There’s a reason that a synonym for slowcore (Codeine, Low, Red House Painters, et al.) was sadcore. It tended to be bummer music: the music often simulating the anamorphosis of time under a spell of depression, desolation, or general melancholy, accentuating the way that time seemed to drag, the melted and coalesced disjunctive quality of hours, days, years lived under a spell of mis-feeling.
Austin, TX’s Pure X (nee Pure Ecstasy) are sadcore for the chillwavers, all fuzzed out and hazily smooth, decidedly lo-fi where the “lo” could be short for both “lowercase” and “lonely”. Slowcore was frequently studio work, but Pure X show that the bedroom aesthetic can use form to illustrate the same things lyrics were traditionally responsible for. Yet the pivotal twist of Pure X is the sun-glazed bent of vocalist and guitarist Nate Grace’s guitar, which is warbled and flanged to sound bubbly and distorted like it has a plunger over it, plagued by a surf twang that evokes an irrefutable warmth. Like Galaxie 500 stuck on layover in Hawaii, this is not music of the shadows, but emptiness in the bright open day. Their debut Pleasure captures the feeling of being alone on the beach, beset by the beautiful people and scenery around you. With the pleasures and pinnacles of lived life around him or her, the depressed individual can only feel that much more hollow when faced with their inability to commune this joy.
Pure X enlist a variety of less-is-more tricks to soundtrack this sense of withdrawal and solitude. Vaporous panels of reverb have long been used to accent isolation, the way Elvis could feel so lonesome that he could die, but here reverb also smears the mix at times, making the whole sound image dreary as hell. Pure X’s version of depression seems to be encased by bong rips—a deep slackerdom that renders the body physically useless even as the mind works overtime.
Part of this comes from the ambulatory nature of Austin Youngblood’s bloodless, plodding drums. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, ground zero for both shoegaze and slowcore, used this same kind of effect to leverage a slow-grinding propulsion beneath an impenetrable exoskeleton of reverb and fuzz. The major difference in Pure X is that Youngblood’s backbeats are far more audible, the dull rhythms giving off the feel of being stuck and slightly undead (in the video for “Easy”, Grace is literally chained to a chair). “I know, I know, I know / It seems like there’s no place left to go,” Grace announces on “Voices”, ending the same song with the desolate plea “I swear that the walls aren’t caving in / So just keep on walking” as if sheer movement itself equals salvation.
Grace’s voice also gives off a “last man standing” vibe, articulated perhaps most aptly in the use of falsetto on tracks like “Voices” and “Half Here”. Falsetto is pretty common in indie music (Of Montreal, Hot Chip, Bon Iver, Active Child, et al.), but it’s generally chorused by instrumental or vocal harmonic accompaniment. On Pleasure, Grace does not split the self into adjoining vocals. Instead, his strained singing is rendered completely naked as the bass, drums, and guitars ignore his passionate shrieks and continue along their path without him.
Though these tricks can work, at times their veil begins to slip. The ceaseless functional drumming grows tedious in the album’s second half, where the songs aren’t quite as good as tunes like the wonderful “Twisted Mirror” or the Seefeel-stripped-of-dub slow drift of “Heavy Air” from the first half. The reverb also at times seems to be as much a cover for sloppiness as an intensifier of alienation. Perhaps the most disturbing part of Pleasure is not the confessional lyrics (which are rarely decodable), but the breeziness of its 37 minutes. One could just as easily ignore this music, let the pain fade into the distance, as wrench your heart in its bummed-out core. Pleasure’s same-ness is much the point, but that doesn’t prevent it from being the one thing that holds the group back.