Review: Pinegrove Debuts Cardinal

  • Cover by Pinegrove

  • From left to right: drummer Zack Levine, vocalist and pianist Nandi Plunkett, bassist Samuel Skinner, guitarist and vocalist Evan Stephens Hall. Photo Andrew Piccone.

Montclair, New Jersey is really turning heads these days.

It’s a medium-large town, a little liberal bastion a handful of miles into Jersey from Manhattan. Largely met with upturned scoffs from the surrounding populaces (Newark, Irvington, Bloomfield, to name a few—much more industrial, working class cities), Montclair is a pocket of park-speckled ex-urbanites and upwardly mobile working folk from surrounding Jersey. My mom moved my sisters and I there as a kid.

It’s segregated. The University, built partly by Sinatra money, snuggles into the hill’s top, surrounded by hedged lawns and manicured parks, the likes of Stephen Colbert and various New York Times masthead. Middle stage gentrification bares its teeth at the middle, sporting a few blocks of Starbucks and fancy Italian eateries abutting churches and the remains of 90s heroin den/part-time venue The Meatlocker. At the bottom of the hill, edging up against Bloomfield, converted American colonials, vacant lots, and low-price below-ground Shoppers centers dominate a bleak industrial zone.

Bands have always been around Montclair. The local scene ebbs and flows, a constantly changing group of local characters setting up house concerts in various locales (churches, garages, basements of particularly empathetic parents), footing bills for high school bands, the occasional touring headliner.

Early on, I was obsessed with plenty of local bands, most of them 90’s emo ripoffs or punk/hardcore acts. Some joke bands, everyone tossing around local slang and inside jokes. They were fads; moved slowly up to headlining their friends’ houses, drawing the likes of their schoolmates and various scene hangers-on. Nothing was transcendent.

But then there was Pinegrove. I remember the first time I heard their first full length album, Meridian; it was in a Honda Odyssey, speeding down rambling Jersey country hills. I wasn’t sure about it, couldn’t understand what I found so enticing about this borderline country rock. But I kept coming back to it, couldn’t put it down.

Two EPs and a couple years later, and Pinegrove are the most well-liked DIY band in Jersey. I’m a high school senior, the high-falutin music nerd type. When I meet new people, I refer them to Pinegrove before I know their taste, because they’re just that likeable of a band.

An easy recommendation—no one dislikes Pinegrove. It’s that quality of open amenity; a sound that is at once unique, catchy, infectiously pop-oriented without sacrificing inventiveness. Lyricism that begs to be deciphered without being ham-fisted, is at once a fervent probing into the nature of language and the missteps of human relations through communication, without ever crossing into the dull shallows of academia.

I didn’t realize it then, but it’s all these things that make Pinegrove the perfect pop band, what made them the band every person described as destined for the limelight: They are the utter embodiment of what makes pop so popular; superficially simplistic listening that begs to be interrogated further; so unmistakable and resistant to wear due to its unrelenting layers of intrigue.

Cut to summer 2015. I’ve left the east coast, moved up to Montreal, situated myself nicely amongst the music-types of Quebec. I’ve moved onto other musical interests, but like always, I carry what has become a token of my home with me, my constant assertion that yes, for sure, undoubtedly and with no uncertain words, Pinegrove are the next thing. It resonates amongst some, and soon Pinegrove are coming up for various DIY shows in Montreal, a lovely little summer of PGrove performances around town, frontman Evan Stephens Hall developing a bit of a love affair with the city. By the summer’s middle, the mostly-finished record that would become Cardinal has fallen into a host of Montreal laps, including yours truly.

What this long introduction has meant to relay, is that I’ve been sitting on this record for a long time, and come to the conclusion that it cannot be broken into the simplistic jargon of musical review. It’s not a record to mince for better understanding, or minimize into genre.

It’s more than that; Hall is more than that. It is both context and form—Montclair and Elsewhere, as so aptly worded in Visiting.

On its face, Cardinal is an incredibly tight rock and roll record, strutting country ballads fleshed out with a full band that meanders lackadaisical without ever losing form. It’s walking-around-on-a-warm-day music, falling-in-love-with-patterned-sunlight music, dozing-amongst-the-subtle-tones-of-a-forest music. Rollicking country licks intersperse with fluttering banjo, and purposeful, driving grooves. This is the Montclair, the localist genre blend of East Coast DIY sensibilities with pop structuring that strikes the lamen listener as devilishly nuanced synthesis. It’s music that immediately burrows melodies into your subconscious, and it’s only furthered by Hall’s lyricism.

Though Pinegrove is clearly a package deal, Hall’s lyricism is the definitive arbiter of genius, the thing that rises immensely above what is still strategically poptimized (that’s optimal pop) musicality. Here is the Elsewhere of Pinegrove, a lyrical sense that transcends narrative and prose to provide totally lucid interrogations of human language and experience, but again, packaged as palatable. It reads as pop music for academics, but clever self-stylings for pop fans.

There’s honestly no end to the things I can say about this band, but we can all be sure this isn’t the last time we’ll be offered the fertile soil of Pinegrove’s work to sift through endlessly. There’s also very little I can say with total certainty, as this band is such a shifting sonic forest of thoughtful effort.

However, I can say a few things for sure: Firstly, I’ve been listening to this record nonstop for almost half a year and it has not been exhausted, even a little. Secondly, Pinegrove have been the next thing for years; we’re all just catching up.

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