Review Summary: Growing up, as it turns out, has fewer Pains than you thought.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have always frustrated me. As an avowed fan of jangly, melodic guitar music, they were a band that I was supposed to love, for all those little hints of similarity to artists like The Smiths, The Sundays, and Japanese pop rock groups like Advantage Lucy or The Pillows. They played Fender guitars, had airy, shoegaze-inflected voices, and a Token Cute Asian Girl Band Member. With clean-shaved faces and cardigans, Pains was an old-school indie rock band in the same vein as Rocketship or Velocity Girl, in a scene oversaturated with very serious bearded guys and glum acoustic guitars.
But the execution always left something to be desired, and their debut didn't particularly impress me, with the exception of just a few tracks. “Young Adult Friction,” “Stay Alive” and “A Teenager In Love” stood out inside of an otherwise forgettable record that certainly wasn't bad, but had been done much better by groups like Asobi Seksu.
After hearing the excellent singles “Heart In Your Heartbreak” and “Say No To Love,” I had much higher expectations for their follow-up Belong, but found the final product much like Japanese confections: Lush and pretty on the outside, but without a lot of substance or lasting appeal. But outstanding tracks like the lead-up singles, “The Body,” and “Even In Dreams,” once again, show hints of greatness. Belong was a better record, but still not a great record.
I'm pleased to say Pains have finally touched their full potential on their third full-length, Days Of Abandon. Kip Berman has jettisoned the ineffective half-shoegaze fuzz guitars of the past records and replaced them bouncy, jangly tones more reminiscent of The Pretenders or Johnny Marr's playing, which contribute greatly to the album's success. This is particularly evident on standout track “Masokissed,” which shows a level of complexity and musical skill absent from the group's earlier work. Peggy Wang is gone, replaced by Jen Goma, whose vocals contribute tremendously to “Kelly” and “Life After Life,” two of the best tracks on the album. Wang's lo-fi keyboard has been replaced by a much more expansive and lush sound that naturally fills out the cleaner compositions on Days.
What's most satisfying about Days is that Kip Berman has reached a level of skill and maturity in composition that surpasses everything else the group has done before. “Art Smock” and “Beautiful You” are subdued tracks but remain interesting, with subtle vocal hooks and flourishes that show a wider range than the previous records. The vocal melodies on “Eurydice” and “Simple And Sure” are some of the best Berman's ever written, and are a nice progression from the indistinct shoegaze haziness that tended to dominate their earlier music.
The record isn't perfect - “Until The Sun Explodes” is the weakest track on the album and, maybe not coincidentally, sounds the most like the band's older material, and the band's lyrics are hit or miss: much like the album cover, they tend to be an uncomfortable juxtaposition of wistful cuteness and bleak indulgence that doesn't always work. But in every way, the album is a step forward Berman and drummer Kurt Feldman – the sole remaining members of the original lineup. It's hard to say whether the lineup change was a result or catalyst for “Days,” but there's no doubting that the result is a fine summer album and a welcome progression for a promising band.