Leigh Cook and she walks down the stairs wearing a sleek black dress, not her paint-splattered overalls, and Freddie realizes how conventionally attractive she is under all that geek attire. The feeling is unmistakable; Belong is a post-makeover reveal, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart look beautiful. We think to ourselves, guarded, but cautiously optimistic, that this might even be love.
But music fans aren't square-jawed, prom king dreamboats; maybe we prefer the art-room overalls to that black dress. As soon as we register our feelings of affection, we begin to worry that maybe this is too pretty, too Noxzema-clean for us. Yes, this is love, but it's also fear and insecurity, alienation. We wonder, is this the same person we fell for in the first place? Maybe they're changing while we're busy staying the same. Maybe we're just a phase they're going through.
Belong makes it obvious enough that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart aren't making music for us anymore, at least not exclusively. Sure, they're no less geeky now that they've had their makeover — recruiting Alan Moulder and Flood to handle production is a total dork move — but there's a sense of accessibility that is slightly worrying. One need not hear the references to The Smashing Pumpkins in the title track's crunchy, compressed guitars or the country-tuning of "Anne With an E" to be won over by the group's charm offensive. The homage to The Cure's "In Between Days" on "My Terrible Friend" is a cute touch, but it's not exactly an obscure reference; are we meant to be impressed or insulted? "Heart in Your Heartbreak's" chorus is tremendous, but the lyrics feel dumbed down for mass appeal. And their debut was many things — horny, precocious, snide — but it was never dumbed-down.
While they've fixed what wasn't broken — the transgressive attitude, the distortion, the deliberately shitty sound quality — The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have also corrected some of their past flaws. Belong is less front-loaded than the eponymous debut, and it feels less half-assed or amateurish. The hooks sink deeper now, and we're reeled in, helplessly. But at times the album feels too bright, too chipper and polished, more reminiscent of Jodi Lyn O'Keefe than Rachael Leigh Cook. At times they sound, improbably, like Sixpence None The Richer, and it's hard not to think that this is soundtrack-grade material, hardly the sort of thing misfits obsess over and build cults around.
Maybe the problem is ours. We like the courtship phase, but man, relationships are scary. Forget about committing to one person, one band; it's difficult enough committing to our own feelings. We like the shyness, the shoegazing, the winsome, wallflower routine because they're endearing, intimate, and safe. Confidence, on the other hand, is intimidating and anything but safe. Maybe we should just break up with them before they inevitably break up with us. But we have something really special here; is it stupid that we let insecurity get in the way of our enjoyment?
Bands don't often clean up so nicely, especially not without losing some ineffable quality, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart deserve to be appreciated for that. After all, Freddie Prinze Jr. wasn't a dick because he couldn't see the beauty in pre-makeover Rachael Leigh Cook, but because he dated her on a dare from Paul Walker. Belong is beautiful, but The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's shaggy debut was no less attractive. Even in the midst of their Pygmalion moment, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have retained most of what we loved about them while also finding new ways to dazzle us, to make us swoon. And so here we are, waiting slack-jawed at the bottom of the stairs, wondering how long it'll be until they walk out that door, leaving us behind; whether or not we follow is our choice.
If you are a devotee of My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain and the NME's C86 -- the fabled shoe-gaze mix-tape that came out 25 years ago last week -- you're bound to love this Brooklyn-based outfit.
Belong is the quartet's second album, and it distils their dream-pop influences into one of 2011's more intoxicating listens with an opening salvo that's among the most effervescent 10 minutes of music you could wish for.
The title track, Heaven's Gonna Happen Now and Heart in Your Heartbreak could all have been released around the time Kevin Shields was discovering the joys of feedback, yet there's something vital and "now" about them. Even the most jaded music fan is likely to be resuscitated by the beautiful marriage of Kip Berman's voice and the guitar lines that sparkle underneath -- and if they're not, there's little that can be done to help them.
Some may be put off the twee nature of occasional lyrics -- this cynic found the line, "Even in dreams I could not betray you" difficult to stomach -- but I doubt such quibbles will matter when the band hit the festival circuit later in the year.
Back in 2009, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart released their self titled record to the world and instantly became THE band to name drop. The record itself was a rough effort but with enough on show to justify the praise it was getting, it wasn't a classic by any means but the potential was there for all to see. It obviously did them the world of good as sold out tours followed as well as rumours of major labels begging them to put pen-to-paper on a deal with them. Whatever they did with a second record, there was an element of expectation to be met.
Not only does Belong meet those expectations, it crushes and casts them onto the scrap pile, forever to be lost amongst hipster bands that never quite made it. This record is absolutely stunning.
