(Last Beat Records)
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Pleasant Grove's long-time-coming debut is seven songs strong, but it could be pared down to just one -- the haunting "Nothing This Beautiful" -- and remain one of the most compelling records of this year. Rarely does a song so long (a shade more than 10 minutes) demand to be listened to over and over, but "Nothing This Beautiful" lives up to its title, rendering the length irrelevant as it carefully draws you in. "But you wouldn't believe me when I said that nothing this beautiful could ever last," singer-guitarists Bret Egner and Marcos Striplin sing. "So I reached back into the dark spaces where I knew you had no place." In a way, "Nothing This Beautiful" is an epic centerpiece that's both the rule and the exception that proves it. Everything save for Striplin and Egner's dual vocals is practically a rumor until it all kicks in at the same time halfway through, a mess of fuck-it-all guitars and violent cymbal crashes charging through the song, bringing it down from the inside.
But Pleasant Grove is more than just one great song. Along with drummer David Mabry -- who has since left the group -- and bassist Tony Gattone, Striplin and Egner have come up with seven songs (including the unlisted "The Picnic") of broken hearts and broken voices, Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" played out over almost 40 minutes. "Demonic" may be the real heart of the disc, containing the line "And even though she's taken all self-esteem, well I'm coming back in a big way." It sets the tone for everything else on the record, the sort of I'm-down-but-not-out way that Striplin and Egner crack their way through each song. And just when you think you have the band figured out -- Bedhead if they were raised on George Jones' back catalog is a start -- a song like "Re-set the Code" comes along, with a trumpet line (played by Captain Audio's Regina Chellew) that comes out of nowhere and quickly returns there, a tiny addition that puts the song over.
More than anything, Pleasant Grove is the sound of someone picking himself up off the floor, hoping he won't fall down again, and knowing he will. It's an optimist's view of despair, written from the perspective of someone who knows that the glass is half full if only because he drank the rest of it. Take the disc's lead-off track, "Solid System," for example, on which Striplin sighs, "Haven't had a drink in such a long, long time, but I could use one now / I miss fighting; I could use a fight or two / Punch me in the eye and show me why." "Solid System" could be either one of the most depressing or one of the most hopeful songs you'll ever hear, depending on when you hear it; you could listen to it 100 times and get something different each time. It's hard to tell in which direction Striplin is leaning, whether he's falling off the wagon or climbing back on. But you definitely want to find out.