Don’t you just loathe the term shoegaze? As far as categorisations go, you can’t get much lazier than trying to sum up a band’s entire raison d’etre by pointing out that, while they may know way around 10 FX pedals, they have a tendency to forget where the audience is.
Austin, Texas’s Pure X (formerly Pure Ecstasy, bad experience, perhaps?), however, seem to revel in it, taking its cues from a genre that took itself far too seriously, but actually enjoying themselves at the same time. Though it’s not really my place to imply, you do get more than a whiff of sensimilla about their music, which may go some way to explaining the chilled slacker vibe emanating from the speakers.
The first thing you notice is the gargantuan levels of reverb applied to literally everything, not just the guitars, but the bass, vocals and uber-minimalist drums as well. The super-slo-mo scrawls on their debut full-length album Pleasure give off a fuzzy, narcotic throb, as potentially migraine-inducing as it is mysterious. Musically, they fall somewhere in the little-charted territory (at least, not since the late 80’s/early 90’s) between the Jesus And Mary Chain, the lighter moments of Spacemen 3, the lysergic jams of early Verve, and, somewhat unavoidably, My Bloody Valentine and their ilk, drawing deep on all of them and more through some opaque sonic bongwater.
It has to be said, it doesn’t sound like a huge amount of thought really went into the songwriting process on ‘Pleasure’. Not that this is a bad thing, the unplanned-sounding nature of their creations is often shamblingly charming, and, when they lock into a groove, entrancingly hypnotic. Recorded live, there’s a sparseness and lightness to the sound, juxtaposed with the heavy FX and juddering feedback. This doesn’t always work in their favour, though, as the lack of extra contours to the overall sound allows weaker tunes to blend together into an indistinct murk.
Still, they’ve got a formula, and they stick to it doggedly. Much of their sound seems to revolve around the burbling bass of Jesse Jenkins, the glue that holds the band to the tunes and keeps them from floating aloft to sweet, stoned oblivion. Then there’s the drums, both of them. Austin Youngblood is evidently a man at little risk of over-exerting himself, announcing his presence with only the distant boom-thwack of kick and snare (and, if pressed, a lone cymbal), mostly at the same somnambulant pace.
With his comrades laying down the foundations, singer/guitarist Nate Grace is given free rein to pedal away to his heart’s content, topping off the whole damn spacecake with his distinctive vocal stylings. His standard guitar technique involves so much fuzz and echo it would be impossible to comment on the actual skill of his playing, creating as he does an impenetrable, shimmering opacity that swallows notes, chords, and, on occasion, even entire songs whole. He uses the guitar more as an atmospheric device than anything else, leaving the melody side of business up to his voice. Though largely content to employ a sweetly cracked drawl, Grace is liable, without warning, to let fly with a wayward falsetto yowl that is more than enough to shock you out of the trance you could otherwise easily slip into.
It’s certainly an interesting listen. Over the course of the album’s 10 tracks, though, Pure X’s fundamental strengths and weaknesses are thrown into sharp relief amongst the haze. Though there’s no mistaking their trademark sleepy-eyed, sun-kissed sound, they seem to operate in two gears, both resulting in little more than a crawl, alternating between undulating, repetitive psychedelia and woozy, lazily lilting pop nuggets that often seem like note-perfect JAMC facsimiles, albeit transplanted to somewhere far sunnier and blissful than Scotland. Of these two strands, the former is perhaps the stronger, never less than affecting on a subconscious level, due to its sheer throbbing density allied with the band’s intuitive grasp of harmony and melody.
The latter approach is often equally evocative, though, with the warm breeze of stoned summer sunsets seeming almost tangible. Of the overtly Reid brothers indebted tracks, the pick of the bunch would probably be ‘Dream Over’, capably evoking a lazy, smoky sunset on an idyllic beach. Not a million miles away are ‘Easy’, possibly an ode to the songwriting process that birthed it, and its close cousins ‘Voices’, ‘Dry Ice’ and ‘Stuck Livin’, with simplistically deft basslines overscored by idly meandering guitars. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this little clutch of tunes, but it gets increasingly difficult to suppress the notion that they are little more than half-completed sketches, pleasantly shuffling their gimlet-eyed way to nowhere in particular. That, and their barely concealed derivation, breed a not entirely welcome feeling of familiarity. By the time Grace intones ‘stuck livin’ the same song’, you know exactly how he feels.
It’s the more abstract, less worldly tracks on Pleasure that prove Pure X are capable of weaving some powerful magic. The opening, aptly titled ‘Heavy Air’ is simply stunning, pulsating drowsily into life before a bubbling bassline focuses the wall of incandescent sound, underscoring the gorgeous peals of guitar to give off an aura of total weightlessness. Through the fathoms, Grace’s eerie howl wafts in like whalesong, augmenting the dreamlike effect.
If only the album had proceeded consistently in the same vein, it would be totally indispensable. They prove this initial triumph was no fluke, though, and come close to such heady heights elsewhere. The instrumental segments of ‘Twisted Mirror’ are sheer bliss, the bubbling bass again setting the scene for some divine guitar squalls. Similarly, ‘Pleasure’ does whatever it does in a way that’s almost sensuous.
The other undisputed highlight is the crystalline ‘Surface’, where, miraculously, by carrying on, heads down, along their furrow, they arrive at… trip-hop. Bizarre as it may seem, with it’s almost electronic sounding, minimalist drums, sparse guitar and prominent bass that sets the pace, rather than follow it, they lift the ‘shoegaze’ millstone effortlessly from their necks. Someone evidently managed to look up from their pedals long enough to locate a whole other instrument, sending squiggles of ghostly synth fluttering across the translucent backdrop, as Grace coos, waif-like, somewhere in the ether. It’s remarkable- though there’s no question you’re listening to the same band, it’s more of a radical progression than a complete transformation.
Should Pure X be able to stir themselves to continue their sedate stroll through the musical mists, it can only be hoped they build more on the latter cluster of gems. Though their ponderous momentum is unlikely to liven up the party, when they tap into their full potential, the results are utterly thrilling. Forget shoegazing, on the strength of the majority of Pleasure, Pure X can hold their heads high.
Pleasure is out now on Acephale