Kicking off with the title track, it's clear that whilst not abandoning what made them popular in the first place, Pains… have added something else to their arsenal, as crunching guitars eliminate any suspicions of "twee" that popped up every now and then on their debut. Kip Berman's vocals are at their fragile best only this time they are given a lift by some top notch production from Flood, a producer who had previously worked wonders with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds as well as stadium rock giants U2.
The undoubted highlight of the record is "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now", a sweeping indie pop anthem which has "SINGLE" written all over it, and could easily be placed on The Lemonheads It's a Shame About Ray and not feel out of place.
Belong is a huge record, one that I wasn't sure the band were capable of making, and whilst it would have been nice to have one or two more tracks, there's little else I can fault it for. Every song on here is a winner and the crossover appeal is there for all to see, alongside the refreshing knowledge that, although this will appeal to a wider audience, it's not for commercial reasons but down to a band honing their songwriting and learning to write really great pop songs.
I'd be surprised if this isn't in my top three records of the year come December, and if it's not, then get excited because it means we have some cracking albums on the way.
Belong is a wonderful surprise and one that won't be leaving my record player for a long long time.
You can't sling a dead hipster by their unkempt bed hair these days without hitting three or four indie pop bands with sensitive lyrics and/or noisy delivery ranging from low-fi shoegazer noise to high concept faux pop ear candy. What sets New York's ethereal noise pop darlings The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (TPOBPAH or The Pains for short) apart is their attention to the craft of songwriting. There seems to be a guiding purpose to their work that ably evokes past icons of the genre from Peter, Bjorn & Paul to My Bloody Valentine without being trite or irritating. Alex Naidus(bass), Kip Berman (guitar/vocals), Kurt Feldman (drums), and Peggy Wang-East (keyboards/vocals) have chosen with Belong, their long awaited sophomore LP, to trade in all the plaintive and bittersweet brooding of their eponymous 2009 debut for a more energetic and accessible sound still definitively them, but cast in a bolder, more striking light.
Much of the angsty melancholic mopery is absent from Belong, but all the elements that truly made TPOBPAH one of the most talked about independent bands of 2009 are still present, seemingly bathed in intuitive radiance both similar and beyond the band's already well-established sound . The songs are melodic, well-crafted walls of fuzzy guitars, reverb laden hooks and understated pastoral vocals carefully woven into a sonic tapestry that's a hallmark of the band's distinctive vibe. Indeed, if not for the lighter flourishes and fuller arrangements many of the tracks on Belong would fit well on the previous release. The result is a homage to the foundation lain by their debut while advancing the equation further than expected.
Naidus' bass is both pronounced and integral, so much more than a musical anchor allowing the notes framed by his Sonic Youth-esque rhythm to swell and grow in an organically cinematic style. Berman's vocals are more warm and richer than ever. His range is not much more extensive this time out, but his overwhelmingly underwhelmed delivery coupled with his propensity towards long, thick resonance in his guitar play is the perfect complement to Wang-East's synthy ethereal keyboard work and untraditional resonance in her harmony vocals. Rhythmic and enthusiastic drumming by Feldman pulls the album together in an alchemic concoction irresistible to fans of confident, trebly indie music with a strong sense of melody, warmly poignant lyrics and sugary pop undercurrents.
Co-helmed by the masterful team of Flood (Depeche Mode, U2) and Alan Moulder (Jesus & Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins) Belong is a vivid and visceral magic-carpet ride of an album starting out with the soaring title track virtually glowing with reverb and power, immediately digging in and taking hold from the start with a synthy keyboard riff reminiscent of acts like Sleepyhead suddenly overtaken by a towering tsunami of fuzzy, fizzy guitars immediately melding with Berman's unaffected, towering vocals. The opening title track acts as a sort of sonic manifesto for the rest of the album which sets a very high bar for everything that follows. TPOBPAH are more than up to the task as becomes immediately apparent with the tempestuous pop dissonance of "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" and the uptempo low fi breakup anthem "Heart in Your Heartbreak".
"The Body" takes it down a notch from the breakneck pace of the first few tracks and "Anne with an E" goes even further down that more solemn road making those tracks the closest the band comes to anything from their debut album. Both tunes still seem to be logical progressions from the drive and power of the first songs giving the listener a moment or two to catch their breath and process. Trust that there is plenty to process. There are so many incredible layers of sound in the first half of the album alone it will easily take six or seven listens with a good sound system to pick out all the diverse, perfectly cut elements tossed into this sonic stone soup.
Closing out the album, "Too Touch" and "Strange" returns the album to the more structured sound prevalent throughout the rest of the tracks and leaving listeners with the musical equivalent of a breathtaking view: in awe and wanting more. To really appreciate the bold strokes and detail oriented craft of the music, Belong almost insists upon settling in with it at full volume for a couple hours to take it all in. Every listen is sure to wield new and exciting details and sonic textures that weren't apparent at first.
