Rife with children’s book references and pop hooks as fuzzy as a knit sweater, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are twee to the core — as evidenced by the band’s 2009 debut, a refreshing, indie zeitgeist-defining gem of 21st-century shoegaze. For Belong, the Pains’ much-anticipated sophomore album, they roped in legendary producers Flood (Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails) and Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Ride) to get just one step closer to their influences, and perhaps to give their indie-pop a bit more crunch.
They’ve clearly absorbed the influence of their producers, and fans of Alternative Nation-era records will find something to love. The title track opener (and most recent single) starts out convincingly enough, delivering a shock of guitar feedback about 15 seconds in — a newfound, or at least newly realized, sonic grunge ripped straight from Siamese Dream. Leader Kip Berman’s nasally lovelorn vocals are still buried low in the mix, but the band’s Pastels-aping sound of yore gets some more distortion and heft. “Heart In Your Heartbreak” is a brisk, taut toe-tapper; from the sheen of Peggy Wang’s synths to an angsty lyric and preciously punny title, it’s also probably the most recognizably Pains-y track. The highs continue with mid-album standout “The Body,” and despite the refrain about awkwardness in one’s own skin (“I can’t feel it anymore/Tell me again what the body’s for”), it’s actually a sensual wash of danceable guitars and keyboards. Indeed, it’s the closest Berman’s clumsily shy narrative will come to a matured, sexual confidence.
Sadly, Belong‘s strengths are short-lived and inconsistent; while the record is decidedly inoffensive, the Pains sometimes find it hard to reach their own sonic ambitions. “Anne With an E” fades from memory just as hushed as it arrives — pleasant, to be sure, but after the accomplishment of previous tracks, it’s too saccharine and snoozy to really deliver. Later on, “Too Tough” has the band relying on its own outsider teenage charm. Of course, Pains do such jauntily strummed adolescent angst very well (they practically brought it back in vogue), but the song remains the same — rendering such an affect even harder to love. Thankfully, “Even In Dreams” provides a much-needed jolt of life; modernizing the band’s Mary Chain love to create a truly transcendent wall of sound, it actually ends up being the album’s finest moment.
But ultimately, the question of the band’s development remains only half-answered and fleeting. It seems the chance to work with their heroes’ superstar producers has polished the Pains’ scuzz to an incongruous shine, and their once-refreshingly twee quirks seem strained. Belong‘s highs — “The Body,” “Even In Dreams,” and “Girl of 1000 Dreams,” which has the band growing some real teeth — are lustrous and soaring; in fact, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart eclipse their previous successes. Nonetheless, the album’s lows remain limp and strangely clinical, making its true promise all the more disappointing.