By Emilie Friedlander
Pure X is the Austin-based trio of guitarist/vocalist Nate Grace, bassist Jesse Jenkins, and drummer Austin Youngblood. They met in the Texas college town of San Marcos in the early aughts and started playing under the name Pure Ecstasy in 2009. When it comes to talking about their hyper-minimal, almost abrasively low-fidelity psychedelia, the band can be almost painfully tight-lipped. But if you get them talking about skating-- a pastime they returned to around the time the project was born-- you might get something resembling an artist's statement. In a recent interview for Altered Zones, the boys told Chocolate Bobka's Michael P. McGregor about a drainage ditch they like to visit in South Austin--a secret spot, and the type of place where style and meditative slowness hold more currency than tricks. "I'll take one beautifully timed carve on a fucking driveway," said Nate. "One three-line poem that lays it out clean and with conviction. A single-note guitar drone with some GODDAMN REAL FEELING. One decent, compassionate ACTION in REAL, FUCKING LIFE to a whole VIRTUAL WORLD of TALKING, TALKING, TALKING."
As of this conversation, Nate and Jesse live in a retired halfway house with Stefanie Franciotti of Sleep ∞ Over, which counts Jesse as a live member. Austin lives just down the street, next to another former recovery house. "Half Here" gives the title of the closing track of their debut full-length on Acéphale-- and next to more abstract qualities like "feeling" and "soul,"-- the limbo motif is a pretty good departure point for talking about their music. More a collection of successful live studio takes than an album in any premeditated sense of the term, Pleasure is no stranger to the kind of existential purgatory Nate describes in the opening song of their recently reissued You're In It now EP, "Don't Wanna Live, Don't Wanna Die."
Just as a halfway house represents an intermediary zone between two states of being-- a place for people who are neither entirely free, nor entirely unfree-- Pleasure lures us into a deeply romantic tug-and-pull between the kinds of psychic extremes that all humans encounter at some point or another in their lives, but that we also experience in smaller gradations on the daily: pain and pleasure (see album cover), hope and resignation, connectedness and isolation, truth and oblivion. Beyond the classic unrequited love scenarios of "Dream Over" and "Dry Ice," the lyrics that manage to peak out from all the vocal reverb hover irresolutely between dead ends and new beginnings. "Stuck Living" sees Nate "stuck living the same song" and trying to sing a new one, whereas the narrative behind "Easy" is one of numbness and surrender: "No I don't feel now /No I can't feel nothing/I just don't even wanna feel at all." Nate's guitar work can feel equally prone to mood swings, recalling, over the course of a single melodic phrase, anything from the sublime tenderness of Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" to the gut-wrenching feedback squall of Les Rallizes Dénudés' "Enter The Mirror."
As Nate says himself, "it’s all in the delivery." Pure X have made an art out of taking what is simple-- from the Neil Young-throwback lyrical candor to the basic building blocks of melody and rhythm-- and revealing it to be startingly complex. Ranging from hypnotic, slow-burn improvisations to pop songs that the band have been playing for years (see “Dream Over,” “Easy,” and “Voices,” all previously released as singles), the album’s ten tracks feel like stages for the various chemical interactions that can occur between a finite combination of elements: molasses slow-drums, husky, feel-it-through-the-floor bass, and a guitar hooked up to a hyper-sensitive mine-field of reverb and distortion.
Add Nate’s drawling, distended vocal lines and falsetto auto-harmonies, and you’ve got what feels like a field of infinite possibility-- one where the chance slippage of the fingers, the intuitive melodic embellishment, or the unintended flare of feedback constitute the parts of the music that really matter, and a song becomes more a snapshot of three individuals living and feeling in time than the sum of its chord changes and hooks. That’s why if you focus on the ways in which Pure X’s melodic sensibility echoes that of other lo-fi rock bands of its time (Real Estate and the Underwater Peoples contingent being the most common comparisons), and find yourself lamenting its lack of easy thrills, you’re probably not listening to Pleasure deeply enough. Its highs and lows may be a matter of tiny increments, but they’re there, and if you find yourself having to slow down in order to experience them, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Pleasure is now out on Acéphale-- be sure to grab a copy.