Pinegrove got a bad name when someone claimed they were an emo-band. This was likely due to their emergence during the 2010s and the hordes passionate young fans (known endearingly by Pinenuts) who were often seen singing along at all-ages shows these Montclair youths had attended in their formative years.
As evidenced by Pinegrove’s fourth full-length 11:11, released on Jan. 28 by the Rough Trade label, the band owes its primary musical debt to the twangy alt-country of Wilco (or, more locally, Metuchen’s Roadside Graves and Asbury Park’s River City Extension), even if singer Evan Stephens Hall almost certainly grew up with Jersey emo stalwarts like Ace Enders and Chris Conley on heavy rotation. It is not Southern but Midwestern in its drawl and not at any Joisey.
Since forming, Pinegrove has been self-sufficient in the studio, and while Hall and multi-instrumentalist Sam Skinner co-produced 11:11, the band brought in Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla to mix. That proved a wise decision, with Walla finding a perfect balance between the DIY rusticity of the early albums and the studio sheen of 2020’s Marigold.
Hall once observed that while emo tends to look inwardly, his band often looks outwardly, and that is certainly true for the best parts of Hall. 11:11Many of the songs by this group are outdoors-oriented. Sometimes, that means taking a stroll while enjoying the beauty and wonder of nature (Hall has suggested that this is the title). 11:11Could also represent a tree stand, as well as a date or time), but more often it signifies noticing the destruction that climate changes have caused to the sky, water, land, and sea.
While 11:11 largely eschews the rustic guitars, clattering drums, slide guitar and banjo that distinguished Pinegrove’s earliest work, standout track Flora (listen below) fully embraces the twang of traditional country, its upbeat lilt belied by a lyric that notes something has gone horribly wrong: And I’m walkin’ outside, nothing feels good/Take a blue meander into the woods/Nothing’s shining like I feel like it should/And the birds sing dissident tunes. (Hall, always a crafty lyricist, references the album’s title again in the otherwise dreary Let with the line the day the calendar’s a palindrome.)
Orange is a similar lyric, and it not only looks out at the world but also ranks among the most political Pinegrove lyrics to date, when it comes to climate change. Hall sings that today the sky is orange and you and I both know why. And when he tries to bring the problem to his senator, he’s told I should feel happy he talked to me at all. This confrontation is wrapped in lush layers and vocal harmonies, clashing drums, electric guitars, and vocal harmonies.
Respirate again trades Hall’s usual oblique poetry for a more concrete message; When Corona hit, I was already feeling pretty out of it/Frustrated with myself, frustrated with my fellows, he sings over symphonic crashes of melody and percussion. The chorus captures how we all feel after two years of pandemic: I take it day by day/And just do my best to respirate/We’re having a hard time now/Finding a good way out.
11:11Hall and the band fail to look inward when they do. Too much of the album is first-person navel-gazing with laggard paces and hookless melodies. Only a few songs feature a first or second person, and they are often non-specific. Even though many tracks are under three minutes long, the 11-track collection feels too long. Alaska, which gives the album its name, is the only song that offers a break from the mid-tempo humdrum. The listener will feel the same way by the time they reach the somber So What?
Zack Levine and Hall, their childhood friends, were raised in Montclair. In 2010, they formed Pinegrove. Their trajectory was similar to that of the Front Bottoms. The group made do-it yourself recordings and played all-ages spaces. This led to a dedicated following, which helped them attract the attention of a record label. In 2016, Run for Cover Records released the band’s breakout LP CardinalThe radio and Internet taste-makers brought it to their attention and increased its popularity to a national audience.
But just as the band was about to capitalize on the buzz with 2017’s follow-up, SkylightHall was the victim of sexual coercion allegations from a woman he dated. Pinegrove decided to cancel their career and go on a year-long hiatus, during which Hall received therapy. The band self-released SkylightIn 2018, all profits were donated to charity. Although Pinegrove maintained that the album had been mixed before the allegations arose, the first track on Skylight begins, I draw a line in my life, singing, ‘This is the new way I behave now,’ and actually live by the shape of that sound.
Fans and critics are both warmly welcomed Marigold2020, the band was on Rough Trade. But the pandemic made touring that album impossible, and the first half of Pinegrove’s 2022 tour has been cancelled or postponed as well. When the band finally gets to hit the road in mid-February, we’ll learn if the Pinenuts turn out and welcome a more dour Pinegrove album without those radio-ready singalongs.
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