I think it might be time to do an installment of Great Fucking Albums on Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins. It seems like I’m hearing that album everywhere lately. I guess a lot of kids who were raised on it (and other great 1990s guitar albums) are in bands now. I consider this a blessing and a curse because it reminds me that Billy Corgan is no longer worth taking seriously as a musician and possibly also as a person.
The latest band to remind me of the halcyon days when Billy Corgan’s ego and pretension were forgivable is The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who just released their second album, Belong. I listened to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self-titled debut and, thanks to low expectations, I found that I actually kind of enjoyed it. Why is it that My Bloody Valentine sucks so badly, yet they’ve actually inspired some pretty good music? How does that happen?
Anyway, Belong is a whole lot louder and a whole lot 1990s-er than its predecessor. The title track opens the album and is the most Siamese Dream-esque of the lot, but the remaining nine tracks definitely exist firmly in that time period. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Flood, who produced some of the good Pumpkins records (Butch Vig produced Siamese Dream. As a producer, it was Vig’s only big hit of the 1990s. Rock historians refer to it as his “Lost Decade”), co-produced Belong.
From where I sit, the formula that worked well enough on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – fuzzy guitars and whispery vocals – remains fully intact on Belong. Kip “Yes, Kip” Berman’s vocals are a little higher in the mix, but he still kinda sounds like he doesn’t want to wake up his mom. I know that’s the style, and it’s kind of a cute trick. At first. “Belong” is a really fun way to start an album, but the Pains of Being Pure at Heart pretty much only have the one dynamic and that makes Belong start to feel really static after the first few tracks. It’s not a bad album (I got it the same day I got the new Strokes album, which is a bad album), but it doesn’t hold my attention for long periods of time either.
Since I live in Los Angeles, I get to spend a perverse amount of time stuck in traffic and that (silver lining) gives me time to listen to albums and allow them to really wash over me. While I generally enjoy Belong, it doesn’t have the same effect on me that Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out did the first time I listened to it in my car. When I heard “Words and Guitar” for the first time, I was driving down the 101 grinning like an idiot. Because that song fucking rocks. I haven’t gotten that feeling from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and it may be because they’re just a bit too precious for me. There’s a word they use on the internet for this sort of thing, but I don’t want to use it here because 1) the word is as aesthetically pleasing to me as a sack of dead kittens covered in shit and 2) I suspect that this word is used as a pejorative against nice people and nice things by people who hate niceness. I’ve been accused of my share of cynicism, but I’m not going to support people who are openly hostile to niceness. It’s unseemly.
That said, though, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart get a little too cute for my liking, especially on “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” with its cringe-inducing repetition of the line “she was a miss in your mistake.” That’s the kind of line you’re supposed to write and then cross it out, saying to yourself, “No. I’m a grown-up. Grown-ups don’t write like that.” In their review of the first Pains of Being Pure at Heart (I refuse to abbreviate the name, though I will submit a helpful list of Rejected Pains of Being Pure at Heart Name Puns if you’d like) record, Pitchfork tried to suggest that the band was actually a lot darker than they appear at first. That argument reminds me of the bit from Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves and Lollipops where he’s talking about getting in people’s faces about Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required – “He’s totally punk rock, he’s got on sneakers with a suit!” The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are not that dark and that really doesn’t matter that much anyway.
Their first album was pretty catchy and pretty pretty and I enjoyed it a fair amount. Belong is not drastically different, except that the production is a little cleaner. In that sense, Belong is a better album than The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but that’s like comparing brands of chunky peanut butter. At a certain end of the spectrum, it’s all just chunky peanut butter, you should buy the one that’s on sale and go the fuck home (Official Bollocks! Fact: all of the peanut butter in the world – in the world! – is made in only two locations. There’s a Chunky Peanut Butter Factory in Minot, North Dakota, and a Creamy Peanut Butter Factory in Argentina and all the different peanut butter companies pay a nominal fee to these factories to stick the peanut butter in jars with their label on them. This is done to give you, the consumer, the illusion of choice). About half way through Belong, I feel like I’ve been listening to the same song over and over, although “Too Tough” sticks out enough from the others for me to count it as a highlight.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart get a lot of positive press and this may be the most negative review of Belong that you’ll read. Don’t get me wrong; I like the album fine, but I don’t see anything very amazing or anthemic about it (side note: WordPress’s text editor doesn’t seem to think “anthemic” is a word, which makes me sad for the good people at WordPress. Have they never heard anything anthemic before? You know, like “Death or Glory” or “White Riot”?). I think you could create a Random Internet Chorus Generator that would, five times out of twenty, cough up a Pains of Being Pure at Heart song for you. That’s not a slight against the band (really, it’s not), I’m just pointing out that they make simple, pretty music. Belong will probably be the soundtrack to many people’s summer this year and I’m all for that, but my musical diet requires something with a bit more substance in order to sustain me (in this analogy, I guess Tom Waits is the musical equivalent of roughage).