Cardinal by Pinegrove

Cardinal Album Art

This article originally appeared in TechNews

It doesn’t really make any sense, but Pinegrove lead signer Evan Stephens Hall often sounds like he has a Southern accent when he sings. Though Pinegrove hail from New Jersey, listening to just the first ten seconds or so of the band’s latest album, you might mistake them for a fairly generic Nashville alt-country group. After that, everything changes, but not quite in the dramatic fashion you might expect. Though all the hallmarks of a folk rock group are present (mandolin, slide guitar, tambourine), it’s abundantly clear that Pinegrove are more akin to alt-punk than anything else, despite the fact that there are very few specific elements that you could point to that individually identify them as such. This genre nonconformity, seemingly crafted with ease, characterizes the entirety of Cardinal, which was released on Run For Cover Records last Friday, marking Pinegrove’s first foray into traditional commercial territory.

Formed by three brothers approximately six years ago, Pinegrove has grown into a slightly larger group with the addition of Nandi Plunkett of Half Waif, a moody Brooklyn pop group. She appeared on their previous album and a couple EPs, but has never been used to the same wonderful extent that she appears in Cardinal. Her harmonies mark all of the album’s first three tracks, but in a manner restrained enough to avoid dominating Hall’s lead. Hall himself is as introspective as he’s ever been, moving with ease between dark observations both literate and plainspoken, sometimes simultaneously (“If I did what I wanted, then why do I feel so bad?”). It would be easy to proclaim Hall’s songwriting to be simply angst-ridden, but the general atmosphere created by his lyrics has more emotional maturity and genuine heft than most of the countless groups who have touched on similar themes throughout time. In this respect, Pinegrove is a stellar folk group, driven by a wordsmith both honest and intellectual.

Cardinal is a notably short album, barely edging past 30 minutes, but it’s quite possible that any more would be overkill. Every song on the collection, from straight-ahead rock piece “Then Again” to the early Death Cab For Cutie-reminiscent “Size of the Moon” (which is the longest on the album, if only by virtue of a half-minute ambient outro) seems to slot perfectly into the release’s flow, and any more might spoil the individual emotional weight of each composition. While you could much more easily envision Pinegrove opening for Basement (who they not coincidentally are labelmates with) than for Dawes, the band’s inclusion of organic instruments and robust male-female harmonies makes them somewhat unique in their genre, and potentially compelling to a wide variety of audiences. This isn’t folk punk, not by a longshot; Pinegrove certainly wouldn’t fit in with Defiance, Ohio and Andrew Jackson Jihad. It’s not the same sanitized alt-rock/folk blend that we’re used to hearing from groups like The Lumineers and Hozier, either. Instead, Cardinal contains all the vigor and cutting passion of late-90s punk, with all the acoustic embellishments of your friendly local Americana performers. It’s a bit of a strange blend to wrap your head around on paper, but it works remarkably well to the ears. If we hear more albums of this quality from Pinegrove, you’re guaranteed to see a greatly expanded following rise up around them. 9.0/10

-Soren Spicknall

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