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Pinegrove - Cardinal (Album Review)

Monday, 22 February 2016 Written by Jennifer Geddes

‘Cardinal’ is a lesson in utilising the power of music and performance to create intimacy between a band and their audience. Initially the solo project of Evan Stephens Hall, Pinegrove’s notable strengths remain his lyrical skill and singing style, which add depth to their cosy alt-rock melodies.

The album is framed by its two best tracks, starting with Old Friends and ending with New Friends. The last song on the album, somewhat bitterly, focuses on forming new friendships after the end of a relationship that is still being lamented and showcases Stephens Hall’s ability to hint at a personal story with words oblique enough for the listener to fill in the gaps with one of their own. Old Friends, meanwhile, speaks universal truths: “I should call my parents when I think of them. Should tell my friends when I love them.”

His vocal style also adds to the confessional feel of these songs. Stephens Hall sometimes delivers his melancholy lyrics in a monotone drawl that suggests a world-weary or even ambivalent outlook.

Yet, at other points, his voice rises, yelps even, to the point of breaking. It’s here that he displays an inner desperation or, when he adopts close whisper, increases the closeness he is developing with his listener.

The band soundtracks the story Stephens Hall is telling, adding gravitas at certain moments. Their style falls somewhere in between indie rock and alt-country, with songs driven by chugging guitar and interspersed with melodic licks, steel guitar and finger-picked banjo, all filtered through a lo-fi aesthetic. New Again is the most upbeat track and Visiting has the least formal structure, while Aphasia goes as far as to feature a guitar solo.

There are so many access points to Pinegrove’s music that you could end up simply listing a multitude of other bands that they seem reminiscent of, ranging from Wilco to Bright Eyes. Yet these songs couldn’t be anyone else’s, if only because of Stephens Hall’s strength as an engaging and accomplished frontman. 

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