At their current rate of evolution, Pure Bathing Culture are halfway to being a for-real pop band.
The Portland-based duo (they aren’t natives; they moved there from Brooklyn*) released their second, self-titled, album in late 2015 to moderate reviews. Critics seemed to prefer their first album, Moon Tides – a much more moody, textured, layered and atmospheric affair, one heavily indebted to the Cocteau Twins, Frankly I much prefer the songs I’ve heard from the new one; it’s a fool’s errand to try to sound like the Cocteau Twins, unless your singer actually is Liz Frazer. When they tried it, Pure Bathing Culture just sounded a bit twee and rubbish. And anyway, why try to recreate someone else’s already-perfected sound?
For their second album, Pray for Rain, PBC hooked up with producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, Wye Oak and St Vincent among many, many others) and began to get serious. Congleton’s work sonically leaves me a bit cold. There’s something fake about the instrument sounds on all his records. Nothing sounds natural. But even despite the unlovely sonics of Pray for Rain, you have to say Congleton did a great job with these guys. The primary duty of a producer, historically at least, is to create something saleable for the record label, but the best producers are able to do this while helping the band to grow and develop, challenging and bettering themselves, and coming up with something that’s an advance on anything they’ve done before. In this regard, Congleton played a blinder.
Pray for Rain (the song, not the album) has a confident swagger that nothing on the band’s debut had. Singer Sarah Versprille is now singing in her natural range instead of half an octave above it and the effect is transformative (I can’t think of a single comparably huge one-record improvement in a vocalist. Not one). The arrangement and song structure is tight and focused, and the vocal drives the music rather than just existing within it. Daniel Hindman’s guitars are similarly emboldened – they’re still absolutely saturated in reverb, delay and all the time-domain effects contemporary indie can’t seem to do without, but the style is more idiosyncratic, less obviously derived from just one or two sources. The duo’s past musical endeavours, both in Vetiver and their early days as Pure Bathing Culture, seem a world away.
Now, when you compare them to a contemporary band that genuinely court the pop market and know how to make pop music, it’s pretty clear that Pure Bathing Culture still have work to do. Their melodies remain essentially static, and the songs don’t evolve so much as arrive, dwell in front of you and then stop. But they’ve come a long way quickly and are maybe only a record away from arriving at something really great. It’s now coming up to two years since Pure Bathing Culture was released. Perhaps that big step forward is being taken behind the scenes as we speak.
*I shouldn’t be cynical, but if you wanted to sum up the last five years in rock music in one short sentence, you could do a lot worse than “Indie band moves from Brooklyn to Portland”.