If Belong is indicative of the path of growth The Pains of Being Pure at Heart plan to arc out over the coming years, they are without a doubt an act to be considered closely.
The second album from New York's POBPAH is a beautifully loud extension of their debut, with all the requisite beefed-up guitars, octave-spaced vocals and soppy/stressful lyrics about, predominantly, girls being horrendously confusing. From the opening title track's Billy Corganesque guitar grunt to the prettifi ed Pastel-isms of 'Too Tough', 'Belong' is a tear-sodden joy. To say it's derivative is to miss the whole point of this fantastic-and-improving band - they're doing it better than anyone else at the moment.
On their debut, TPOBAH turned out a fine, if rather fey, jangle-rock sound reminiscent of early-'90s wash-poppers The Field Mice. The template is roughly the same on 'Belong', but the outcome couldn't be much different, thanks in no small part to stadium-rock producers Alan Moulder and Flood who turbo-inject 'Belong' with a muscular urgency. Soaking wet drums hurtle over slowburning guitar thrash, while Kip Berman's wisp of a voice just manages not to drown underneath it all. Not so much Teenage Fanclub as 'Loveless'-era MBV meets classic Cure at their poppiest.
The success of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart following the release of their self titled debut album always mystified me. Don't get me wrong I adored them (still the band I've seen live the most times), but they always felt like underdogs. Making competently played indie pop that was really more of a sum of a narrow branch of influences than anything particularly special or original and they never appeared quite forceful or decisive enough to reach out to the noteworthy critical and commercial success they somehow managed to muster. But, somehow they achieved it, and I think this can be attributed to their wide eyed enthusiasm, the sheer level of competence with which they played their basic songs (seriously, I don't think they put a foot wrong at all), and the fact it was all so much fun. I, and a huge number of other people, fell in love with TPOBPAH slowly but surely.
They followed their début shortly with an EP release titled Higher than the Stars and it was lauded as a slight change in direction, moving away from the somewhat restricted template the band had previously set for themselves. While it's true that their first album was extremely limited in scope, to the point of the songs being nearly identical in form, structure and sound, and Higher Than The Stars widened their musical pallet somewhat, this sort of variation in style would not raise any eyebrows whatsoever if contained within one release. Which is fine y'know? I liked what the Pains were doing before, why would I want them to radically shift? It seems the band don't quite agree with me, and while they haven't quite chucked everything out of the window, on their latest release Belong, there's something new and different going on here.
Not that different I'll grant you, but it's certainly distinct in style. Influences remain somewhat static, but they've added some 'Siamese Dream' era 'Smashing Pumpkins' to the mix along with some other minor tweaks (partially brought by ex-pumpkins producer Flood, who didn't actually produce Siamese Dream), and with this change Belong sounds a lot more assured than anything they've previously produced up to this point. Part of this must have come from the growing confidence emanating from the band. Each time I saw them over the past couple of years, they seem to have grown in panache and ability, and this is reflected rather strongly here. While their debut seemed rather formulaic, and occasionally reserved, Belong has no qualms about throwing everything into the mix. Simply put, on TPOBPAH the band seemed as if they were just rather chuffed to be making music. They really didn't want to mess it up by trying anything they weren't comfortable with, and this was somewhat adorable. Belong however feels like a band realising the full extent of their ability.
How is this represented? Well, the opening track, single and title track 'Belong' kicks off with a few jangly guitars and it feels familiar, and exactly what we would have expected from their first album. However in but a few seconds, crushingly loud guitars kick in, and the song proper beings. Ultimately in structure, and general song smithery there's nothing different here. But it feels louder, bigger, and dare I say it, better. In fact, the whole of Belong is ultimately better than TPOBPAH. The songs are more varied, the structure less formulaic, the sound clearer, the riffs are more catchy and noticeable, and the whole thing is really just a testament to the growing abilities of a young band. The cynical will say songs like 'Belong', with their big arena filling sound are a reach to the mainstream and they wouldn't be wrong as it all seems much more friendly and inviting. 'Belong' and 'Heart In Your Heartbreak' are both excellent singles that I can easily imagine blaring out on the slightly alternative radio, and enticing the slightly alternative masses.
But the heart of the thing is unchanged. The Pains might have grown up, but at their core they are still the slightly awkward teenage band they always were. While louder and technically gifted, the music is still played with the same enthusiastic exuberance, and it seems as if Pains are having fun, and making the record that they want to make. The faux-British accent is still there, and it still sounds like a record made by a group of people who are so desperately fans of the music it it is aping. Sounds such as 'Anne with an E', 'The Body', 'My Terrible Friend' and 'Too Tough' perfectly represent the sort of awkward love, and feeling of not quite belonging that the Pains have always so comfortably depicted. In a way, The Pains are the perfect oddball teenage band, taking the words right out of the mouths of all of those young people who were never quite sure of themselves. The lyrics aren't ever going to be described as poetic, but they hit the right buttons, and are occasionally very poignant. While not landing depressingly close to home, like a Smiths lyric, Kip Bermans words seem inviting. Although often covering difficult subjects like not feeling comfortable in your skin, as in 'The Body', The Pains almost attempt to reassure the self proclaimed wierdos out there that really they belong (see what I did there?) after all. So yes, it's desperately teenage, but it's so good at being so that you might just forgive it.
While it's all excellent, I'm not sure I prefer Belong to their first album. Essentially it's a better album, the songs are more varied and accomplished, it sounds a whole lot better, appearing like a band who have hit their stride with aplomb, but I think it's lost some of the charm of the original. With this confidence and slight reach for a wider audience, some of the innocent enjoyment that the band used to have has been lost. sounds less like a group of young musicians doing what they really loved, and more like a serious band, and that was what I adored so much about them. In essence it's less charming, and probably a little less easy to fall in love with. What it's lost in charm however, it's certainly gained in sheer quality, and I would let nothing be taken away from this excellent album.
After a critically acclaimed debut album in 2009 The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have finally released their highly anticipated followup. In Belong the shoegaze quintet from New York deliver another collection of discordant sounds paired with dreamy vocals that permeate the romantic heart. It's all of what I find about shoegaze so appealing – the bitter-sweet. The contradiction of harsh noise kissed by the sweetness of airy vocals; The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart blends the two brilliantly in Belong.
Of the 10-track album "Heart In Your Heartbreak" released as their first single in December stands out as the catchiest with "My Terrible Friend" a close second. The ballad "Anne With An E" is a tribute to a soul's tortured past: "I don't feel alright when disaster's gone." The final track, "Strange", oddly parallels "Higher Than The Stars", a song released on their late '09 EP of the same title. The melody pairs so well it is almost as if "Strange" was written as a sequel to its predecessor.
By the fourth track in, I was completely sucker-punched by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart's sophomore effort. In comparison to their debut, Belong is a touch less pop yet a pinch more mature and oozes of danc-ey, feel-good-ey, heartache-y pangs we romantics love so much. It tugs at the heart while leaving everlasting feel-good residual side effects.
We have read the headlines time after time: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart caught raiding the 90s shoegaze archive. But can't we move on now?
Sure, Bowlegs can hear the influences – we can also hear a set of songs bursting with colour, shimmering with pop and yearning with love. The production is so warm it might save you money on the heating bill. Its broad strokes and over-friendly gestures continuously fill the airwaves. As for the songs, they might not all hit the mark, but they won't give up trying.
'Heaven's Gonna Happen Now' has the New Yorkers sprinting through emotions , the distorted guitars a fuzzy blanket, the beating drums an infinite source of energy. Single 'Heart in your Heartbreak' is as good a song as you will hear all year. As the music breaks down Kip Berman whispers in your ear, 'And no matter what you pray, it's never gonna take the pain away' – the song then lifting with retro synths and spiralling electric guitars.
The ethereal, grand ballad that is 'Anne with An E' unveils singular acoustic strums and a spacious vocal – the cascading guitar riff a perpetual presence. As a song it slows the record, if only for a minute. As you reach the final few tracks you might feel a craving for solid ground – feeling a little dazed by the hazy edges and constant day-dreams. Yet the moments that try to break the mould almost burst the bubble of happy melancholy. 'Girl of a 1,000 Dreams' for one is too aggressive – the airy vocals drowned by the angry guitars. Despite its flaws, this is a record that will bring the sunshine to you, even when its honest heart is broken into little pieces.
One Kind Radio
I have been waiting and waiting for the follow-up to The Pains of Being Pure At Heart's self titled release since it came out in 2009, and finally… I have my chance to take it in and get blown away once again. 'Belong' captures The Pains at the next step of their metamorphosis to becoming a true Indie-pop rock super-band, which I think has much to do with them hooking up with the Alt-Rock power record producers Alan Moulder and Flood (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Killers, etc.). The Pains' sound on their previous self-titled full length release will always be pure to my heart with their delicate melodies and raw youthful energy that kept me coming back for more (I've spun that record more times than practically any record in my collection over the past year), but 'Belong' is a new animal with a brighter, shiny new coat and a bigger more clean sound. 'Belong' proves one again to the world that The Pains can take it to the next level and they do belong on everyone's list of top releases of 2011.