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Slow and low

It's almost as though a brand-new band has sprung straight from the ashes of the Orbit Room. On June 23, the last night of its existence, the rock club's sooty, Kozik-covered walls shook with 4/4 throttle; but as the punk-rock haven was shutting its doors, a remarkable three-piece took the stage for the very first time. Pleasant Grove, so named for the east-of-Dallas suburb, was the first act of four to go on that evening, on a bill headlined by the visiting Dirty Three. And the celebrating, grieving Orbit regulars who turned up in droves with their own six-packs and whiskey flasks and tequila-filled Igloos--the bar's liquor license had been yanked a week before the club closed--stopped their bitching and guzzling and laughing when they heard a seductive double-guitar intro, then a water-tight harmony, waft down from the stage. Measured, relaxed, and most of all, surprisingly ripe with both melody and restraint, Pleasant Grove's set was the best new thing to happen in Dallas music in, well, a hell of a long time.

And they haven't played a live show since. But between them, Pleasant Grove's three members have played a thousand, give or take a thousand more, sets in this town: David Mabry was once the drummer for End Over End, among the first notable bands to spring from a nascent Deep Ellum more than a decade ago--those of you under 27, consult with your big brother. After that, he had a year-long stint with Reverend Horton Heat. Marcos Striplin, still a kid at 22 (which made him only nine when David was finding public momentum), fronted an underrated band called Static for four years after graduating from Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts. And Bret Egner, the good-natured sound guy at Orbit for the last year and a half, has played in a two-piece outfit called lo-dro with David for more than three years, as well as lending a hand to other scattered projects.

This is a new band, but these men are far from rookies, which makes their attitude all the more surprising: They're as passionate, as earnest about this project--about rock and roll--as any teenager who's just received his first Fender on Christmas morning. None of that cynicism, that abject calculation, or go-for-the-gold incentive has invaded their attitudes or their song writing (not yet, anyway), which is completely refreshing. Especially for three musicians who've been around and seen the worst this city has to offer.

"This is a dead-serious endeavor," Mabry says. "The first practice, I swear to God, I had goose bumps." Sitting at an outside table at a McKinney Avenue restaurant on a blessedly cool evening last week, he's been mostly joking around up to this point--until asked point-blank about his intentions for Pleasant Grove. "I even have that first practice on video." He pauses. "I have to play what's real, and this band is so damn real."

"I wanted to play with them," adds Striplin, Grove's co-guitarist and singer. "I always wanted to play with them because of lo-dro, and knew if we could all put our brains together, some good stuff would come out of it. And this music is all about the soul." He laughs self-consciously at his last statement. "Really, any music that can bring me that much closer to crying..."

So many bands are crushed beneath the weight--the near-cliche--of such self-imposed expectations. Pleasant Grove, formed only five months ago, is more than rescued by its strategy: Take it slow, keep each other laughing, and above all, write material they love to play, regardless of audience reaction. "I would be happy to sell only three albums, just as long as we can play what we want," Mabry insists. "Then, of course, I'd want to meet those three people."

The other key to their rescue from guileless idealism is the musical product: a mesmerizing set of songs--gut-wrenching, sophisticated, pared down to the barest arrangement while echoing dense layers of sound and meaning. Striplin and Egner share guitar and vocal duties, and the band lacks a bass player, something the members have mixed feelings about. While the three-piece never threatens to float away unanchored, the lack of heaviest low tones keeps things--especially their live set--somewhat ethereal. It's different, and in a good way, but the band feels the hole.

"I compensate on my end," Egner says, referring to his gravitational guitar style. "I play lower whenever it's warranted. I'd like to have a bass player, but we've tried several, and they didn't work out. They overplayed; they wanted to prove too much." He laughs. "We need someone who's scared of us, so we can tell 'em what to do." Mabry and Striplin speak of adding a bassist in slightly guarded tones. They'd like more rootedness, but they enjoy the unbroken rapport of the current lineup.

Recorded, their songs pack impressive power even without the extra instrument. Their first untitled demo, a three-song study in three-hour production, comes off like a small, powerful drilling-rig expedition: The heavy bit eats through 10 thick layers of clay. You can get off on the superficial strata (the ear-soothing melodies, the warmly fuzzy guitar) or dig deeper to hit crude black gold (surprisingly limber play between the instruments, atmospheric hypnosis, unapologetically dramatic lyrics).

"We practice twice a week, no exceptions," Striplin says. "We come up with new songs all the time. Last time we rehearsed, we came away with four or five new ideas." To which Mabry adds, "If those two can keep writing this stuff, I'm just riding their coattails."

Striplin rolls his eyes. "Don't listen to that. This guy is amazing."
So goes the limitless mutual admiration in Pleasant Grove--pretty standard for a band's honeymoon period. Mabry talks about Striplin and Egner as though they're musical phonemes; Egner speaks of his bandmates likewise; young Striplin reveres them right back. And all that chemistry shows up in the songs.

