By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In a perfect world, the club would have been full of fans. There would have been a line out the door, snaking into the street. The first notes of each song would have been greeted with enthusiastic, knowing applause, each chorus met with a sea of closed eyes and a roomful of backup singers. Wouldn't be too much to expect. Shouldn't be too much to ask. After all, one of Dallas' best bands was onstage, playing songs off a brand-new album.
But we don't live in a perfect world; we live in Dallas. (Ha ha.) So Pleasant Grove's show at Curtain Club on December 13--a sort of CD release party for its new album, Auscultation of the Heart, just issued on Germany's Glitterhouse Records--was woefully unattended. We're talking 20, 30 people, tops. Looking at the stage, listening to the songs pouring out of the five men on it--singer-guitarists Bret Egner and Marcus Striplin, organ-pedal steel player Joe Butcher, bassist Tony Hormillosa and drummer Jeff Ryan--it was the sound and vision of all that local music could and should be. All that any music could and should be. Turning to face the near-empty club, however, it was a reminder of what local music too often is.
Not that Pleasant Grove always has that particular problem. Sometimes, they'll find themselves playing to too many people or, at least, too many drunks who'd rather yell to each other about the Mavericks/Cowboys/Stars/Rangers game than listen to the soft bulletins coming from the stage. Or maybe they'll get stuck opening for a crotchety singer-songwriter (James McMurtry, son of Lonesome Dove's Larry) who ridicules them--from the stage, no less--for playing "Seattle alt-country bullshit." The group's performance in late November at the Liquid Lounge, as part of this year's North Texas New Music Festival, was the exception rather than the rule, then. The room was almost uncomfortably crowded, yet so quiet it might as well have been empty, all eyes and ears on the band, each note and every word fussed over like an only child. But that doesn't happen very often.
"It's a rare, rare event when a crowd is listening listening, you know?" Striplin says a few days earlier at an interview that spills across Munger Avenue from Ships to Muddy Waters as the night continues. "Just imagine one acoustic, you singing songs that you've put your fucking love into, and then all of a sudden, you've got some jackass in back screaming about the fucking whatever game. Or the video games. Or the fucking television."
"We've gotten good at playing quiet music in front of a crowd that's like, 'Lalalala,'" Egner adds. "And we just don't care. That was the whole deal, when Marcus approached me about starting the band, because we both played in loud bands where we thought we had to be a rock band. Marcus was like, 'Hey, I wanna do this thing where we play just quiet songs, concentrate on the songwriting and stuff.' To me, at that point in my life, four years ago, I was like, 'That's a fucking great idea. No one's doing that. Everybody feels like they have to be a rock band.'"
"Especially in Dallas," Striplin continues. "Imagine singing a song about an uncomfortable subject in front of a bunch of people who've never even seen you before. To me, that's punk."
"It's got the same intensity," Hormillosa says.
Pleasant Grove has never succumbed to that pressure to be a "rock" band, even though they know they're facing long odds playing the kind of music they do in what they all acknowledge is a rock-and-roll town. They know there are places they can play and get the kind of crowd they want (Muddy Waters, Barley House sometimes, Liquid Lounge), and they know they have a loyal few who will show up no matter where they are and with whom they're playing. But they've never gone out of their way to get the big crowds, never changed their sound to sell more records or T-shirts, convince more people to pay the six bucks to see them. Though they've discussed getting more organized, focusing on the financial side of things a little better, the term "music business" has an extra word in it. They write songs they like, not songs they think other people will.
That has always been the idea: Doing something different because it's what they want to do, not just because it's different. Staying true to the songs. Since forming in 1998--initially as a three-piece, with former End Over End drummer David Mabry backing Egner and Striplin--they've always gone exactly where they wanted to, not worrying whether anyone else would follow. But more than a few people have, including many local musicians; one said recently that listening to Auscultation of the Heart made him feel as though his own group bordered on pointlessness.
That's probably taking it a little too far, but Auscultation of the Heart--with a title and cover artwork stolen from an old album Egner has that was recorded for medical students; "auscultation" is the science of learning the rhythms of the heart--definitely sets a high standard. Though the group puts on one of the better live shows around, given the right circumstances (say, playing in another town, perhaps), Auscultation of the Heart is the best place to hear what Pleasant Grove is all about. It's a rock record that doesn't, a country album that isn't, a soul disc just because. Butcher says it's "Willie Nelson meets Pink Floyd," and it is that, in a way, and so much more.