Records used to take you places.
When the needle dropped, or the CD started to spin, it was like opening the wardrobe door to Narnia. You got lost in the sound, disconnected from your day-to-day grind. Vocalists became guides across the often tense, musical terrain. In many ways, the best records made it seem like you were discovering something that had been previously hidden, about the world or about yourself. The fun was in exploring familiar thoughts, moments, and feelings that you hadn’t looked at in quite that way before, instances that made more sense in a dream than in reality.
The adventure was in discovery, or at the very least, exploring familiar facets of life in newfound ways.
This sentiment isn’t lost on The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, and their sophomore album, Belong, is a testament to that kind of album. Clocking in at less than 40 minutes, Belong transports listeners somewhere in between 1988 and 1991, where fuzzed-out guitars could be adventurous without being aggressive. Add some romantic harmonies and confessional style lyrics, and you got an album that begs to be unwrapped, a diary to some of highest highs and lowest lows in the human spectrum.
It’s a bold move, for while most bands approach this kind of music to bank on the melancholy of adolescence, Pains remain charmingly disarming throughout. Instead of a trip down memory lane, Belong stands on its own two feet, swaying and tumbling towards something more meaningful than nostalgia.
To show how serious they are, Pains starts the record off with a bang. The album’s title track is a blistering 4 minutes and 19 seconds of claustrophobic guitar crunch and soaring hooks, one that dips and dives so much that it’d make Billy Corgan weak in the knees. Additionally, the breathy vocal trade-offs between keyboardist Peggy Wang and guitarist Kip Berman give “Belong,” and the rest of the album for that matter, an androgynous flair, enhancing the record’s overall dreamy tone.
It doesn’t stop there: “The Body” is propelled by Kurt Feldman’s kinetic drums and Wang’s sunshine soaked synthesizer, while the late album treat “Too Tough” is immersed in watery, slow-dance inspired bass work. Through it all, Pains are locked in and focused, the sign of a group whose output is more important than the image surrounding it. Pains is determined to take listeners into their world, where walls of psychedelic overdrive wash over tender earbuds and soft hearts. In the hands of a lesser band, this could prove downright cheesy, but not on Belong. None of the performances come across as flashy or showy, itching for that deft solo or big ballady plateau. Rather, each band member adds just enough to a given track so that it’s able to breath with its own lungs, each part delicately intersecting to create something bigger.
That’s the beauty of Belong, it’s a body of songs with a variety of influences, one that’s able to effortlessly translate old sounds into something remarkably fresh and vivid.
Another facet that really stands out is the production, which has drastically improved since the group’s 2009 self-titled debut. The choice to use famed 90s producer Flood (Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, U2) was a masterstroke as he gives every instrument ample space without an abundance of studio sheen. While old shoegaze records glossed over the rhythm section to focus solely on the plethora of Marshall stacked guitars, Flood is able to bring a sense of balanced space on Belong, giving the album some real punch. “Even In Dreams” marries its chunky, power-pop chug with an ethereal cascade of white noise, creating a studio atmosphere that’s as immense as experiencing it live. Elsewhere, “My Terrible Friend” sports a Robert Smith-like bounce and technicolor keys, with each instrument gently hanging in place rather than acting like a collection of competing sounds.
Of course, this attention to detail would be somewhat lost if the songs didn’t delve below the surface. Thankfully, Pains understands that, and they aim to reveal emotions rather than hit on worn-out clichés. Whether they decide tackle isolation (“Belong”) or intimacy (“Anne With An E”), they do so with naked honesty and wry wit. Lines like “She was the heart in your heartbreak/She was the miss in your mistake/And no matter what you take/You're never going to forget…” from “Heart In Your Heartbreak” keep listeners on their toes, not because they’re brand new insights, but because they’ve added a wrinkle to the familiar pangs of heartache. Where most bands would opt for the hyper-verbose and intellectual, Pains keeps it simple, unafraid to inject some pop sweetness into their otherwise sobering revelations.
And what heartbreakingly beautiful revelations they are, for Belong is certainly a record about being alive, about the small moments in one’s life that feel like the largest.
With just the right amount of melodrama, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart capture those moments in a record that your older sibling would have loved, and then passed on to you when they became too cool for it. In many ways, Belong is the type of album you’d listen to alone in your room, earphones strapped on tight, head cradled by shag, as you're hooked from Berman’s first loopy lead. It’s an album that takes you away to learn certain truths that no amount of conversation could ever impart, complete with mountains of buzz saw guitar that make real life seem a little less exciting.
In the end, it’s a record that you feel, both in your head and in your heart. Not so curiously, Belong comes at time where so many records fail to make us feel anything at all. Okay, maybe it's not Loveless, but at the very least it take us somewhere new, and it's one hell of a ride.
Key Cuts: Belong, Even In Dreams, My Terrible Friend
Sounds Like: Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (The Cure), Nowhere (Ride), Siamese Dream (The Smashing Pumpkins)
Click on the artwork to sample Belong for yourself!
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Records used to take you places.