Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Belong (2011)



With a name like this, a band has a lot of persuading to do; there is little about their stylistic niche that doesn't initially confirm all the worst suspicions it gives. They look, sound, and feel exactly like you'd imagine a group called The Pains of Being Pure at Heart would. Conversely, the memories they evoke are unmistakably up my alley, and indeed that of most anyone interested in alternative rock 1980s to present. If nothing else, this is a band with impeccable taste in material to imitate, which they do quite liberally. We get the sound, already well-mined by the Smashing Pumpkins among many others, of the Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine crossed with adolescent, melodramatic attitudes of the Cure and the Smiths -- sans the humor and wryness of Depeche Mode. It's as if they're crafting music with a specific audience of irony-free youth in mind. There's not really any shame in that, but it is difficult to buy the sincerity of grownups who propagate this sort of material with a straight face. When I listen to Cure records, I find myself wearily smiling a bit at the sheer silliness of it all -- and there doesn't seem to be any self-awareness to offset that, or to find pleasure in it.

So for the duration of Belong's title track, I'm connecting the dots. Its "we just don't belong" chorus hits hard like the best '60s instances of grown weirdos like Shadow Morton making little girls sing crazed odes to the immensity of teenage passion, like a reality distorted. And the song shoots out of the speakers like some 1989 college rock juggernaut, guitars relentless with the shimmering, anthemic spirit of youth. It's the closest TPOBPAH can come to finding the human essence their skyscraping tunes grasp for, that added depth and intensity that makes Arcade Fire and U2 (on a good day, which was long ago) riveting and not embarrassing. To make music this sweeping and grand work, one must move past communication into an empathy that this crowd, like Robert Smith before them, is too preoccupied to track down. It's a hell of a voyage but with no touchdown.

Soon you come to recognize the broad strokes and thickness provided by Flood and Alan Moulder, whose work on a constant parade of '90s commercial-alt classics puts them second only to Butch Vig as defining the rock radio sound of that decade. Like the band, this pair seems stuck in time somehow, only they seem to have an excuse -- they were hired to duplicate a feeling. Hirings and duplications hint at a deeper problem for bands like Pains, whose obsessions drive them more than their discoveries. Spend enough time listening to the classic indie and alternative records from the 1987-91 period this record plunders and you find the same thing you find when you spend too many hours on the pop station: all this shit has a formula too. In a true sense, genres are formulas, or formula applications, and this one can finally go only so far in confirming individuality. Without distinctive songwriting to back up an addiction to a noise, you're left only with a briefly gratifying fridge buzz. "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now" coulda been on the radio between Screaming Trees and Catherine Wheel songs and you would bob along and wait for the next non-filler tune to come up. And twenty years later you'd hear it on the radio and it would bring that period alive for you and you'd wonder why you didn't love it then. But the unfair advantage of advance memory accumulation should not be the prime stock in trade of a vital new band.

It sounds like there is an identity hiding somewhere in here; I've been one to lament the tired "why listen to [new band] when you could listen to [old band that influenced new band]?" argument, but never has it been as tempting as when I hear "Heart in Your Heartbreak," a song whose throwback tendencies are so explicit it feels manipulative, and "The Body," a lift from the group's collective favorite, the terminally underappreciated O.M.D. And yet... something begins to happen to even the best of us, that feverish party-dream sound becomes hard to resist. You want to stay away from these towers of propulsive kiddie synthpop, but oh, that chorus... And this is why grownups are hooked on young adult lit, why a film about adolescence done right with depth of feeling (like Adventureland) can leave even a cynic woozy, why Depeche Mode's coy songs about teenage lust are high art -- because there is immensity, truth, and the delight of the universal in these emotions. Because they are important, and they long ago laid the groundwork for us. And here they are again.

At the midpoint of Belong, it becomes genuinely and completely seductive. It's shoegaze power pop, a concept of endless possibility. The suite that makes Belong impossible to ignore begins with the Church / Echo and the Bunnymen oddity "Anne with an E," whispered posturing that feels incredibly good. And there are songs! Real, complete songs, perpetually lacking on the remainder of the disc. The pick hit here is "Even in Dreams," which could have been on the soundtrack to Lost Boys (or Donnie Darko!) or, better yet, any midnight you've ever spent staring straight upward -- it's note-perfect midnight glory; you can almost see the stars swooning past in some perfumed bout of inspired private or shared troublemaking or wandering. This is what introspective rock & roll is all about. But Pains also offer their 2011 equivalent of last year's baffling Midnight Juggernauts masterstroke "Lara vs. the Savage Pack" in the form of the improbably ingenious pop work "My Terrible Friend" -- dynamic, maximized synthpop with thoroughly ingratiating stop-start momentum. It's like bubblegum Cocteau Twins.

Then comes the afterparty, and the whole colorful Psychedelic Furs foundation collapses as if all the appealing, blissful stuff were just a put-on (like a Strokes LP). "Girl of 1000 Dreams" is a rock dud that lamely approximates My Bloody Valentine circa Ecstasy and Wine, "Too Tough" is a hungover guitar thing briefly conjuring up current college rock's bizarre fascination with Tom Petty, and "Strange" simply meanders, droning and singing off into the darkness. Despite the strong impressions Belong's highlights leave, it really consists of three excellent songs, preceded by four good but hyper-derivative ones and leaving three mediocrities in their wake. There isn't enough here to form a complete picture of a group that knows what it's doing; it's not even particularly their fault, but this is why it's so much harder for new artists to develop in the 2010s. A band with obviously considerable potential can record an album that only realizes some of it -- this is Pains' second goround, and as of yet I cannot comment on their first -- but gets half-crazed notices filled with hype, inevitably leading future audience members to look for a fully formed group that is in fact still learning who they are and what they want to do.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are doing a fine enough job so far; their hearts are unmistakably in the right place. They could stand to have a little bit more fun, to allow their integrity not to morph into an odd, crushing absense of sensuality, to write more of the spellbinding and evocative songs of which they're clearly capable. I hope everyone gives them time and keeps listening; for merely the pleasure I get from nodding and grooving along to "My Terrible Friend," they've got me on their team.

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