The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
By Maura McAndrew | 31 March 2011
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart adhere to a very specific mood. Which isn’t to say anything about their enjoyability, or how easy it is to listen to them, because the answers are, respectively, very enjoyable and very easy; it’s just an indication that no matter how long their career, no matter what band members come and go, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart won’t be offering a lot of surprises. Each full-length may change slightly in nuance or production, or up the ante in terms of songcraft complexity, but the Pains will never make a record that loses that lovelorn, bittersweet, end-of-a-John Hughes-film warmth glowing under each track. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart simply are that feeling. To lose that, Pains, is to lose oneself.
Belong, the more professionally produced follow up to their eponymous 2009 debut, resembles its predecessor in all crucial aspects: it’s another heart-on-sleeve exploration of teenage feelings through breathy vocals and twee pop. That said, a perceptible shift in magnitude accompanies Belong; the band is wielding bigger guitars, with a hint of ’90s alt-nation crunch, trading the debut’s busy energy for something grandiose in a Smashing Pumpkins, painful-balladry sort of way.
Anyone could trace this shift directly to the studio double-team of producer Flood, who once brought us Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness (1995), and engineer Alan Moulder of Siamese Dream (1993) fame. So yeah, the Pains really like the Pumpkins, and it’s made them maybe a bit louder and maybe a bit slower. But Kip Berman has yet to adopt neither Billy Corgan’s withering whine nor his perpetual state of agitation, and no overwrought clunkers, a la “Disarm,” are to be found here. No, Berman, Peggy Wang, and Co. stick to their patented alt-fluffy, bedroom-sad sound, bent on cultivating it and pushing it to greater depths.
“Belong” is a nice way to start—it announces a band dreaming larger, dreaming about more rock ’n’ roll, but keeps intact everything the band can’t do without (i.e., those breathy vocals and that outcasts-in-love conceit). It’s loud but breezy, an aesthetic the band carries throughout this short record: the amps are cranked, but the songs are less cluttered than those of their debut. Fans may miss the bounce of Pains, but here is a follow-up so shimmery and pretty and gentle on the ears, it’s hard to quibble.
Belong’s standouts are “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” with its feather-light lead guitar, the _Pretty in Pink_-ish “Anne with an E,” and lovely ballad “Too Tough,” which harkens back to “Hey Paul,” a bright spot on their debut. Berman and Wang’s ethereal harmonies blend beautifully, as always, and Berman in particular seems to be maturing as a vocalist. On the especially-’80s “The Body,” he lets his voice relax into a lower, sexier register, banishing that familiar faux-British choirboy shtick for at least a few minutes.
Lyrically, Belong is mostly filled with vague sketches which occasionally veer into territory too cute for a band comprised of adults. “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” an otherwise catchy, summery cut, suffers at the entrance of its treacly chorus: “She was the heart in your heartbreak / She was the miss in your mistake.” Glimmers of detail stand out occasionally, like Berman’s aside in “My Terrible Friend”—“I’m scared that this could end / Face down in the park again”—but mostly the band relies on its familiar, cascading melodies, not its penchant for storytelling, to attract listeners. And if this sometimes contributes to the record feeling disposable, well that’s fine.
After all, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart never promised reinvention, and Belong is another solid soundtrack to summer afternoons lounging on bedspreads, making collages, flashing back to one’s own days as a teenage outcast—however far in the past they may be. Theirs will always be music to crush on: it probably won’t last very long, but its sweet sting will persist long after we’ve all grown up.