The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have suddenly assumed the role of Vampire Weekend’s doppelganger. It’s a weird analogy, but stick with me. Both New York City bands rode a blog-fueled frenzy to quick fame. And both use that platform to reach for the brass ring on album #2, without straying too far from their indie roots. Their results have varied, however.

I’ll state my case in one word: Flood. The Pains enlisted the man synonymous with the ’90s alt-rock Grand Gesture (U2, Smashing Pumpkins) to produce their sophomore bow, even flying to the London epicenter of many of their idols to complete the recording. Flood lays it on thick for the title track, a classic Opening Gambit with ginormous guitars and crashing drums seemingly aimed at busting down the doors of modern rock radio playlists, if such a creature still existed.

After that moment of commercial reinvention Belong returns to the familiar jangle of “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” which feels like a nod to its underdog-loving base – “here’s your opening track, old friends.” Kip Berman’s signature lilting vocals haven’t toughened a bit, and his songwriting remains mostly strong, but the genre shopping isn’t over. Mid-album momentum takes a serious hit with the ill-advised synth pop of “The Body” and the turgid girl group meets shoegaze of “Anne with an E.” Peggy Wang’s keyboards assume a more prominent role throughout – in places it may simply be the cleaner mix making them more noticeable – but add little beyond period signifiers. For instance, “My Terrible Friend” is a nice Low Life-era New Order homage – go ahead, hum the chorus of “Love Vigilantes” over the bridge.

After pushing into new terrain with mixed results, the Pains return to familiar turf for a rousing home stretch. “Too Tough,” the one track not produced solely by Flood, plays like a less murky and, well, tougher do-over of powerful closer “Gentle Sons” from the debut. Only “Girl of 1,000 Dreams” seems a true reprise of that Shop Assistants/Pale Saints sound that served as the quartet’s initial calling card. Given Flood’s veneer and the frequently turbocharged guitars (“Even in Dreams” could go toe to toe with the Silversun Pickups) Belong too often sounds like solid radio tracks as opposed to something personal and special, the band’s initial mystique.

After lighting the match that ignited the C-86 revival, perhaps the Pains have simply wound the clock forward a few years on their chosen influences. When Vampire Weekend expanded its horizons on Contra, they exhaled, winked and loosened up a bit. By contrast, the Pains seem a tad uncomfortable in their pricier new duds.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart