Some of the greatest things about becoming successful are the opportunities that come your way as a result. Two years ago, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart earned themselves a huge wave of buzz thanks to their self-titled debut album. As you need to do when being the recipient of such praise, they followed their record with extensive touring and a couple of stopgap releases to keep everyone from forgetting about them. So an EP and a 7″ single later, POBPAH have readied their sophmore full length “Belong”, and this time things are different. They’re still signed to one of the more decidedly indie record labels around in Slumberland, but that doesn’t mean the record sounds that way. The ultra lo-fi haze that hung over their debut has been cleaned up significantly this time around courtesy of a 1-2 heavyweight combo of uber-producer Flood and uber-mixologist Alan Moulder. Those two are basically a dream team for the band, given their long history helping make some of their favorite records by some of their favorite bands – from My Bloody Valentine and Ride to The Smashing Pumpkins and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Together they’ve been responsible for more than a dozen classic records, and the hope is probably that “Belong” will wind up among them.
The change in The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is immediately noticeable from the very first notes of “Belong”, leading straight out of the gate with a broad, energetic and fun title track. Granted, POBPAH have always been those three things, just a little hazier and with a more “head down” mentality prior to now. Here not only are the guitars more polished, but so are Kip Berman’s vocals and the hook. This newer, fuller and more confident version of the band comes across like an announcement of purpose – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are going mainstream. Listen to the next two tracks on the album, “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and the irrepressably catchy first single “Heart in Your Heartbreak” and those implied notions of going huge become that much more vivid. It also creates something of a debate amongst the independent music community about crossover acts and the consistent shunning of them. Embrace Kings of Leon when they put out “Youth and Young Manhood”, but patently reject them when “Sex On Fire” catapults them to fame and fortune. Just the use of the word “mainstream” has a taint to it, like bands that wear it are polluted with some sort of fungus. The thing about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart though, is that they’ve not yet reached the point of success on a massive scale. “Belong” sounds like it’s trying really hard to though, but before you have an adverse reaction to the thought, take under consideration that success on your own terms and from a tiny label such as Slumberland is an accomplishment thousands of bands can only dream of.
More importantly, the wealth of hooks and sheen on this record, translating to a super-easy-to-digest sound, only helps The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Instead of hindering their intentions, “Belong” finally feels like the first time they’re actually able to fully realize their sound. Underneath the haze and shy demeanor of their debut was this juggernaut, and now its legitimately exposed. Not only that, but the songwriting has improved this time around too. Instead of implying a number of things and leaving the listener to reach their own conclusions, we get direct references and things spelled out, though never to the point of treating us with kid gloves. These are songs that feel personal and upfront rather than colder and mysterious, and that’s a great thing. With that also comes the risk of running afoul by being too vanilla or alternatively too conceptually strident, and this record has only a couple of those moments. Everything else is above board and smartly written, in line with all the other elements at work here. The slower ballads like “Even in Dreams” and “Too Tough” particularly stand out lyric-wise, mostly due to their under-reliance on hooks to get their point across and the necessary drama to warrant toning down the upbeat charm that’s pretty much everywhere else.
Given that Flood and Alan Moulder (many times in tandem) were responsible for some of the best records of the 90s and since The Pains of Being Pure at Heart take many of their influences straight from that decade, the coming together of all these parties was divinely inspired. “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” comes across like a direct decendent of Ride, while closing cut “Strange” bears a strong resemblance to the more pop-friendly side of My Bloody Valentine. Slices of shoegaze mixed with slacker rock and heartbreak pop congeal to make for a very special record that’s wildly interesting and majorly successful. The real shame would be if this album didn’t score POBPAH the exact things they seem to be aiming for, which is tons of radio airplay, placement in commercials, and a devoted fanbase of millions. Prior to this they were just indie darlings, but here they’ve proven they can play in the same league with the big dogs and do it better than most of them to boot. So long as they don’t fall prey to the pitfalls that normally handicap great indie bands that blow up huge (sign to a major label, give in to “pressure” to change, show no love to their earliest fans, etc.), things will be a-ok. Otherwise, we might wind up living out the heartbreaking tale that is “Anne with an E”.