The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut was an album that got better over time; one of those discs that really takes hold unexpectedly. A nostalgic affair, its core influences recalled the greatness of the mid 90s. It’s understandable, therefore that it could be suspected their sophomore album would be a weaker effort having been put together in a fraction of the time.
The opening bars of the title track sweep away any misgivings, as Flood’s lavish production brings out the absolute best in the New York quintet’s sound. The drums have great presence, even once they find a space behind Kip Berman’s guitars (which appear in both crisp and fuzzy forms) and the bass sound that tips the hat to Simon Gallup of The Cure with its rattling nature. Berman’s voice is surprisingly wistful considering the full sound the band has adopted, but it’s the music which does all the talking here. With the opening number combining most of PoBPaH’s strongest features, it’s surprising the album doesn’t fall at the next hurdle. ‘Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now’ has moments which lean farther towards 90s jangle; its lead guitar riffs are simple and yet so effective. While Berman sticks to his usual aloof vocal approach, the music has a toughness which, in places, wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on either Buffalo Tom’s 1992 breakthrough album ‘Let Me Come Over’ or Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Bandwagonesque’.
The mechanical bass at the heart of ‘Heart In Your Heartbreak’ recalls the best sounds from the band’s debut. With the hushed vocals of Kip Berman and Peggy Wang melding together on its chorus, the feeling is one of familiarity. It feels a little throwaway after the weightiness of the opening pair of tracks, but clearly highlights how, for all of their multi-layered tendencies elsewhere, this is a band that possesses a knack for a good pop hook. For fans of the spikier elements of the debut, ‘The Girl of 1,000 Dreams’ should appeal, driven by Kurt Feldman’s hard drumming, overlaid by a wall of fuzzy guitars; as with a couple of their debut’s tracks, this has a musical edge which hints at the softer end of the 90s shoegaze movement.
‘The Body’ sounds rather like a New Order cast off from the mid 90s. While Berman doesn’t sound especially like Bernard Sumner, there’s a definite influence in the way the track has been constructed around a layer of keys, upfront bass and quirky drumming. The chorus here isn’t as strong as perhaps it could have been, but the other elements are top notch – and with the band’s delivery sounding so easy, it still ranks as one of the best numbers. The band aren’t above borrowing from other 80s alternative stuff either, as the upbeat approach of ‘My Terrible Friend’, recalls The Cure circa 1985-87 with its cheeky keyboard riff combined with jangly guitars (backed by a busy acoustic line). That’s as far as any similarities go, mind, since Berman’s breathy vocal keeps things really light and chipper. While it’s Wang’s keyboard line which lodges inside your head, Alex Nadius’s busy but uncomplicated bass work isn’t without merit here.
While its rhythm maintains a steady pace, with an almost unflinching mechanical vibe, ‘Strange’ closes the disc with something oddly beautiful. A track which recalls lots of alternative music from the early 90s, the way Wang’s keyboard layers shine through the multi-tracked guitars is just superb. Berman’s vocal is almost redundant; the multilayered sounds work in such an effective way they almost completely absorb the listener.
With ‘Belong’, Berman and co have delivered a release which is stronger than their debut and one which makes the art of the “difficult second album” seem so easy. The band sound confident throughout, and while their song writing hasn’t moved on a great deal, their arrangements have a smoothness which wasn’t always consistent before. Sounding stronger with every play, this is an album for iPods on long journeys – an album to take with you to bring a spark to crowded places. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have matured as a band – and it shows.