opinion byMICHAEL WOJTAS
Angel, the third album from Austin’s Pure X, arrives less than a year after the claustrophobic, willfully difficult Crawling Up the Stairs. It was recorded in the pastoral ambiance of a remote, century-old dance hall in the band’s native state. The record features weepy string embellishments, plenty of slide guitar and a litany of song titles (“Valley of Tears,” “Wishin’ On the Same Star”) that could have been pillaged from any dust-covered honky-tonk compilation buried deep in thrift store vinyl stacks. All of which might serve to create a vivid — though wildly misleading — portrait of what the album actually sounds like.
Angel has more in common with the slickly engineered roots rock of the bicentennial U.S. (see: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Eagles) than, say, Hank William’s run of post-WWII hits. Circa 2014, such radio royalty could hardly be considered unconventional source material; Kurt Vile, the War On Drugs and the Men have already co-opted the most tasteful aspects of coke-fuelled classic rock, especially the kind of meticulous production that allows multiple layers of tenderly picked guitars to stream together as harmoniously as several small channels feeding into one big river. And while that particular lesson surely isn’t lost on Pure X, what’s unexpected about their approach here is how earnestly they employ the mid-‘70s FM tropes their peers have likely dismissed as utterly cornball — namely, nakedly romantic lyrics, 12-strings treated to sound like harps and synths treated to sound like raining glitter.
Angel harkens back to a time when everyone from desert hippie Gram Parsons to crooners such as Al Green and Nashville vets like Mickey Newbury were rethinking the ways soul, classic country and Top 40 rock could fit together. It’s a heartfelt, narcotic odyssey through the seductive pleasures of lava lamps and black light posters, a kind of escapism that comes in the same strange, silk-screened colors as the novelty lighters and t-shirts one might find at a backwoods southwestern gas station.
True, an indie rock ballad like “Fly Away With Me Woman,” buoyed as it is by erotic bass pumps that cocoon the repeated, falsetto-sung title phrase, may not have been conceivable in a world without master satirist Ariel Pink. But Angel seems to exist outside of the viewpoint of contemporary irony, even when Pure X invokes Steely Dan’s silky blue-eyed funk or drops a couplet that might make Lionel Richie swoon. Dual frontmen Jesse Jenkins and Nate Grace lack some of the technical chops of the vocalists they’re indebted to, but they’re true pop believers that can really sell unabashedly silly imagery like “white roses falling.”
As always, the band sounds as entrancingly codeine-slowed as any chopped and screwed DJ from their homeland, and their penchant for mirage-like textures and gluey tempos ensures that Angel, like their previous releases,could fit somewhere in the shoegaze and dream pop spectrum. Yet those typically Brit-associated micro-genres have never sounded so peculiarly American, and if there are any traces of trans-Atlantic influence, they belong to Sade as much as they do Kevin Shields (the carefully modulated distortion and prom night sway of bedroom-bound heartbreaker “Rain” seems to find room for both parties).
Pure X has largely abandoned the reverb-as-a-way-of-life haze of their 2010 debut Pleasure, as well as the stomach turning, insect-like electronic scribbles and tendon-shredding vocals of the harrowing sophomore catharsis Crawling Up the Stairs. Their growth is perhaps best exemplified by one of Angel’s simplest songs, “Every Tomorrow.” A pillowed sanctuary built from just rudimentary woodblock percussion, shooting star synth notes, acoustic golden tones and a few submerged lyrics, it’s perhaps the finest moment on record from an outfit that, just 10 months prior, sounded largely deflated.
Ultimately, it’s the running theme of full immersion in a fantasy world that acts as the tissue joining each Pure X album, and perhaps gets to the heart of the band’s connection to their forbearers. After all, what are records like Rumours or Hotel California if not the studio-aided realizations of their creators’ purest pop reveries, dream material siphoned into gorgeously streamlined packages? While an album-long air of eerie artificiality suggests swimming in the unadulterated bliss of this high comes at a certain cost, Pure X has decided that sustaining the illusion is worth the toll, whatever it may be. “Heaven is a feeling/A whole world I can finally believe in,” explains Grace on “Heaven.” Or, to paraphrase Christine McVie, they’re over their heads, but it sure feels nice. B+