Home Music Rediscover: Pure X: Pleasure

Rediscover: Pure X: Pleasure

As fans of pop music, we often become accustomed to the familiarity of different sounds as they are interpreted by various artists. Hearing something new or unfamiliar is a rare feeling, depending on how obsessive one catalogs and consumes pop music over time. After a while, you start to learn the tricks of the trade, and you can hear them as they are played out. This doesn’t necessarily take away from the enjoyment of an album; it’s still cool to hear familiar sounds reinterpreted in different ways. Still, that moment of pure discovery, of being hit on the head with something that you have never heard before is so intoxicating and so rare. It’s a feeling that a handful of listeners, myself included, likely experienced in 2011 with the release of Pure X’s Pleasure. At the time, it felt like hearing a groundbreaking secret, the kind of album that would become a bigger band’s favorite album as a cool reference point in interviews. Things didn’t really work out that way, but Pleasure remains an utterly fascinating experience nonetheless.

People familiar with Pure X might be more versed in their current mode as a laidback, psych-adjacent rock band that a particularly unkind person might compare to the likes of Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That is definitely not the band that wrote and recorded Pleasure. On Pleasure, Pure X somewhat defy categorization. The druggy reverb effects that they use to this day are still there, but they’re turned up to a dissonant, noisy level. The slower tempo of the songs invokes the slow, meandering soundscapes of shoegaze, but it’s also more lo-fi in a way that recalls garage rock if it were slowed down and stretched to its breaking point. More than anything, though, the album is a sonically consuming experience. The layers of guitar noise are filtered through phaser effects to the point that the tracks sound like they’re being played on warped tape through a funnel into one’s headphones. Furthermore, the band wields these tricks with expertly deployed craftsmanship: opener “Heavy Air” slowly brings in each element of the band while Nate Grace wails into the ether, creating an otherworldly effect. Meanwhile, “Twisted Mirror” takes on a more dreamlike sense where the guitar tones are dialed back slightly to bring the melody of the song to the forefront. Listening to Pleasure for the first time can be disorienting in the best way; there’s not much else that sounds like it.

Even so, all of the atmosphere in the world means nothing if you don’t have songs to go with it. In the wrong hands, Pleasure could have become an interesting collection of tones, but Grace and Jesse Jenkins crafted a selection of proper songs to accompany their sonic ideas. These songs, if they were stripped of the layers of reverb that characterize the album, would still stand head and shoulders above so much of the glut of lo-fi indie bands that were seemingly everywhere from 2009 up through 2012. The band’s lyrics lean towards the darker side of things, which could explain why only a small cult audience latched on to Pleasure. Whereas contemporaries Real Estate sang peacefully about suburban malaise, Grace sings about their existential despair: “Easy” finds them contemplating suicide, while “Voices” mirrors its relatively up-tempo arrangement with lines about urgently needing to move forward just to do so. As with a lot of debut albums from young bands, the lyrical gaze is largely turned inward, but it works in conjunction with the hazy guitar style the band created. While its outlook is perhaps a bit late-adolescent, Pleasure succeeds in how Pure X use their instrumental acumen to create overwhelming moods.

Perhaps the most unique thing about Pleasure is that Pure X never really went back to this sound. Each subsequent album has found the band peeling back layers of distortion and noise as they transitioned from bleary-eyed iconoclasts towards something more conventional. Starting with 2013’s Crawling Up the Stairs and continuing on through their 2020 self-titled release, Pure X became a more conventional, song-focused band that (especially on the most recent album) were willing to engage with the world around them. While there’s plenty to like about the three albums they’ve released since 2011, it’s still disappointing that neither the band nor anyone who followed in their wake really picked up where Pleasure left off. Then again, not all records are meant to start movements or inspire generations of imitators; some are simply singular works of artistic inspiration, moments that are all the more special because of how rarely they come along.

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