There are few bands who come right out of the gate with a fully-formed idea, some basic concept on which to base their sound. For most bands, the beginning of a career is a mishmash of ideas thrown together until everyone involved can figure out what works and what doesn’t. This wasn’t the case with Austin’s Pure X, whose debut album Pleasure stands as one of the best albums I’ve heard in the past few years. Its murky textures and near-indecipherable vocals weren’t all revelations, but the album was done with such skill and purpose that I was hooked. Since then, though, they’ve morphed into a different band with each release, peeling back layer after sonic layer until, on their new album Angel, you could clearly hear a guitar being played. That clarity defines Angel and the band’s new sound, but after spending time with the album, you have to wonder if they were better off playing in the haze.
Pure X’s earlier work contained a tension made even more apparent by the deliberate obscurity of the songs. The songs had you on edge, in a place well outside of your comfort zone. On Angel, the band seek to do away with that by crafting songs that are more organically soothing than anything else. Much of Angel floats by, carried only by lightly-strummed acoustic guitars and whispered vocals. The band are aiming for “pleasant” here, and to their credit, they mostly succeed: “Heaven” and “Every Tomorrow” represent the sort of song that this incarnation of Pure X are trying to master, and they’re among the album’s highlights. Both are midtempo numbers, each with an amiable melody that does the heavy lifting, and they don’t overstay their welcome. If the band wanted to go in a new direction, they certainly have a clear idea of what that is.
It doesn’t change the fact that the band seem to be lowering the bar for themselves on Angel. The band’s earlier experimentations with reverb and distortion pointed in a relatively fresh direction, one that wasn’t necessarily brand new but was refreshing and welcome in an increasingly monochromatic indie rock scene. By peeling all of that away on Angel, Pure X have revealed themselves to be a fairly conventional rock band. They’re a very good conventional rock band, mind you, but there’s nothing about Angel that truly rings as challenging or essential. It’s a pleasant listen, sure, but there’s not much more to the album beyond that.
Perhaps making a pleasant album was all that Pure X wanted to do. It’s not unsurprising that the band would go in this direction. Clarity is something that bands like R.E.M. and Pavement moved towards as their careers progressed, for better or for worse. Still, after spending more than a few hours with Angel, I can’t shake the feeling that Pure X may have been selling themselves short by making an album like this. It’s a well-crafted, well-performed piece of mediocrity, and that might be the most stinging disappointment of all.