Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Up Where They Belong

In defense of the band's glossy sophomore album.

Twelve seconds into Belong, the new Pains of Being Pure at Heart album, the title track's bright, slowly spinning guitar line is cut off by a fuzz of low, grumbling distortion—as if a Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins had stomped in over the Pains' previously twee pop sound.

It's a brash opening move, but it effectively announces Belong as an ambitious, and divisive, sophomore album. The song takes off, and you begin to get a sense of how the Pains mean to synthesize these two distinct, and distinctly retro, sounds: Frontman Kip Berman's fey, wispy voice is unchanged, if set perhaps a little higher in the mix, but the band's keys, guitars, and rhythm section have all been given a rich gloss. The treatment—courtesy of big-name producer Flood (Mark Ellis), whose resume includes the Smashing Pumpkins, U2, and many others—seems to have affected the band's posture as well: less fainting and slouching around the library, more upright embrace of the big, high-reaching choruses already latent in their eponymous debut.

Belong is an audacious leap, and it's already earned the Pains their share of detractors. No surprise, given how shamelessly their debut courted fans of the C86-via-Slumberland indie-pop aesthetic, and how cloistered and fiercely devoted said fans can be.

But some criticism has raised other issues, if not outright conspiracy theories. On a post on Everett True's Collapse Board, a defaced Pains of Being Pure at Heart poster attributed to "Sleevie Nicks" proclaims, among other things: "Why do you hate music market tested so much?" and "I think there might be some indie washing going on here . . . follow the cash." A link on the same page directs readers to an essay that blames Pitchfork for everything from the supposed blanding of indie rock to the loss of an easy-to-navigate mainstream/alternative dichotomy to changing attitudes about song licensing to Vampire Weekend's alleged insensitivity to sweatshop labor.

(It's a little ironic that claims of market-testing and Pitchfork-manufactured consent are being promoted by True, most famous for having been flown out to Seattle on Sub Pop's dime so as to break "grunge" to the hype-making British music press. Maybe when you've been complicit in such schemes, you start to see target marketing everywhere?)

Far more likely is that the Pains are just approaching another sound from their youth, the alt-'90s, with the same studiousness and easy songwriting as they did the twee '80s—before Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Berman was a pretty sharp music intern at Portland Mercury, and he clearly takes his influences seriously—and the results are similarly sweet and elevated above mere pastiche.

"Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" diverts a jangling verse with a diving, downward-bending guitar tone on the chorus. "The Body" builds to a big outro of cresting, crystalline synth pads and the refrain "I couldn't feel it anymore/Tell me again what the body is for." "Even in Dreams" erupts from muted verses into mountains of gentle fuzz and the simple hook "Even in dreams/I cannot betray you." "Too Tough" blatantly rehashes the mid-tempo sky-gazing of the previous album's "Stay Alive," but to fine effect. Best of all, though, and most like the twee pop of the band's debut, is lead single "Heart in Your Heartbreak," a swooning, over-the-top number with lines like "She was the heart in your heartbreak/She was the miss in your mistake."

For all the fuss that will be made over Flood and the band's supposedly calculated shift in sound, the Pains still sound very much like themselves, only dialed up a bit. You could do a hell of a lot worse with a bigger budget.


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