But it's made beautifully complex by age differences--at 26, Egner mostly splits the difference--and, therefore, influences--between Striplin and 33-year-old Mabry. The songs reflect sensibilities as far-ranging as Mick Ronson and Leonard Cohen, American Music Club and the Flaming Lips. According to his bandmates, Egner loves "Brazilian death rock" (he himself names centro-matic, also on the bill that Tuesday night, as one of his all-time favorites). Striplin admits a passion for early U2; Mabry admires Bedhead (which, until its recent demise, featured his former End Over End bandmate Tench Coxe on guitar and vocals).

The demo cassette's opener, "My Plan," starts innocently enough--bare, heavy chords on a single guitar, then a second line sneaks in on a higher register to stroke its back. Then comes the trump card, when Striplin's vocal line pushes in like a drunk party crasher, a professional crooner gone paranoid, dark yet determined, full of longing yet threatening to pass out. "So what's going on? / You're growing so fast." he sings in full, tired bursts. "And people like you should hide away from the rest of the world." No shoegazers, mumblers, or confessional brats in the vicinity.

The combined effect of current sleep-rock constructs and Striplin's unnervingly natural theatrics--evoking the heart-broken ghost of Ian Curtis, the raw severity of David Sylvian--takes some adjustment for typical indie-rock ears. The song could almost pass as a stolen outtake from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, rough engineering included. But to take that noble, guitar-outlined nostalgia and dust it off, air it out, and then inject it with a fresh syringe of opium is Pleasant Grove's talent. The deceptively basic song trips, swerves, then lunges toward a familiar climax; by the end it seems like a new-variety tango: swooning, perplexing, ultimately satisfying.

Egner spearheads the second cut, a ballad of guitars that weave together peacefully, then scratch at each other in gleeful dissonance at every punchy chorus; Egner's high, plaintive tenor plays jittery, raked-nerve foil to Striplin's morphined baritone. In the tradition of the Flaming Lips (not the self-indulgent kind) and Superchunk (ditto), "Reprise" is a succinct reminder of all things solid in the badly unraveling pop world, a let's-give-it-some-tension-but-keep-it-on-the-tracks kind often buried beneath the current onslaught of pure dumb radio and purely opaque art rock.

Finally, Striplin's "Sleep with Me," an unbelievably adult product from the brain of such an easygoing youth, seems sliced from the throat and brain of AMC's Mark Eitzel at his most exhausted, romantic, and horny. "Sleep with me, and run away with me / And don't' be afraid," Striplin sings. "You made the part in every scene that I wrote." The third in a trio of syrup-paced songs, this one a waltz, makes the most of Mabry's fluid, understated drumming, a study in restraint that anchors the band's entire sound.

"We like a relaxed sound," Striplin says. "Bands that don't seem hurried, songs that aren't sped up for time's sake."

Egner concurs. "It's a real departure for me," he says. "Working at Orbit, I've run sound for every loud, fast band in Dallas. I knew playing with Marcos would be different. I liked his songwriting. This is such a satisfying way to approach music." Thus far, the two split songwriting duties while managing to collaborate. "Marcos will bring in a verse-chorus thing, and maybe I'll add a part, and vice-versa," Egner says. "Either way, we keep emphasis on vocals." (Striplin sings the songs he pens, Egner sings his.) "In this case it all seems so natural."

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It's not a bad beginning, and reflects another, brighter local trend: music made by people who've traded in their MTV aspirations for a fortified spine. But Pleasant Grove would, in a perfect world, make this passion more than a hobby--the members' idealism seems grounded in hopes of discovery by good indie labels, small tours, and well-funded and recorded albums. "Nothing pretentious," Mabry says, while he and Striplin cite bands with ideal career profiles, including Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. "Any band that doesn't change clothes before playing a show that night--they just wear the same thing they wore all day. That's the good stuff."

Well, sure, and such honest directive seems natural from guys who would love to prattle on all night about the legacy of the Stones, their favorite Beatles songs, how to categorize Gram Parsons, the impact of Television and Tom Verlaine, and so forth. But the members seem well aware of the gravelly road ahead, fraught with ongoing day jobs (Mabry has a window-washing company, Striplin and Egner are couriers) juggled with the attempt to build a local loyal following in a hard-to-seduce city. On the restaurant's patio, Mabry and Striplin down a second shot of 1800, Mabry punctuating his gulp with a sigh. "Dallas has a lot of good bands, a wonderful, wide variety, but it's unfortunate there isn't really a cohesive scene anymore," he says. "I don't know where we'll fit in."

"Doesn't matter, really," Striplin adds. "This music's in me, it's in you. We'd do it anyway."

Pleasant Grove performs August 15 at Club Clearview.

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