It is perhaps every musical act’s ambition to leave its original mark on the world of music. Yet it is nearly impossible to avoid the influence of yesterday’s musical giants and be wholly original. Creating music that leaves an impact on listeners and persists on radio stations for decades happens when you throw your own take into the mix and make every one of your influences sound brand new. Dylan played folk through an amp, Zeppelin took the hooks and riffs of blues and turned them into a hard rock revolution, and U2 shaped ‘80’s riffs into stadium anthem gold with guitar pedals and North Irish politics.
With 2011’s Belong, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart explore their influences, ranging from The Cure to R.E.M. to My Bloody Valentine. Some of the Pains’ tracks are purely original, taking the sappy lyrics and delayed guitars of their influences to an unexplored level. Yet most of Belong finds The Pains regurgitating the hooks and elements of their lo-fi alt-rock ‘80s counterparts without delivering the same sort of ingenious kick.
The album leads strongly enough with its title track, “Belong,” one that melds a solid indie song structure with melancholy vocals and heavy guitars reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins. The track is uplifting in its energetic delivery and major tonality, and is certainly a well-selected opener and album namesake.
Then the mood shifts, and Belong starts to sound a little too familiar. The energy leaks and The Pains’ influences become exceedingly apparent. The ‘80s are a constant presence on the album, especially in the mellow ballad elements of “Anne with an E,” “Even in Dreams,” and “My Terrible Friend.” This becomes even more obvious when influences from specific bands can be heard. The guitar riffs and breathy vocals of The Cure appear on tracks like the sappy “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now,” and “The Body” features the anthem vibes reminiscent of The Killers, a band also known for its ‘80s sounds.
After spending much of the album trying to figure out who The Pains sound like rather than just listening to The Pains, the listener begins to hear more originality in the album’s later tracks. “Girl of 1000 Dreams” and “Too Tough” still evoke bands like R.E.M. and We Are Scientists, but there’s something new there. The energy that dissipated following the opener is back with new terrain to cover, and the tracks serve nicely to build to the finale.
The Pains seem to finally find their sound right as the album is ending with “Strange.” The song is much more purposeful and well-crafted than most of the others on the album. As delayed guitars spiral in the soundscape behind those breathy vocals and driving drums, it’s easy to imagine the credits rolling on the best John Hughes movie never made. In the album’s closer, The Pains manage to bring all of their favorite influences to the table while pitching them in a way that you’re sure you’ve never heard before.
There is no doubt that with Belong, The Pains deliver an honest and whole-hearted album. Their love for music and its creation is clear as it rings apparent on the album’s stronger tracks. But their unique voice, the distinguishing element that would jerk them from the abyss of indie obscurity, is clouded by their reliance on familiar ‘80s and alt-rock elements. All in all, Belong makes for a relaxing and enjoyable work of indie-pop. But if you’re looking for the same innovation that those ‘80s giants brought to rock music thirty years ago, you might want to consider looking elsewhere.