Pure X uses a little "Starlight" to set the mood.
The Austin band's third album opens with the soft echo of single guitar notes, gently clinking wind chimes and easy-going harmonies. The serene and seductive tune opens the door to the world of Angel, a record that sounds calm and meditative but pulsates with a smoldering, yearning sensuality.
"'Starlight' was the first one," says guitarist-vocalist Jesse Jenkins. "That's the oldest song on the record and the one that we were playing the most and the one we started slipping into a new style for. That one paved the way and got us into a different mode of playing, which spilled over into the writing."
Drummer Austin Youngblood was more blunt in an interview with Spin magazine, describing Angel as "a record for the ladies, about the ladies."
"That's definitely a theme," Jenkins says. "I don't know if that was the intention going into it, but that's how it came out, for sure. It's a reflection of where we all were at the time writing it. Summer and fall of last year, we were all in that sort of headspace."
Pure X — Jenkins, Youngblood, guitarist-vocalist Nate Grace and newly acquired full-time multi-instrumentalist Matty Tommy Davidson — wrote a lot of Angel, released April 1 on Fat Possum, on the road. The band didn't set out to make a sultry record, but set out naturally to find a different muse after recording the reverb-soaked debut Pleasure and the raw and darker Crawling Up the Stairs.
"We're just getting better. We're evolving. We have to keep changing it up to even stay interested," Jenkins says. "That's something we've been doing since the beginning. None of our records sound the same and that's cause we don't want to get bored. We want to keep pushing and we don't want to make the same record twice."
The smoother Angel has earned great reviews in the hipster world, with Pitchfork name-checking Big Star, Elliott Smith, George Harrison and T. Rex. But the way the band works, there's no singular goal in mind at the outset of an album, Jenkins says.
"We write all kinds of ways. That's been a big deal for us since the beginning, to let the songs flow and tap into what they tap into rather than try to sit down and write a song," he says. "We just try to channel things."
To channel better, Pure X functions as a four-headed monster. Close attention reveals the different personalities of the songwriters. "Starlight," for example, was the first song Davidson brought to the rest of the band, envisioning Jenkins' falsetto carrying the song.
"It's interesting to me. That's something a lot of people don't talk to us about," Jenkins says. "They think there's one frontman and one person writing songs, but actually it's all four of us writing songs and all four of us singing."
As far as the bandmates' songs converging on a single theme in the end, chalk it up to traveling together, hours on the road listening to the same music, sharing the same experiences.
To put the songs together, Pure X went far outside their norm, secluding themselves in the boonies for a five-day, highly focused burst of recording.
"The process of recording it was what we've all been wanting to do for years," Jenkins says.
To record Angel, the band camped out in Wied Hall, a century-old dance hall in rural central Texas. The cavernous, rustic space provided just the right atmosphere and acoustics to get the sound Pure X wanted, and let them tap into a nearly forgotten aspect of Texas musical history.
"There are dance halls scattered all over rural Texas. From about the '20s through '70s, there was a dance hall circuit. The one we recorded in everybody played there, like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell," Jenkins says.
"Some of them are historical sites, some are in disrepair and abandoned. The one that we got access to is kind of in between. It's not totally falling apart, but it's not kept up really. It's just an empty huge wooden building. We wanted to record there because it has 30 foot-tall raftered ceilings and wood floors, so it's really, really good for sound."
The band loaded their studio equipment and set up in the dance hall, with two mixing engineers, to record to tape, mostly live.
"We just played it was a dream recording experience," Jenkins says. "That definitely influenced the way the record came out, the peaceful aspect of the tone. That was a direct result of us having so much fun and being so relaxed."