It’s a blessing that Cardinal, the debut album from DIY alt country outfit Pinegrove, runs only eight songs deep and clocks in at just over half an hour. It would be difficult, though not quite unpleasant, to spend any more time in the same space as Evan Stephens Hall’s cracking falsetto. Imagine being at a house party at which half the guests are apparitions from your past, floating into your periphery just long enough to register their presence before disappearing into the next room. This is sort of what it’s like to listen to Cardinal, an album that keeps one foot in the past but occasionally looks toward the future with loud guitars, uplifting choruses, and a prevailing sense that life is best listened to with the volume turned all the way up.
The past isn’t always the most pleasant place to hang around, and a longer album than Cardinal might have proved exhausting, even with its sporadic glimpses of optimism. As things stand, it feels like just enough of an introduction to Pinegrove, whose lineup has shifted over the years but perpetually revolves around Hall’s ability to break your heart and put it back together again in the span of a single song. The album’s opening track, “Old Friends”, might also be its strongest. It is at the very least exemplary of everything Pinegrove does well, slipping in and out of “solipsistic moods” to the tune of Hall’s clumsy, chugging guitar, which maintains the song’s pulse in the same organic way Stephen Malkmus’ gum smacks did in “Range Life”.
In his ability to conjure up imagery that’s both transparent and opaque, both transcendent and undeniably tied to the earth, the young songwriter recalls another poet from just down the road in New Jersey. It’s all too easy to picture Hall walking the same quiet streets and watching the same slow sunrises as William Carlos Williams and even easier to hear echoes of those lines Williams once sang softly to himself in front of a mirror: “I am lonely, lonely./ I was born to be lonely,/ I am best so!” Hall hasn’t quite earned such a comparison yet, but he shows his promise as a lyricist in subtle ways throughout Cardinal. The alliterative first verse to “Cadmium” stands as a great example, a moment which he props up with a steady rhythm of fingerpicked chords. Or, when he sings in “Then Again”, that “I split the difference of lonesome and lonely,” showing off his interest in semantics and paying tribute to a classic Paul Westerberg lyric in one elegant line.
Speaking of splitting the difference, Pinegrove’s musical reference point falls somewhere along the narrow spectrum between earnest indie rock and straight-up country revival. This seems to be a place inhabited by more and more DIY bands as the punk scene grows up and expands its sonic palette. Five years ago, contemporary DIY acts like Saintseneca, Alex G, and Waxahatchee might have had a hard time booking a basement show with bands that sounded anything like them; these days, they don’t seem like such iconoclasts. Punk has recently welcomed a string of groups proudly influenced by country and Americana traditions, and Pinegrove is merely the latest and strongest example. Their influences are hard to pin down but include everything from Wilco (the outro to “Aphasia” recalls some of the raucous jams on Sky Blue Sky) to Gillian Welch to Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen. The end result still sounds like it belongs in a basement in Montclair, New Jersey, but it also evokes the stars and the woods and the vast open spaces of America.
Cardinal is a contemplative record that converses with memory, but it doesn’t always do so in hushed tones. Pinegrove has internalized the soft-loud dynamic of rock music so fully that they can travel impressive distances in the span of a single song. The intro to “Waveform” sounds like it was recorded on a bedroom 4-track, and there’s a real intimacy conjured between the speaker and the person he’s addressing. But then the song unexpectedly blows up outward in the chorus, becoming more of a ballad that’s meant to be shouted between large groups of sweaty friends.
Of course, Pinegrove is probably most effective when they start in the sweaty gathering and then blast even further upward. “New Friends”, the album’s closer and a companion piece to “Old Friends”, exemplifies this trajectory, and the results are enthralling. “I resolve to make new friends,” sings Hall in a resigned tone. “I liked my old ones, but I fucked up, so I’ll start again.” The song’s anthemic, minute-long outro signifies that the start arrives just where we’d least expect it: at the end of the line, when all hope is lost and the only solution left is to burn everything down. Pinegrove builds and burns a lot on Cardinal, and they’re left with the hard-earned knowledge that everything’s probably going to be alright. It’s not the stuff teenage anthems are made of, maybe, but maturity comes with its own small pleasures.
Essential Tracks: “Old Friends”, “Cadmium”, and “New Friends”