There’s just something about the rugged hippie woodlands and shabby-chic villages of Upstate New York that will turn any band – from urban dandies to suburban basement show veterans – instantly into a junior Levon Helm experimenting with facial hair and farmer plaid and singing about (mid-size) opossums and shit. It’s really just inevitable; something in the water, in the air, in the bygone slipstream left behind by Woodstock, The Basement Tapes, Music From Big Pink, the very concept of goin’ on up the country.
If there’s any doubt in your mind about this scientific fact, then consider this new offering from Montclair, NJ’s own Pinegrove. That’s right, Montclair NJ ladies and gentlemen, about as far removed from the laid back, ruralist, back-to-nature pagan vibes of Upstate NY. We’re talking rows upon rows of pristine upper middle-class houses, perfectly sculpted lawns that are never used; 911 calls and parted curtains greet anyone who dares do something so bold as take a walk. This is the terrain Pinegrove rose from, taking off from free basement emo shows full of bright-future teens in cuffed jeans and intricately parted hair, eventually taking flight on the fumes of lead songwriter Evan Stephens Hall’s heartworn, metaphysical songwriting chops. We’re talking critical success beyond 99% of the “indie” world’s wildest dreams, sold out club tours, their songs playing softly in the background as you browse the price-gouged produce aisles of your local Wholefoods.
But one thing we’re definitely NOT talking about when it comes to The Grove, at least not on the truly excellent 3-album run that preceded Marigold, are nature-obsessed meditative instrumentals, Doug-Sahm-influenced country shuffles about, well, mid-sized opossums and shit, sweeping, apocalyptic visions of country roads and animals in the headlights, marigolds in the garden and hearts out in the garbage. One doesn’t even need to look up if, at some point between much-adored debut Cardinal and this record, the Boys Of The Grove migrated Upstate. The region lives and breathes in every note and sigh captured on this record. And it fits Pinegrove like a warm pair of mittens purchased at a farmer’s market in downtown Kingston.
Warm. That’s the key to the beauty of this thing. From the opening seconds where Stephens Hall lets out a pointed exhale to the tingly final notes of the religious experience of a title track, an autumnal glow settles over the proceedings that works to weave a humanist link between songs that veer from straight-up-folk to Nashville twang to the type of soaring, heart-on-a-wire ragers Stephens Hall seems to be able to crank out on command. While on Everything So Far and Cardinal we had a relatable cavalcade of suburban post-teen romantic and philosophical turbulence and on Skylight a chilly sense of cerebral remove, on Marigold Pinegrove unfolds outward, encompassing Earth and Sky and Community and Human and Animal, ignoring the wreckage on the shoulder to take on an enlightened, though still confused and searching, sense of empathy far removed from the modern day cultural warfare raging on the wifi battlezone.
Say what you will about the inevitability of artistic growth, but Pinegrove just wouldn’t be sounding like this if they had stayed in Northern Jersey. While they kicked off their run as a pure emo band with just a hint of twang encoded in their dna somewhere, here the pedal steel is moved to the forefront, and the results are delicious. “Endless” is instantly the most gorgeous piece of music this band has yet sculpted, a straight up country weeper just destined for a Country Hot 100 Music Row cover version. Where he used to yelp and over-emote, Stephens Hall now holds back, finding strength in subtlety like only the best belters can, but he sure knows when the time is right to let it rip. And that time comes on the “Endless” chorus where he comes on like Dolly in her prime, saying more in two syllables than the wordiest track on Cardinal, somehow housing the entire thing without even taking a breath. The flipside to “Endless” would be “Spiral”, an insanely catchy tone poem that clocks in under a minute but still manages to evoke an album’s worth of imagery including classic Stephens Hall observations (“You’re smiling/And lying/Your hair in a spiral”) and a studied wordplay that manages to be equal parts cryptic and enlightening (“Drink water/Good posture/Good lighting/Good evening/You’re mourning/The loss of/A feeling/A part of/A process/Of living”). While they’ve always been an interesting band pushing and pulling against the constraints of their genre, nobody could have predicted a song like “Neighbor” coming from Pinegrove. With verses concentrating on 1) an overturned insect attempting to flip back over 2) a dying “mid-sized opossum” on the road in front of a house and 3) a neighbor who shoots birds, this is textbook rural hippie pastoralism. Stephens Hall laments about the poor wounded possum, “The rainout shines out of her mouth and it points back to nature”. The classic push-and-pull between idealist urban rural dropouts and their conservative, huntin’ neighbors is present on “Neighbors”, and props to Stephens Hall for going against the cultural warfare grain of present times. “Well I love my neighbor/But don’t understand his behavior” Empathy, love, and honesty, thy name is Pinegrove. This is late afternoon sunshine on an overgrown lawn music, and it’s tough to see it coming from anywhere other than a squalor Victorian studio on the floorboards of a rented house somewhere near the Hudson.
