[12 May 2013]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
If you’re a young musician or band that is just starting your career, there is no greater gift—or curse—than having your very first effort get bestowed with the following words: “it’s a promising debut.”
Promising because you might be good but you’re not there yet. You need to figure some things out first, cut back on your precious darlings and get to the core of what makes you interesting in the first place. Of course, while this phrase may appear to be somewhat backhanded on the onset, “a promising debut” is better than getting no notice whatsoever. At least people are paying attention. Plus, sometimes a promising debut is better than an out-the-gate winner, as certain rock bands (the Strokes, the Libertines) actually may never fully live up to the promise of their heralded inaugural efforts, soon living under the shadow of their right-place-at-the-right-time noisemaking and never actually being able to overcome it.
Pure X certainly felt that “promising debut” albatross when they released their debut album Pleasure in 2011. Under lots of grimey guitar textures and about 50 gallons of reverb, this Austin trio managed to create an album that sounded exactly like an early 4AD Records release, copping from Red House Painters one moment, This Mortal Coil the next, but all synthesizing it into a sound that was laid back, considered, and quite good. The problem? Every song sounded exactly the same, with virtually no change in texture or tone, just chords, with singer Nate Grace’s voice echoing out of so many canyons of static that you could barely understand a word he said. Individual songs—like the gorgeous “Twisted Mirror”—sounded great when played by itself or dropped into the lineup of a custom playlist. As an end-to-end experience, Pleasure was too monochromatic to fully appreciate the band’s subtle songwriting. It was, in short, “a promising debut.”
With Crawling Up the Stairs, however, the band appears to have read all their harshest reviews, as Crawling is a noted sonic difference from Pleasure, the Austin-based trio stepping into the studio to get a warmer, more professional production, diversifying the vocal effects and expanding their sound out in several new directions. Unfortunately, even with their fiery desire to grow their sound out into new shapes and forms, the group winds up misstepping on ideas just as often as they get one right, but fortunately for us, those moments that work are positively transcendent.
While the lo-fi fuzz of Pleasure has been completely jettisoned from Crawling‘s 38-minute run time, the most prominent difference between this album and their debut is in how the band recorded Grace’s voice. He never sings the same way in any two given songs, as each new track brings a new filter, effect, or other form of alteration to his plainspoken pipes. On “Thousand Year Old Child”—the track on the disc that sounds most like like anything on Pleasure—Grace quietly harmonizes with himself, double-tracking his vocals while never once showing off with any protracted warbling. On Crawling‘s eponymous opening track, he alternates between crystal-clear falsetto and heavily tremoloed whispers, and then does a U-turn by screeching like a young Rhett Miller on “How Did You Find Me”. While it’s great to hear grace stretch himself out, the truth of the matter is that his voice simply isn’t all that compelling. It’s fine, passable, capable of delivering, but never does it feel like a truly essential element to Pure X’s dynamic. Heck, when he multi-tracks himself on the closing “All of the Future (All of the Past)”, he winds up sounding like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club doing a quiet synth track than he does a man immersing himself in It’ll End in Tears all over again.
The rest of the band, however, step up and make a strong effort to define themselves outside of the lo-fi aesthetic that was Pleasure‘s calling card. In fact, bassist Jesse Jenkins proves to be the guiding voice behind the disc, crafting immaculate groove after immaculate groove, holding the band down while synth and keyboard textures are explored to wildly varying degrees of success. His open-ended, frequently changing progressions on “I Come from Nowhere” is actually the thing that prevents the synth-heavy track from flying off into space (note the times when he deliberately doesn’t play any notes at all), outer space being where Grace’s voice seems to be coming from, decked out in a pile of modulators, making for a track that sadly ends up more formless than it does compelling. The same comment can be levied against “Things in My Head”, which doesn’t move too far out of its basic structure save for Grace’s noted key-changes half-way through. In truth, on a song-by-song basis, the material here doesn’t hold in the same way that Pleasure‘s tracks did, the group dropping their knack for quiet hooks in favor of textural explorations, which is a shame given that some of the band’s lyrical turns—particularly in “Someone Else”, which details a hopeless relationship wherein both participants seem to have forfeited their own identities to make it work—are quite nice, even when the band drops a wholly unnecessary F-bomb part-way through (it adds nothing to the song).
So while Crawling Up the Stairs is a worthy step up for the guys, there are two songs in particular that are worth noting, one of which may be the best thing they’ve ever done. “Never Alone” builds from an immediate patch of moody synth/guitar melodies to gradually grow into an evocative, empty-space exploration of tone and meaning, Grace’s chants of the song’s title proving haunting and creepy at the same time, the fuzzed-out guitar solo in the song’s final quarter feeling completely built-to and justified. “I Fear What I Feel”, meanwhile, may very well be the band’s masterpiece. Starting with quiet synths and back-alley guitar plucks, the song comes alive on Jenkins’ chord progression, the band crafting a trippy come-down of a song that also puts a hard limiter over Grace’s voice, and lo’ and behold, it’s the most engaging he’s ever sounded, his distorted falsetto never once overpowering the song, just adding to the track’s powerful mood.
In truth, Pure X is a band still worth paying attention to. While their songwriting abilities are still slowly coming together, their ability to create atmosphere and mood is second to none. Crawling smartly plays upon Pleasure‘s strengths, but even with a more professional sheen coating the disc, Pure X needs to write stronger songs to fit with their talents. They’ve followed their “promising debut” with an even more promising follow-up. With any luck, their skills will consolidate to the point where their next album will be something to truly behold.