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.— Ian Cohen, April 1, 2011
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