After a decade hiatus, the locally beloved Pleasant Grove has returned with a new album, The Heart Contortionists. It is their first in 12 years. Fans of the group have enjoyed the recent reunions and one-off shows. But can an album so far removed from its predecessors recapture the allure once generated by a band from the early aughts?
Other than having one of the more un-Googleable band names in use, Pleasant Grove is regarded as one of Dallas’ best musical products. The band’s bewitching harmonies and firmly rooted American strains drew a wide audience. Their penchant for experimentation and ambient twists kept listeners and critics intrigued. Pleasant Grove could also command the stage, where singer Marcus Striplin presided in recumbent swagger. They were heralded after their first three releases spanning 2001 to 2004 and sorely missed when they announced their disbanding in 2006.
With The Heart Contortionists, Pleasant Grove picks up exactly where they left off. Praise like that reads disingenuously, because it is frequently and thoughtlessly recited when a band regroups, regardless of the sequel’s quality. The sentiment just happens to be precise in this case. With The Heart Contortionists, Pleasant Grove has attentively built an album that sounds great and stands up to its forebears.
The Heart Contortionists begins with the slow, purposeful gait indicative of Pleasant Grove. “Why Did You Butcher Your Father?” eases you in with Marcus Striplin’s sonorous baritone, hovering just above a whisper. It is typical of Marcus to play disinterestedly with macabre themes like this. There is a tension in his voice between playful boredom and the seriousness of mortality, of remaining at once detached and circumspect.
The album baits you with these measured overtures before featuring “Lava,” the presumptive single. It is the catchiest of the bunch, a singable anthem with all the trappings. But it is on an island as the third song. The Heart Contortionists quickly returns to its tentative mood a track later, where there is a sarcastic or bashful optimism, which one I can’t tell. These lines are spread across good hooks and minor commotions. The forefront is all catchy songsmithing, but there is always a small thunderstorm going on in the background. This is fundamental Pleasant Grove, a marriage of noise and pop, like teacher’s pet penmanship over a noisy Pollock.
The whole of it turns out to be a hypnotizing overture to the title track, where tentativeness and sarcasm and skepticism yield to a moment of bare honesty. “Why can’t you change,” he shouts, “I want to, I’m afraid.” In any other context, this line would be insipid. But it arrives after more than half an album’s crafting of a grave and artful narrative, so it transforms into the album’s most arresting moment.
This sets up for the seven and a half minute “Donor,” a drawn-out track that, sitting near the conclusion of The Heart Contortionists, actually has the best hook. “Lava” is the song you put on the radio, but “Donor” is the song you turn up. Following “The Heart Contortionists,” it reverts to the cryptic and gory. “I could chop off your head and transplant another,” Striplin sings over a marching riff. “I would go out of my way just to find a donor.”
Overall, The Heart Contortionists is a solid record that builds on Pleasant Grove’s reputation and bolsters the assertion that Marcus Striplin is one of the best singers to hold a microphone in this city. A good portion of it feels like something the band could write and play in their sleep, but that speaks to their prowess. And what might be heard as perfunctory is more likely learned diligence. It has been 17 years. This is a band well-versed in patience. With The Heart Contortionists, Pleasant Grove teaches us how to live a life that seems too long and disappears too quickly. Pleasant Grove has always represented well both the bravado and loneliness of Texas’ vastness. It is good to have them back.