Review: Pinegrove, ‘Cardinal’

Posted 2 years ago by Joel Funk

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Written by Joel Funk Edited by Caitlin Kohn

Pinegrove is an alt-country band from Montclair, New Jersey. I have no qualms about admitting that I wrestled with the idea of not using that label because of the idea that it would turn more people off than it would intrigue. I decided to run with it on the off chance that I could take this as an opportunity to make a case for the genre by saying that for the majority of y’all, Pinegrove isn’t the first alt-country band you’ve heard. Hell, they aren’t even the first to land a spot as part of Run For Cover’s home run of a roster.

Part of Pinegrove’s charm is in how they embrace the genre wholeheartedly. I don’t know that I can summarize it better than James Rettig did when writing for Stereogum to premiere the studio version of “Old Friends.” They compared the songwriting style to Taylor Swift by way of Built to Spill, to which I immediately let out a hell yeah, and grew increasingly excited for my first dive into the whole of their debut album, ‘Cardinal.’

Starting the record with “Old Friends” is cool for a multitude of reasons; the first of which being that it’s just an incredible song. The songwriting takes on a more straightforward storytelling approach, which works well in conjunction with the music. The second and arguably more impressive reason for this has to do with how well it works contextually.

The songs on ‘Cardinal’ all feel like smaller pieces to a larger story, thematically coming to an open with “Old Friends” which sees vocalist Evan Stephens Hall talking about old relationships and just how easily they become taken for granted. The rest of the record plays out like an introspective journey leading up to the familiar events of the album’s finale, “New Friends.”

Songs like “Aphasia” really drive this theme home. The song is slowed, with a tender vocal delivery and a simple strum making up the first fifteen seconds or so of the song. This was the first song on ‘Cardinal’ that brought on goosebumps, if not simply for the line “So satisfied/I said a lot of things tonight/So long Aphasia and the ways you kept me hiding.” See, Aphasia is a communication disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that contain language. You wouldn’t know that Hall was diagnosed with Aphasia when you listen to these songs because these incredible thoughts and ideas seem to pour out of them with seemingly no issue.

Especially on “Visiting.” My favorite track on ‘Cardinal’ opens with some of my favorite lyrics, “I’m spectral for days on end these days/with thoughts about visiting/So how about my voice rings out for you/and you can tell me what you’re doing.” This is a song that flourishes on every level, from the sound to placement within the tracklist, everything just hits you at once and leaves you in a state of bliss. “Visiting” is perfect, and will probably go down as one of the best songs of 2016.

In the history of album closers that are also couplets, I don’t know that anyone has done it better than Pinegrove did with “Size of the Moon” and “New Friends.” The former is a song that is packed full of nostalgic remembrance, and it’s both beautiful and heart-wrenching. “New Friends” feels like the product of not only the events of “Size of the Moon,” but the record as a whole.

‘Cardinal’ started out with a conversation about old relationships and how quick we are to take them for granted, and the rest of the record felt like a look inside those relationships, and the thought process going into the optimistic attitude of the album’s closer, on which Hall sings “I resolve to make new friends/I liked my old ones, but I fucked up/So I’ll start again/What’s the worst that could happen?”

Pinegrove have created a record that one will fall more and more in love with the more they listen to it. Sonically, ‘Cardinal’ will catch your ear, and you’re going to leave that listen with a smile on your face. You’ll find the real beauty of this record when you listen to the story that’s unfolding in front of you. I know it’s still too early to take this comment seriously, but I truly believe that ‘Cardinal’ is a front-runner for album of the year.