BY JORDAN WALSH
Pinegrove’s new album Cardinal is the kind of record you find in the bottom of your older sister’s stack of burned CDs, passed on to her by some friend you’ll never know the name of. That burned CD is scratched to hell, it skips on track two, and it’s inexplicably missing the last song. It’s the kind of record you sneakily force into your friends’ lives; you hijack the auxiliary cord in the car or spin it on your turntable during a small gathering. They may dissent and tell you to turn it off, but you’ll persist.
And you do it because Cardinal isn’t a record you stumble upon every day.
Pinegrove’s first release for Run For Cover Records, Cardinal thrives on a production aesthetic reminiscent of The Shins’ 2001 classic Oh, Inverted World. As such, Cardinal is a lo-fi, roomy affair that sounds as if it were recorded in a bedroom, the members harboring reservations about disturbing the neighbors.
As an intimate set of tunes that flaunt a DIY aesthetic, the eight songs on Cardinal sound anything but pristine, and this works. Take the opening “Old Friends,” the perfect introduction to Pinegrove’s fusion of twangy alt-country and contemporary emo. It’s a song that sounds like it’s being performed in a public park or a third floor apartment with an open window letting in the light breeze from outside. This aesthetic gives the songs a loose, airy feeling, allowing for tracks like “Old Friends” to fall apart for a second and let a line like “I got too caught up in my own shit…” land perfectly atop distant banjo plucking.
That line (“I got too caught up in my own shit”) is also a good summation of Cardinal’s themes. These songs are stream-of-consciousness reflections on isolation and growth, cerebral songs about trying to get out of your own head. Take “Size of the Moon,” a midnight crisis song about trying to enjoy the little happy moments in life without thinking so much about their impending ends. Evan Stephens Hall is the perfect lead for this heavy drama, his voice strong one second and fragile in the next as he delivers lines like “We had some good ideas but we never left that fucking room,” with the weight of all the song’s inherent frustration.
But “Size of the Moon” and the rest of the songs on Cardinal are more than sad-sack tunes. These are good, productive crises, lines like the one mentioned above mirrored with sheer positivity (“we should forget these setbacks and get back moving again”) and little images of beauty (“we were laughing and crying in awe of size of the moon”). The record is strategically structured in this way, a balanced set of songs that ebb and flow knowingly and warmly.
“Aphasia” is the perfect example of this phenomenon, a song that shifts gears slyly and inconspicuously three or four times, bluesy portions balanced with anthemic portions, themselves balanced with attacks of anxious shouting. The cyclical nature of it all is the most memorable aspect of the song— level-headed calculation of personal strife (“it’s not so much exactly all the words I use/ it’s more that I was somehow down to let them loose”) to strict shedding of these issues (“so long aphasia and the ways it kept me hidden”) to the boiling over of frustration (“I’ll go underground!”). Pinegrove presents the process of coping in this way, an endless circle of good and bad mentalities. The trick that Cardinal emphasizes with songs like “Size of the Moon” is the importance of enjoying the good feelings and leaving the dread behind, if only for a moment.
“New Friends” completes the cycle and this little gem of a record, a striking rock song and the most immediate track on Cardinal. The song’s central refrain— “what’s the worst that could happen?”— gives light to Pinegrove’s most important message. It’s about grabbing hold of those tiny flickers of self-possession; about getting out of bed when you feel good and doing anything you can to make yourself better. If that means leaving all your baggage at home for the night (“Someone tell me with my head/ help me forget it”), then do it, by all means.
That’s why this is a record to pass along if you happen to stumble upon it. It can’t possibly hook everyone, but with an album as potent as this one with themes of growing up and getting better, you never know who’s really going to need it. And who knows, you may even be helping this little, personal, intimate record become something so much bigger.
Jordan Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.