As I’ve stated many times before, one of the more difficult task inherent in the evaluation of music is learning to take stock of a treasured artist with some sort of unbiased eye. If you’re not careful, you could sound like a fawning fop that refuses to be even slightly analytical, or you could come across like a jaded jackass who forbids himself of hearing the beauty in anything. Personally, I think it’s OK to have favorite acts – in fact, I prefer to read the thoughts of more established music critics who have firm ideas about the sort of music and bands they really DO like – but you’ve got to be able to talk about what you enjoy with some sort of decorum.
Hence, my problem is that I was an unapologetic enthusiast of the self-titled debut record from The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. The band’s music alternately made my heart sing with joy and groan with sympathetic pain, whether it was the gloriously jangly, fuzzy guitars or the poignant coming-of-age story-songs. I began to steel myself for potential disappointment in December 2010 when I first heard word of a new record coming soon from the talented quartet; according to the cliché, lightning rarely strikes twice. Yet, when I first heard the two lead singles that dropped before the official release of Belong, the band’s sophomore full-length, I was instantly enamored by the band’s direction.
These ten songs pick up the same lyrical themes as before – growing up, maturing, and falling in and out of love without the saccharine high-school-friendly sentiments – but the music is bigger, louder, and beefier than ever. Similar textures from before are employed, especially in regards to combining the C86 tapes with My Bloody Valentine, but the guitars are cranked up to feature some excellent leads, licks, and fills. Also, there is an overall better blend to the instrumentation, allowing the right amount of synth swell to peek through the hearty rhythm section. Early press and reviews of the record dropped names like Dinosaur, Jr., Sebadoh, and Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins, and those comparisons couldn’t be more accurate: the familiar jangle has taken a decidedly welcome back seat too some revved-up waves of distortion.
Sure, there’s some affable Belle And Sebastian styled mope-pop appearing in the middle third, though the cuts “Anne With An E,” “Even In Dreams,” and “My Terrible Friend” almost provide too much of a slowdown to the project’s pacing. But overall, the precious, almost-too-cute-for-its-own-good indie-pop has been replaced with some swaggering guitar-fueled straight-up rock that manages to be aggressive without being obnoxious. “Belong,” “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” and “Heart In My Heartbreak” serve as a fantastic opening triplet of tracks, and, along with “Too Tough,” they could serve as the alternate soundtrack for a long-form version of the “1979” video by Smashing Pumpkins.
I wanted to be a bit harsher with this review, but I found it difficult to find too much fault with Belong. The music is classy, classic, creative, and appropriately lovelorn without feeling emotionally overwrought. It’s the stuff of great times with friends, confidants, and lovers, whether you’re dancing, partying, or just hanging out at home. I applaud The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart for avoiding any sort of sophomore slump by learning how to stretch their aesthetic to new heights while still making catchy, hook-fueled guitar rock for indie-nerd types. This is simply a really good record that I hope people will enjoy throughout 2011.