Graded on a Curve:
Purple Pilgrims,
Perfumed Earth

Sisters Valentine and Clementine Nixon are Purple Pilgrims, a New Zealand-based act with a penchant for experimentally tinged dream-pop, a sound that’s beautifully realized on their sophomore full-length Perfumed Earth. They enlist a fair amount of assistance in the making of the album, but let’s leave that for below; from the gorgeous vocals to the depth and warmth of the songs, this is very much the Nixon’s record and much more than a standard excursion into the ethereal. Indeed, in textural terms, these nine selections climb a few notches above the norm. It’s out on vinyl (either lilac-colored and black), compact disc and digital August 9 through Flying Nun Records.

Purple Pilgrims emerged in 2011 with an 8-inch lathe cut in an edition of 50. It held two untitled tracks with a cover photo swiped from the poster for the Wes Craven-directed 1981 cult horror movie Deadly Blessing and was accompanied by a hand-sewn 12-page zine. Checking out the tracks on Bandcamp (via the PseudoArcana label), they radiate like a mixture of environmental field recordings and pop that’s as psychedelic as it is dreamy; that it was mastered by Brian Crook of the Renderers provides a clue as to where it’s all situated.

From there, Purple Pilgrims shared a 2013 split LP with the US-based twisted synth psych sculptor Gary War on Upset! The Rhythm and they followed that in 2016 with their proper full-length debut Eternal Delight on the Not Not Fun label. The songs on the split lessened the hazy drifty quality that could make ‘em seem like a byproduct of the Xpressway label in favor of dreamy glisten-glide, and all was well.

With Eternal Delight, the sound blossomed even more, all while retaining tangible but subtle edge in the delivery, so that folks who gravitated toward the lathe-cut debut could continue to relate. There was also an increase in attention to synth ambiance that underscored the association with Gary War. On Perfumed Earth, this connection persists, as War contributed bass and synth lines to the record from various US hotels while he was out touring with John Maus.

For this recording, the Nixons utilized the same rustic studio in Tapu where Eternal Delight was cut, augmenting the vibe with those abovementioned assists, which include drumming from Lorde keyboardist Jimmy Mac and guitar from Surf City’s Joshua Kennedy. But the moody lushness of the brief opener “How Long Is Too Long” puts the sisters solidly in the foreground.

And it’s not like they get lost in the proceedings as Perfumed Earth unfolds, but “Ancestors Watching” does register as a more collaborative affair, or at least more layered, even as it mingles vocal beauty with a gemlike glistening keyboard pattern. And speaking of patterns, those drums do add heft, but it’s not like Purple Pilgrims are standing on the precipice of rocking out.

And that’s cool. Pop splendor is increasingly the fruits of the Nixon’s artistic labor, with “Sensing Me” the sorta tune that will inevitably draw comparisons to Kate Bush. One crucial difference is the elevated vocal harmony; hey, it’s like having two Kate Bush’s on hand, and that circumstance blends well with the non-clichéd and often subtle synth-pop current that runs throughout the disc.

This synth-pop aura, with an emphasis on pop, intensifies during “I’m Not Saying,” the song reminding me a little bit of Stephin Merritt (like something he might’ve recorded with Susan Amway, or as part of the 6ths project), but just a wee bit, as the Nixons lack Merritt’s strain of eccentricity and his anachronistic qualities. That is, “I’m Not Saying” has nothing to do with the Tin Pan Alley. It’s just good pure synth-pop that calls out for chilly autumn weather.

To my ear, synth-pop and the fall season complement each other particularly well. A personal idiosyncrasy perhaps, but one not unworthy of comment. I’m also taken with how well the Nixonian dream-pop sensibility blends with the playing of experimental saxophonist Jeff Henderson. While his playing does flirt with free jazz a smidge along the way, the whole is much more about prettiness, courtesy of a vibraphone-like keyboard line. There is also a hovering synth.

But most notably, as neither Nixon sings it all holds up extremely well. The voices do return in “Two Worlds Apart.” Here, the tempo shifts. It’s now up, and it’s dancy, though there’s an instrumental ambiance reminding me just a little of very early Stereolab. Others may not hear this similarity at all, but hopefully it’s getting driven home that Purple Pilgrims are far from a typical dream-pop/ synth-pop scenario.

“Love in Lunacy (Saturn Return)” cultivates a touch of retro-futurist strangeness while keeping on the pop course. Closer “Tragic Gloss” heads wholeheartedly down that the same avenue and with some appealing synth cascades thrown in. However, it’s penultimate track “Ruinous Splendour,” in part through the guitar of Roy Montgomery, that stands as one of Perfumed Earth’s highlights.

As Purple Pilgrims assisted Montgomery on his very nifty Suffuse from last year, their association is a sturdy one. I’m also struck that the most enjoyable (if not necessarily best) Flying Nun record I’ve heard in quite a while features guitar from a member of the Pin Group, a unit responsible for the very first Flying Nun record, the “Ambivalence” 45. But I don’t want to stray from the point here; even with a handful of help, the core of Perfumed Earth’s goodness derives from Valentine and Clementine Nixon.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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