Fans of 6/8 mid-tempo shuffles will absolutely flip over this record. While some of The Grove’s past mid-temp experiments tended to drift a bit, here they are tightly structured, compact, and fully benefiting from the much glossier production the band has applied to this record. “The Alarmist” might be the best of the bunch, the track that contains the already-mentioned “Marigold in the garden/My heart’s out in the garbage” line, building to a near crescendo at the end of each verse only to pull back from the brink, allowing Stephans Hall to plead, “Just be good to me” in a whisper so desperate you just know he means it. The delicate, finger-picked “No Drugs” happens to be the only “Hey, I’m trying to get sober here” song I know of that gets right to the root of the main impulse when it comes to intoxicants: “I just want to feel good”. Any issues you may have with the literal nature of the song are immediately swept aside by the bedrock of sheer musical gorgeousness it rests on, complete with interlocking duel rhythms and the type of chiming acoustic lines that can only be laid down with, like, roosters and shit making noises in the background. “Hairpin” and “Alcove” feel like mid-tempo brothers in arms, placed on opposite sides of the record but still vibing together nicely, with “Hairpin” fully fleshed out from the “hairpin bends” of the verses to the slow-rolling choruses and “Alcove” building nicely from it’s beatless intro into an evocative picture of a brief Western sojourn away from the troubles of the east and a girl named Emily. And only Pinegrove would name such a far-reaching, expansive track after something as confining as an alcove.
And then there’s the Anthems. The songs The Grove is known for. The songs that inspires fan tattoos and entire online communities in their wake. The soaring, hyper-literate, hallucinatory journeys they’ve been cranking out since Cardinal‘s one-two opening punches of “Old Friends” and “Cadmium”. Rural environs have not blunted their edge here on Marigold. If anything, the Anthems have been heightened further, shot through with a raw-nerve immediacy that just can’t be learned or taught. You got it or you don’t. And from the opening line on “Dotted Line”, Marigold‘s emotive and epic opening canon shot, Pinegrove just absolutely fucking has it. “Ignore the wreckage on the shoulder” and we’re off on an exodus out of Manhattan, touched with the weight and pathos of any biblical tale. While Stephens Hall tended to strive toward the skyline lights on songs of the past, like any Jersey kid growing up in the shadow of The Island, here he retreats, and the way his voice breaks into a dreamy vocal fry on the line “With Manhattan Island on the horizon” reveals he still loves that from which he flees. And this goes for the tri-state area as well as a lover:
In the night when I feel your absence
Like a dotted line across my shoulder
Like a silver vision across the desert
May no memory hold my head up
Metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor. And when the sunny, cautiously positive chorus kicks in (“I don’t know how/But I’m thinking it’ll all work out”) its abrupt lane change ushers forth the most sublime moment yet in their discography. This is goosebumps music, spiritual music, cosmic American music like Uncle Gram envisioned. On a similar plane is “Phase”, the one song here that leans the closest to the basement emo thrashings of their origins, that is until the chorus which comes on like a warped sunshine pedal steel ode to The Notorious Byrd Brothers. One of the most immediate songs Pinegrove has ever produced, “Moment” comes roaring in on the latter end of the album’s front half, breaking up a mid-tempo run with desperate howls, go-for-broke crashing instrumentation, and full-tilt desperate pleas from Stephens Hall “I’m scared to know…BUT I NEED TO KNOW”. Lyrics like “Shouting in the dark/Saying anything I can” can be either highly personal/literal confessions or pointed comments on the current culture beyond his new porch swing, and he wisely chooses to leave this open for interpretation. The wounded animal/back to nature theme pops up on “Moment” as well, only this time it’s straight-up frightening, acknowledging the flipside of the “Goin On Up The Country” scenario that has spelled the death of many a commune:
Then on the bad long drive home
I encountered an animal
Scared stiff in the lights of the van
And I swerved and I flailed in the road
Then I was screaming
Perhaps the greatest thing about this record, the element that makes it congeal into Pinegrove’s most solid and accomplished work yet, is the communal vibe where each band member is fully allowed to stretch out and shine in their respective roles. You get the sense that Stephens Hall is loosening the reigns here, a smart move which allows Zack Levine’s slightly off-kilter drums to take over much of the album, nearly stealing the spotlight entirely on “Dotted Line” when he comes staggering onstage midway through the first verse. His brother Michael William Levine’s pedal steel is sublime and essential throughout, taking notes more from the “just wing it, man” Jerry Garcia p-steel style more than that of any Nashville pro. And as always, Half Waif’s Nandi Rose Plunkett plays the Emmylou to Stephens Hall’s Parsons, adding spine-tingling harmony lines to “Endless” that push the track from “excellent” to “immortal” in a single breath.
1,084 words into this review and we haven’t even touched on the album’s most unexpected and best song, the ambient title track that closes the album. This isn’t a song so much as a wordless prayer, a hymn that comes on like a light mist across an Upstate valley. You can smell bonfires in this track, can feel desolation and hope in equal measure, and when the humming glow of the autumnal guitar lines take over near the end you have a perfect distillation of the album’s mission. It’s a meditation on stillness, on nature and retreat, on empathy against great odds, on the very act of BEING.
And it’s far and away the finest thing they’ve ever done.