Pains Finds Where They “Belong”

Courtesy of Slumberland Records

If you have a friend that wears ironic glasses, shops at Urban Outfitters and has a burgeoning vinyl collection, you probably have already been informed about a band called The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The band’s self-titled debut album was one of the most talked-about indie records of 2009. After much touring and a stellar in-between-albums EP, Pains is back with “Belong,” a record that takes their already-polished sound to new heights by exploring new songwriting territory and adding more diverse influences without sacrificing the appeal of their debut.

What I loved about the New York City-based band’s debut album was its combination of the lo-fi production quality, distorted guitar fuzz and diminished vocals of shoegaze with the melody, catchiness and repeat value of 1980s pop hits. It’s sort of like what a My Bloody Valentine album would sound like if they had chosen to listen to nothing but Top-40 hits for a year — or, if you ask singer Kip Berman, the band’s pop sound is “loud and wussy at the same time.”

For this particular album, Pains enlisted notable British producers Flood and Alan Moulder (who were responsible for hit records from bands such as Depeche Mode, U2, Nine Inch Nails and The Smashing Pumpkins), and their influence is clear from the start. The title track sounds like something a 1990s Seattle grunge band would have written, albeit on an off-day when its members were more depressed than angry. The song retains the lo-fi elements that Pains is known for, but with more space and a more polished overall sound. The heavily distorted, wall-of-sound shoegaze approach gives way to distinguishable guitar strumming. Although the song is called “Belong,” the lyrics make it clear that the band still feels like it doesn’t.

The second track, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” is more familiar territory for Pains devotees, but again, there is more space than can be found anywhere on the first album, and it becomes clear that the vocals are now in the front of the group’s sound as opposed to somewhere in the middle. Berman is no longer a shoegaze lead singer; he is now an actual lead singer in the sense that the use of the word “lead” is now fully justified.

The album’s first single and third track, “Heart In Your Heartbreak,” sports a catchy pop chorus and contains a bridge that is clearly influenced by 1990s alt-rock. Members of Pains have commented that they grew up listening to punk, and this might be their first song that makes this fact obvious, even if only for a few seconds. At the same time, this breakup song’s melodic thrust demonstrates how Pains has matured since its last release, and in Berman’s words, this record “is about feeling, not feelings.”

My early favorite from the album is “The Body,” a danceable synth jam about feeling awkward inside one’s own body and not knowing what to do with it. Maybe it’s just me, but this coming-of-age song sounds like what my high school prom should have sounded like. Turn it up loud and imagine yourself in a John Hughes movie, dancing with Molly Ringwald (the 1980s version of her) and trying to figure out what to do next. Unfortunately, you don’t end up getting lucky, because that would ruin the innocent mood. But I digress.

One of the things I like about this record is that you can finally tell who is who in this band. While the noisiness of the first album was one of its most important assets, it diminished the distinct contributions of each member. This record has enough breathing room for us to more fully appreciate Kurt Feldman’s drumming and even Alex Naidus’ very existence as the band’s bassist. On the other hand, the band would benefit if Peggy Wang — backup vocalist, keyboardist and adorable hipster chick — were more of a presence. Her vocals are already vital to the emotional effect of the lyrics, and this could be showcased a bit more. (Side note: Wang actually has a day job on the editorial staff at BuzzFeed, where her profile reads in part, “Ask me about my emo band.”) When it comes to having a hot-but-quirky indie girl in your band, the general idea should be, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

Toward the end of the album, the band drifts back into more familiar territory. “My Terrible Friend” might be the catchiest track on the album; it could have been on the radio 25 years ago and nobody would have been the wiser. The palm-muted verses and power-chord-heavy choruses of “Even In Dreams” finally address what The Cars would have sounded like if they were much, much less sure of themselves. The closer, “Strange,” continues with the theme of being left out (“When everyone was doing drugs / we were just doing love”) but concludes that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing; indeed, “dreams can still come true / and it’s coming true for you.”

Perhaps it can be said that “Belong” is to the 1990s what the group’s self-titled debut was to the 1980s, but the maturity and complexity of this new album show that no matter what, Pains is continuing to move in the right direction. This is certainly the same band we already knew, but we now know that Pains is not a one-trick pony. When all is said and done, the finished product takes more risks than the band’s first record, and fortunately, those risks pay off.

Rating: 4/5 Stars