Pinegrove – Cardinal (2016)
The first time I saw Pinegrove was in 2014, and I recall feeling instantly floored by their melodic, emotionally affecting brand of DIY indie-folk. I spent a lot of time voraciously diving into their Bandcamp releases, watching their YouTube sessions, and hoping that the Montclair, NJ-based band would soon return to Boston. The release of Cardinal, now out on Run For Cover Records, has been long awaited for me, and I’m happy to say that it delivered.
It’s difficult to compare Pinegrove to other bands; calling them “DIY indie folk” brings bands like Saintseneca to mind, but while the two would be at home on the same bill, they don’t sound that alike. Pinegrove possesses the sort of sound that is unique, but somehow familiar and comforting all the same. Frontman Evan Stephens Hall has a slight twang to his voice that is complemented by a warm tonal coloring and earnest, impassioned delivery, making for a beautifully expressive and sincere vocal performance. Evan’s band features oft-rotating members, and on Cardinal, Pinegrove includes Zack Levine on drums, Sam Skinner on bass, Nandi Rose Plunkett on backing vocals, and Nick Levine on guitar. The band contributes to the record both in skill and personality, shaping expansive songs with full, energetic instrumentation and steady-like-a-train arrangements. “Size of the Moon,” which originally appeared on 2014’s Mixtape Two in an intimate acoustic iteration, completely transforms when re-recorded as a vast and anthemic track. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Cardinal was recorded live instead of through traditional tracking, because there is a palpable sense of raw impulsiveness present; these songs feel less like the result of a painstakingly precise recording process and more like a series of spontaneously captured cathartic breakthroughs.
On their Bandcamp page, Pinegrove has tagged themselves as “language arts rock,” which is a particularly fitting descriptor for Cardinal. A major theme of the record is language, communication, and the consequences of too much or too little too late. “Old Friends” and “New Friends,” the two tracks bookending the record, are meditations on the importance of maintaining friendships, with cutting lyrics like “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.” Standout “Aphasia,” named for a neurological speech disorder affecting one’s ability to communicate, addresses the relief that comes with finally being able to let your thoughts loose. A deceivingly sad and wistful intro makes way for a victoriously strong finish as Evan says goodbye to everything that restrained him, singing “So satisfied I said a lot of things tonight / So long aphasia and the ways it kept me hiding.”
“Cadmium” takes this concept a step further inward and verbalizes the difficulty of defining nebulous, fleeting ideas and feelings in the first place: “Say what it is / It’s so impossible / But if I just say what it is, it tends to sublimate away.” In an interview with The Fader, Evan said that the song was inspired by his experience exchanging letters with a friend, stating “We started sending colors and art sometimes and found it to be a different and good (and sometimes more direct) way to say what we were feeling.” This reflects an unspoken theme of Cardinal from both a musical and lyrical standpoint – the record strives to explicate emotions in a manner that is not restricted to words at their face value, but is conveyed in every line, every chord, and every hum. In another illuminating line, he says ”Everything I sing, I sing for me.” The song wrestles with the construct of self-expression and reclaims it as just that – expression that is precise and true to oneself.
Really, the entire record is all about Evan processing and organizing his thoughts, and you can feel him sorting through his inner dialogue every step of the way. It is as amazing as it is ironic that these songs about failed communication and expression could be so strikingly articulate and emotive. With Cardinal, Pinegrove has crafted an impressively artful and authentic record that celebrates the ups and downs of a lifelong process we all share: making sense of everything that goes on inside our heads.
Written by Samantha Stoakes