The success of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart following the release of their self titled debut album always mystified me. Don't get me wrong I adored them (still the band I've seen live the most times), but they always felt like underdogs. Making competently played indie pop that was really more of a sum of a narrow branch of influences than anything particularly special or original and they never appeared quite forceful or decisive enough to reach out to the noteworthy critical and commercial success they somehow managed to muster. But, somehow they achieved it, and I think this can be attributed to their wide eyed enthusiasm, the sheer level of competence with which they played their basic songs (seriously, I don't think they put a foot wrong at all), and the fact it was all so much fun. I, and a huge number of other people, fell in love with TPOBPAH slowly but surely.

They followed their debut shortly with an EP release titled Higher than the Stars and it was lauded as a slight change in direction, moving away from the somewhat restricted template the band had previously set for themselves. While it's true that their first album was extremely limited in scope, to the point of the songs being nearly identical in form, structure and sound, and Higher Than The Stars widened their musical pallet somewhat, this sort of variation in style would not raise any eyebrows whatsoever if contained within one release. Which is fine y'know? I liked what the Pains were doing before, why would I want them to radically shift? It seems the band don't quite agree with me, and while they haven't quite chucked everything out of the window, on their latest release Belong, there's something new and different going on here.

Not that different I'll grant you, but it's certainly distinct in style. Influences remain somewhat static, but they've added some 'Siamese Dream' era 'Smashing Pumpkins' to the mix along with some other minor tweaks (partially brought by ex-pumpkins producer Flood, who didn't actually produce Siamese Dream), and with this change Belong sounds a lot more assured than anything they've previously produced up to this point. Part of this must have come from the growing confidence emanating from the band. Each time I saw them over the past couple of years, they seem to have grown in panache and ability, and this is reflected rather strongly here. While their debut seemed rather formulaic, and occasionally reserved, Belong has no qualms about throwing everything into the mix. Simply put, on TPOBPAH the band seemed as if they were just rather chuffed to be making music. They really didn't want to mess it up by trying anything they weren't comfortable with, and this was somewhat adorable. Belong however feels like a band realising the full extent of their ability.

How is this represented? Well, the opening track, single and title track 'Belong' kicks off with a few jangly guitars and it feels familiar, and exactly what we would have expected from their first album. However in but a few seconds, crushingly loud guitars kick in, and the song proper beings. Ultimately in structure, and general song smithery there's nothing different here. But it feels louder, bigger, and dare I say it, better. In fact, the whole of Belong is ultimately better than TPOBPAH. The songs are more varied, the structure less formulaic, the sound clearer, the riffs are more catchy and noticeable, and the whole thing is really just a testament to the growing abilities of a young band. The cynical will say songs like 'Belong', with their big arena filling sound are a reach to the mainstream and they wouldn't be wrong as it all seems much more friendly and inviting. 'Belong' and 'Heart In Your Heartbreak' are both excellent singles that I can easily imagine blaring out on the slightly alternative radio, and enticing the slightly alternative masses.

But the heart of the thing is unchanged. The Pains might have grown up, but at their core they are still the slightly awkward teenage band they always were. While louder and technically gifted, the music is still played with the same enthusiastic exuberance, and it seems as if Pains are having fun, and making the record that they want to make. The faux-British accent is still there, and it still sounds like a record made by a group of people who are so desperately fans of the music it it is aping. Sounds such as 'Anne with an E', 'The Body', 'My Terrible Friend' and 'Too Tough' perfectly represent the sort of awkward love, and feeling of not quite belonging that the Pains have always so comfortably depicted. In a way, The Pains are the perfect oddball teenage band, taking the words right out of the mouths of all of those young people who were never quite sure of themselves. The lyrics aren't ever going to be described as poetic, but they hit the right buttons, and are occasionally very poignant. While not landing depressingly close to home, like a Smiths lyric, Kip Bermans words seem inviting. Although often covering difficult subjects like not feeling comfortable in your skin, as in 'The Body', The Pains almost attempt to reassure the self proclaimed wierdos out there that really they belong (see what I did there?) after all. So yes, it's desperately teenage, but it's so good at being so that you might just forgive it.

While it's all excellent, I'm not sure I prefer Belong to their first album. Essentially it's a better album, the songs are more varied and accomplished, it sounds a whole lot better, appearing like a band who have hit their stride with aplomb, but I think it's lost some of the charm of the original. With this confidence and slight reach for a wider audience, some of the innocent enjoyment that the band used to have has been lost. sounds less like a group of young musicians doing what they really loved, and more like a serious band, and that was what I adored so much about them. In essence it's less charming, and probably a little less easy to fall in love with. What it's lost in charm however, it's certainly gained in sheer quality, and I would let nothing be taken away from this excellent album.

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