ARTIST: PLEASANT GROVE + ALBUM: THE HEART CONTORTIONISTS+ LABEL: WE KNOW BETTER RECORDS + RELEASED: FEB 5, 2016
There are certain realities of being a professional musician that can be cruel and unusual. You could have the most badass band in the world, great songs, a flawless live show, and still never receive the credit due. Case in point: Dallas, Texas’ Pleasant Grove. In 2001 the band released Auscultations of the Heart. Dark, vulnerable, and mysterious, Auscultations is part Texas-twang, part Dark Side of the Moon. Finding their roots in country, rock and roll, and the quiet and tense orchestrations of their hometown predecessors, Bedhead, Pleasant Grove also possessed a keen sense of melody. Subsequently, their ability to craft a beautiful pop song and present it to their listeners in either a veil of guitar distortion or on the wings of a pedal steel seemed to come naturally. A few years after the release of Auscultations, Pleasant Grove would re-record a few of the tracks and include them on an new album, The Art of Leaving. Then they disappeared.
After regrouping to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Auscultations, Pleasant Grove has officially reformed to deliver The Heart Contortionists. Core members Marcus Striplin and Bret Egner (vocals, guitars, keys) remain at front alongside mainstay Tony Hormillosa on bass, but nowadays Chris Mayes is the multi-instrumentalist (lap steel, guitar, keys, trombone) and Jeff Ryan mans the drums. While there are some new additions to the lineup, this is unmistakably Pleasant Grove. Recorded by John Congleton (St. Vincent, Swans, War on Drugs) and Stuart Sikes (Loretta Lynn, Cat Power) and engineered by John Dufilho (Apples in Stereo), The Heart Contortionists is an album of complex arrangements and intricate instrumentation that creates a web of support for its lyrical melancholia. Dark, complicated, and sometimes distant, many of the songs here deal with Striplin’s divorce. Even when the music and melody leans toward uplift, the lyrics often tell a different story.
The album begins with the six-and-a-half minute long “Why Did You Butcher Your Father?” a great lead off track that perfect sums up the Pleasant Grove past while simultaneously casting their future trajectory. What sounds like a chain being drug along concrete provides a haunting percussion as acoustic guitars, sparse drums, and slide guitar build to a wild, yet controlled tension. “The Pessissmist Clique,” opens with what sounds like a Fender Rhodes piano and is especially notable for the delicate and sweet harmonies of Striplin and Egner. “Lava” begins with an arrangement of electric guitars that converge to sound like chimes before distorted guitars enter to make this the first semi-rocker of the album. The harmonies here are perfectly fit for driving with your windows down. “I can’t read your mind if you can’t communicate,” sings Striplin as the band rumbles to slow boil beneath him. The fourth track, “Atoms,” is one of the album highlights. Drums shuffle beneath clean electric guitars and lap steel as Egner sings “on a long desolate road to the arms of another.” This is one of several songs that show the growth in both Egner and Striplin as singers.
Track 5,”Disintegration (Consider Your Brother),” is held down by Hormillosa’s looping bass line and Ryan’s cross-sticking drum beat with keys and guitar distortion wandering in and out through the songs progression. “Fishing in Spain” is a standout track, in most part due to the exceptional vocal performance. The song sounds a bit like Syd Barrett or latter day Scott Walker, strange and beautiful. The title track shows Striplin at his most vulnerable and Pleasant Grove at their quietest. Singing against the lonely slide of a pedal steel and some far-off distorted guitar chords, Striplin lays it all out there without layers of instruments obfuscating his damaged narrative.
Clocking in at nearly seven-and-a-half minutes is “Donor.” A grand and majestic composition that encapsulates both past and present Pleasant Grove. The most atmospheric song on the album, “Donor” sounds like it could’ve fit on to any of the bands previous releases, yet it still realizes a fresh and evolved sound. The album closes with “Margaret’s Alone Sitting Quite Still,” a delicate, country-infused song that goes quite-loud-quite without simply stepping on a distortion pedal. Instrumentation builds the powerful moments and pulls back at the right time to create a tension that is far more profound than simply an adjustment of volume.
If you know and love Pleasant Grove, prepare for your passion to run deeper. The Heart Contortionists exceeds all expectations. The band sounds better than ever and they still retain the songwriting prowess that made them the talk of the town more than a decade ago. Where some could call Auscultations sprawling, The Heart Contortionist is tight and perhaps, more focused. I never questioned the focus of Auscultations (I will never question anything about that album), but the band seems stronger and more dialed-in on Contortionists. There’s a sonic quality to these songs that seems more dense than the ambiance of Auscultations.
If you’ve never heard Pleasant Grove, Wilco, Son Volt, and the National are fair points of reference. However, Pleasant Grove possesses certain intangible qualities that those otherwise fine bands seem to lack. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but if you spend some time with The Heart Contortionists, you’ll figure it out.
– J. Kevin Lynch