“Often albums landing in the folky universe strive for age and wisdom. Hall, however, doesn’t hide his youth…”
-Blake Solomon, Absolutepunk.net
One of the pleasures of listening to a new band is creating an image of who the singer is. What do they look like? What kind of life do they live when they’re not playing? Just listening to a voice through a pair of headphones is enough to conjure up a mental picture of someone. Evan Hall of the band Pinegrove has a voice like Colin Meloy from The Decemberists, but with an unrestrained warble that wanders freely and urgently from note to note, unafraid to squeak and yell to hit each one. The note he ends up on is always surprising. In my mind, I conjured up an image of a refined indie rocker—tortoiseshell glasses, a loosely fitted collared shirt, and a pair of intentionally raggedy skinny jeans. He was handsome in an understated way. For the first several listens, this person defined the album.
It was startling when I looked up the band later and found out what Evan Hall actually looks like. The person in my mind was a stylish guy in his late twenties; the real Hall was young and looked like Michael Cera a la Superbad—tucked in t-shirt, unfitted straight jeans, skinny, stooped. The real Hall makes no effort to act or look like a cool musician. He looks like the kid in high school who is painfully smart, and not necessarily popular, but well-liked because he’s friendly.
“In the mid-2000s, Pinegrove’s openhearted indie rock could have been huge. Over the course of the Montclair, New Jersey quintet’s five years of existence, frontman Evan Stephens Hall has developed a great many qualities that would have endeared him to alt-minded fans of a different era.”
-Colin Joyce, Spin.com
Pinegrove’s sound is tough to classify. Alt-country? Emo-twang? 90’s throwback? Nu-Americana? All these descriptions fail to do Pinegrove justice. Cardinal sounds like it was conceived, practiced, and recorded live on a laptop in someone’s basement. It adds to the youthful sound of the album—like a group of kids filled to the brim with ideas, gathering together with their cheap guitars to capture their angst and put it into a hook. I’d use the word “innocent” if the music and the lyrics didn’t punch you in gut with their weight.
Cardinal isn’t angsty in a negative way, like anything their peers might put out. In fact, it’s almost carefree in the way it wields anxiety, sadness, and the pains of growing up. Hall isn’t afraid to start a song with a lyric like “I was totally nervous to go to Japan/I tried travel once I lost my keys.” It reads dumb, like Hall is just slapping some words from his journal onto the page. But it’s not dumb, because by this point in the album you’re in Hall’s world, listening to his stories like you’re right there wandering the streets of New Jersey with him. Remember, just a few songs earlier, he captured the pain of death without talking about pain or death: “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago/I saw some old friends at her funeral/My steps keep splitting my grief/ Through these solipsistic moods/I should call my parents when I think of them/Tell my friends when I love them.” He can say whatever he wants, however he wants to say it, because he tells a good story.
“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.”
-Collin Brennan, Consequence of Sound
Okay, sure, I’ll use the word innocence. Pinegrove has an innocent sound and an innocent exuberance. Their shouted choruses won’t fill a stadium, but with all their sweaty friends singing along, they’ll shake the walls of their living room and bother the neighbors. They’re only innocent because they’re not jaded, and they’re not jaded because their music doesn’t settle for an answer. Cardinal is what reveling in questions sounds like.
In the end, it works that Evan Hall isn’t the stylish, indie-rocker I pegged him for. He and his crew are in the business for the love of rock n’ roll. May their listeners increase.