Pinegrove got a bad rap when someone decided they were an emo band, probably because of their emergence in the 2010s and the hordes of passionate young fans (known endearingly as “Pinenuts”) seen singing along at the innumerable all-ages shows these Montclair millennials played 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. You can hear it in that drawl, not Southern so much as Midwestern, and not at all 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 noted that while emo typically looks inward, his band looks outward, and that is certainly true of the best parts of 11:11, many of whose songs take place outdoors. Sometimes that means taking strolls while enjoying the beauty of nature (Hall has hinted that the title 11:11 could represent a stand of trees as well as a time or date), but more often it means noticing the devastation that climate change has wreaked on the sky, water, and land.
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.”)
Similarly, “Orange” not only looks out to the world, but also ranks as the most political Pinegrove lyric to date, confronting climate change. “Today the sky is orange, you and I know why,” Hall sings. 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 comes wrapped in lush layers of keyboards, vocal harmonies, clashing cymbals and electric guitars.
“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.”
11:11 falters when Hall and the band do look inward; too much of the album relies on first-person navel-gazing, with laggard tempos and hookless melodies. Only a sparse few songs include a first and second person, and they are always non-specific. And even though several tracks clock in at under three minutes, the 11-track collection seems too long, with only the peppy “Alaska” (which gives the album its title) offering a respite from its mid-tempo doldrums. By the time the listener gets to the laconic “So What?,” that feeling has become mutual.
Childhood friends Hall and drummer Zack Levine grew up in Montclair and formed Pinegrove in 2010, with a trajectory similar to the Front Bottoms, making do-it-yourself recordings and playing all-ages spaces and house shows, building a devoted following even before attracting the attention of a label. In 2016, Run for Cover Records released the band’s breakout LP Cardinal, which brought it to the attention of critics, radio and Internet taste-makers and expanded its following to a national audience.
But just as the band was about to capitalize on the buzz with 2017’s follow-up, Skylight, Hall became the subject of allegations of sexual coercion from a woman he had dated. Rather than wait for cancel culture to upend their career, Pinegrove cancelled themselves, going on a self-imposed year-long hiatus during which Hall received therapy. The band self-released Skylight in 2018, donating all profits 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 warmly greeted Marigold in 2020, with the band now 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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