In the middle of Pleasant Grove’s new album, The Heart Contortionists, a titular three-song suite details the beautiful highs and the dramatic lows of relationships. It’s not a stretch to suggest the three songs represent the three stages of Pleasant Grove’s life as a band: birth, death and resurrection.
A decade ago, Pleasant Grove was one of North Texas’ most beloved and promising bands. But after seven years and the release of three stellar records, the group was more or less done with recording together, touring and placing faith in one of its two lead singers and songwriters. Marcus Striplin, who at that point had become consumed by alcoholism, and simply wasn’t someone who could be counted on to bring his A-game to the stage or studio.
With the release of the new album, which comprises songs written before the band’s splintering, the unlikely return of Pleasant Grove will finally be complete after a decade of relative inactivity. Striplin, who, along with Bret Egner, handles lead singing, guitar playing and songwriting for the band, has been able to look back on the time before his band’s breakup with a refreshing amount of vulnerability and insight. These days, he’s in a positive mental space and grasps the power his closest friendships wield. The smattering of well-received shows that Striplin, Egner, drummer Jeff Ryan, bassist Tony Hormillosa and multi-instrumentalist Chris Mayes have played in the past few years have proven that much.
“In 2006, I knew I had hit a wall,” Striplin says. “I had stopped loving myself, and I didn’t love the people who loved me near enough. I felt like I had to slam on the breaks for a while. All of the good will and trust I had been given from others wasn’t there for me anymore because I had screwed people over too many times.”
It’s admirable for Striplin to view the hurtful nature of past actions in a mature, rehabilitative light. But of course, on the other side of those admissions are the people who were deeply saddened by the way things went down. Ryan, who has drummed for some of the biggest local acts in recent memory, including St. Vincent, Sarah Jaffe and the similarly revived Baptist Generals, remembers the bleak end of Pleasant Grove’s first phase well.
“It was definitely a bit of a dark period for me,” he says. “We got along for the most part, but there were definitely tensions when we were touring. It just all went a bit bonkers for me, personally. I love Marcus and everyone in the band so much. It was hard to see someone fall down in a hole and not know how to get them out.”
As the members of the band went their separate ways in 2006, Striplin moved around a bit. After spending some time in New York, he landed in Austin in 2008, and soon he found himself looking for a fresh start. His communication with his band mates was infrequent and he endured a painful divorce, so a back-to-basics life philosophy made a great deal of sense. For the handful of years after his move to Austin, Striplin focused on simply getting better at everything, including what he had long done best — music.
His purposeful effort to understand guitar tones, sound creation and songwriting better than he had before, along with the many non-musical areas he was working to improve, was akin to rewiring a computer or rebuilding a car engine, he says. Everything had to be taken out, cleaned, inspected and placed back into the right spot in order for things to run smoothly from that point. The abandoned Pleasant Grove recordings also required a bit of reworking. The songs on the new album are at least a decade old, yet they still feel urgent and fresh after being left for dead in a hard drive. The result is damn near miraculous.
“If we had released this record 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have been in the right mindset to put all of my energy and care into it,” Striplin admits. “But when Jeff and I first started talking about finishing the record a couple of years ago, the first thing I did was find all of the old files, smoke a little weed and get out of my own head. I listened to the songs from a new perspective, and they didn’t sound great, but we knew they were still relevant.”
Of course, a big question among Pleasant Grove fans is whether the band, offering songs that were written well before George W. Bush left his Pennsylvania Avenue address to become a Dallas resident, can still pack the same poetic punch they did originally. So much time has passed, and each band member has grown and changed since they were the critical darlings of the Dallas music scene. Striplin had similar concerns before letting the aged tunes take a new kind of hold on him.
“Even though there was a bit of a time capsule feel to them,” he explains. “There was more of a feeling the songs represented a 10-year therapy session that’s still going, and still very current.”
As far as the here-and-now is concerned, things are downright warm and fuzzy for Pleasant Grove. The centerpiece of the record is the aforementioned three-song suite. It’s ambitious, demanding and delicate — qualities that are present in the best of Pleasant Grove’s catalog. The folk and country-tinged indie rock they have excelled in are apparent here in small doses, as a more cinematic, elegant approach helps usher in what Striplin terms “Pleasant Grove 2.0.”
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Ever since a fateful, jubilant 2013 show at the then-new Twilite Lounge, the comeback has been definite. This weekend, release shows in Austin, Fort Worth and Dallas will make things official. The rest of 2016 will see the band touring around the United States, as well as into Europe. And before anyone will have the chance to wear the grooves out of The Heart Contortionists, Striplin says another album may be released in the fall, with the songs taken from a well of over 40 tunes he and Egner have ready to roll.
“Things are good now,” Striplin says convincingly. “Things have changed over 10 years. I’m in a better place, and we as a band are in a better place. I appreciate what the past was, and what the present will bring."