If there is a lesson to be learned from the alt-rock era (and there are many lessons to be learned from the alt-rock era), it’s that high-end studio production can be a highly valuable investment for those who know how best to harness it. Part of the reason that albums such as Siamese Dream, Nevermind and Loveless have permanently embedded themselves in the canon has a lot to do with their expansive, monolithic sound. Certainly, the songs are great, but the massive sound of the recordings is what made them godly. Yet, despite a few years of modern rock sovereignty, the ensuing years produced a lot of soft-boiled post-grunge that eventually resulted in an indie rock market correction following a Joy Division bubble, and eventually nobody sounded like Nirvana and everyone sounded like the Vaselines. One band that tread a middle ground more closely aligned with the latter, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, seemed unlikely candidates for a gargantuan studio effort, their twee-as-fuck name and lyrics of library romance a far cry from grunge-era angst. Yet the band’s shoegazer influences suggested great potential for something bigger and brighter, were the band ever to luck into, say, working with famed producer Flood.
Somehow, that did actually happen. The Pains’ second album, Belong, boasts a similar kind of dreamy, fuzzy songwriting as its predecessor, but thanks to Flood and mixer Alan Moulder, the band now sounds gigantic. That the production/mixing duo has worked behind the boards for the likes of the Pumpkins, PJ Harvey and Nine Inch Nails should suggest just how great of a leap this actually is, but the opening title track makes it even more explicit. With only a slight moment of warning, “Belong” explodes into a spectacular fireworks display of distortion and major chords, the kind of endorphin-rush of gigantic sound and melody that even Billy Corgan hasn’t been able to replicate since 1993.
However drastic a production transition The Pains of Being Pure At Heart have undergone on Belong, they are still very much the same band that captured cardigan-covered indie hearts in 2009. Still, the polish and sparkle suits them well here, amplifying their best qualities and turning their understated charm into rock star dazzle. From “Belong” they soar through “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now” and “Heart In Your Heartbreak,” two of the strongest melodies they’ve written, made all the more impressive with the extra pop of their jet-engine guitars and soaring synths. Even Kip Berman’s gentle croon is mixed higher, giving a pointed directness to typically witty and awkwardly emotional lines like “What is your take?/ ’cause that’s what I’d take/ but I can’t take it without you.”
Even though the group hasn’t made any massive alterations to their identity as a band, a few moments arise throughout Belong that show The Pains pushing some new boundaries. “Girls of 1000 Dreams” espouses a shrieking, Jesus and Mary Chain-style noise rock din. And the effects-laden closer, “Strange,” finds the band reveling in shoegazer ecstasy, layering on even more effects in blissful juxtaposition. There probably isn’t enough distortion in the world to obfuscate The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s playful nerdiness, but it’s precisely that lovable, bookish quality that makes the band so endearing. And that’s all here on Belong, but this time, it sort of kicks your ass.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.