The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are so fucking cute I can barely even deal with it. Press photos courtesy of Slumberland (cute!) Records show the three guys in the band posing in crewnecks and cardigans, trying in vain to outshine their adorable Asian keyboardist (named Peggy Wang!). Should you suppose that any of this is at all a put-on, well, just give Belong the minute or so it needs to hit its first giddy chorus and try to resist feeling a little punch-drunk yourself. I don't care how ideologically invested you are in the edgy-sexy-scary quadrants of underground rock, if you can listen to Belong on a sunny day and not enjoy the experience, then you're a fundamentally unhappy person and the new Strokes record on repeat forever is the fate you deserve.
There's a recurring criticism of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart that cites their terminal lack of danger or eroticism as grounds for dismissal, which I suppose I would find convincing were I of the opinion that guitar rock can/should be reduced to the virility cult which male rock critics have constructed around Mick Jagger's storied junk (guess the gender of the NME writer who writes the album off as "flaccid").
However flagrantly the Pains of Being Pure at Heart transgress rock's norms of leather-fetishizing machismo, they just as clearly embody nearly all of the values that make rock fun to listen to. Belong showcases a young band operating at an impressive level of cohesion and consistency, knocking out hook after sugary hook with a sticking rate that would be commendable for a band with twice their songwriting experience. The dazzling interplay between synth and guitar leads and the robotic precision of the rhythm section are also not to be scoffed at. Sure, it's not the most technically demanding music, but there's an undeniable grace to the nimbleness with which the melodies intertwine, the way that a sudden keyboard blast or thunder-peal of distortion will explode out of a song, or the way that the drums will suddenly jump from post-punk pummeling to stadium-sized chug. "Belong" nails the alchemy of swoon and snarl as only disciples of Smashing Pumpkins could, while "Girl of 1000 Dreams" splits the difference between grunge and power-pop. And through it all, there's not a note out of place.
Certainly some of the credit is due to Belong's star production team. Flood and Alan Moulder worked on the seminal albums by My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Ride that so clearly constitute this band's sonic DNA, so it's little surprise that they've contributed more than a spit-shine to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart sound. Belong sounds like a big-budget rock album, all strings and keys chiming and echoing with punctual majesty. Their self-titled debut's lo-fi scuzz has been scraped clean, and the resulting product often sounds as much like the Cars as any of the band's noisier influences. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's ragged pop sensibility was certainly part of its appeal, but Belong gives the impression that a brighter, cleaner sound suits the band much better.
Besides, the hi-fi treatment gives the Pains of Being Pure at Heart the chance to try on new sounds. Wang, for example, contributes louder and brighter melodies to the songs on Belong, her synthesizer a cinema-sized presence where it was previously just a counterpoint to the guitars. "The Body" and "Even in Dreams" are almost straight-ahead new wave, and—no surprise—the band proves adept at recreating that genre's lush melodicism. Generally speaking, everything about Belong is shiner and more romantic than the last album; if The Pains of Being Pure at Heart depicted an eternal Saturday in the lives of a few sensitive American teenagers, Belong catches those same kids dolled up for a perpetual prom night. Everyone's still gangly and helpless before their own hormones, but now there's formal wear involved. And even if no one succeeds at spiking the punch, you can bet that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart will be blissed out and tipsy regardless. They're like that all the time.