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Band to Watch: Pains of Being Pure at Heart Show Off a Bold New Sound

On second album, 'Belong,' the band breaks away from its twee beginnings

March 8, 2011 8:35 AM ET

Click to listen to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's "Heart In Your Heartbreak"

Who: This quartet of shy Brooklynites lost themselves in sweet teenage reverie on their reverb-heavy debut. Now, thanks to a pair of their idols, they’re living the dream-pop dream.

Sounds Like: Named after a (perhaps wisely) unpublished short story written by a friend of the band's, Pains have a deep and abiding love for all things twee. Angular anglophilic influences abound on their self-titled 2009 release (from fragile early-Nineties yearners the Field Mice to the hazy, wall-of-sound shimmer of shoegazers My Bloody Valentine and Ride) and song names veer toward the cutesy (“Young Adult Friction,” “The Tenure Itch”). But if their debut was overly deferential, the new Belong (out March 29) erupts with palpable, if polite, confidence. The title track spikes its sweet with rumbly bits of sour feedback while the skyscraping “Even in Dreams” is a terrific Smashing Pumpkins homage. Much of the credit goes to the sure hands of producer Flood and mixer Alan Moulder (U2, Nine Inch Nails, The Killers) but also to the band’s newly forward thinking sensibility: “The subject matter of the first album was very much the past,” says Berman. “These songs are much more visceral. There’s an immediacy to rock music that seems to be lost these days. We were after an immediate rush of sensation and feeling.”

Growing Pains: Berman grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, emptying his pockets for overpriced import CDs and wearing khakis to punk shows – but even at age 31, with two records of his own under his belt, his self-esteem remains distinctly adolescent. (“I wonder what it’s like to be liked,” he sings at one point on Belong.) “We’re not a professional band!” he insists. “We don’t have a perfectionist kind of musical ability – there’s a sense of adventure everytime we pick up instruments and try to play in front of people. But we try our best!” Keyboardist Peggy Wang has a similar perspective: “I’ve always been a really big believer that being technically good at something isn’t what makes music good,” she says. “I like simple, amateurish music. There’s a charm in that. We started the band because we were friends, not because we wanted to shred.”

Famous Friends: Both Wang and Berman are quick to credit their big-name collaborators with the transformation of their sound from that of fumbling fans to walloping world-beaters. “Getting a chance to work with people who made some of the greatest records we grew up with was inspiring,” Berman says, awe still evident in his voice. “These guys really understood us and got it on a basic level. They helped us become more ‘us’ than we could have on our own.” “I really wanted to capture that juxtaposition of loud vs. soft, abrasive vs. pretty,” Wang explains. “And that’s what [Flood and Moulder] were able to do. It was hard for me to get used to hearing how great the songs sounded in the studio.” Still, it wasn’t all shock and awe in the booth: “Just because his name’s Flood it’s not like he has a biblical presence,” Berman adds. “I shouldn’t ruin his mystique but he’s just a nerdy, middle-aged British man who likes weird sounds.”

All-Access Excess: “While everyone was doing drugs / we were just doing love,” Berman sighs on the swirling, lovely album-ender “Strange,” proving that, despite the increase in production values, the Pains of Being Heart are still the same romantic nerds they’ve always been. When reached after a riotously successful pre-release gig in London, Wang gripes about still being self-concious and how she wishes someday they could get a good moshpit going at one of their shows. Just then, there’s an eruption of screams and shouts over the international phone line. “Oh no!” she whispers, “I’m afraid I caused some hoopla.” Did she slap a roadie? Spill the champagne? Toss a television? “No,” she hisses, embarrassed, “I think I accidentally turned off the lights.”

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