Pinegrove Return (And, Yes, You Should Care)

Fifteen minutes into their sold-out show at Cambridge, MA’s cozy venue the Sinclair (official capacity 525 but tonight inching closer to 600), it becomes apparent that Pinegrove are going to do things their way. The band has already played, in exact order, the first four songs off long-awaited album Skylight, and a packed house arrives at a communal understanding. Tonight is a ceremonious, track-by-track unveiling of an album that almost never saw the light of day.

Front man Evan Stephens Hall drawls out “I love you/ Like the old days,” and the room shouts along with an unnerving reverence for nostalgia that’s normally anathema among hipsters. Pinegrove is the kind of band people fall for. Hard. Their music lies at an intersection of genres that, on paper, shouldn’t succeed — think Being There-era Wilco covering punk versions of Sunny Day Real Estate songs — but it triumphantly surpasses the sum of its parts. Their songs feel familiar but undefinable, rambunctious yet ruminative, both celebratory and sad.


The Montclair, NJ band’s critical breakthrough, 2016’s Cardinal, featured alt-country, roots-rock anthems like “Visiting” and “Size of the Moon” with wordless “whoa oh ohhhhhs” tailor-made for audience call and response —the kind that Arcade Fire made a career out of transforming from humble utterances into arena-sized chants.

Indeed, with big music aspirations and cohesive themes (human connection, correspondence, and the tenuous nature of friendship), Cardinal felt like an emo-leaning, younger brother to Funeral, a cache of painfully earnest bedroom confessions shouted by 20-somethings through bullhorns. It transformed Pinegrove from underdogs into instant darlings, a promise the band seemed poised to fulfill on with Skylight.

Except that didn’t happen.

In actuality, this is only the second show Pinegrove has played in over a year (their December 2017 gig at the Sinclair was cancelled), and Skylight’s release was delayed nearly as long. (Pinegrove and their record label Run For Cover agreed it would be best if the band self-released the record and donated all proceeds to charity.) It’s a humbler record sprinkled with moments of brilliance; tonight, the triplet meter on “Intrepid” soars skyward between 3/4 and 9/8 time signatures in a gorgeous ellipse. But Skylight is forever bound to the muddy circumstances of its release.

The urgency of Hall’s voice cuts through the swampy-as-shit acoustics I’m experiencing from my unfortunate location in the side of the venue where I’m trapped beneath the corrugated steel girders and concrete slabs supporting the Sinclair’s wraparound balcony. I can’t help but wonder if Hall feels the same oppressive weight on his 29-year old shoulders. Perhaps he should.

– – –

In November 2017, Hall wrote a cryptic post (one he later admitted took hundreds of revisions to finalize) acknowledging that he had been accused of “sexual coercion,” and that Pinegrove was going on an indefinite hiatus. In a post-#MeToo world, Hall’s words (although painfully ambiguous) amounted to a career death knell. The rest of Pinegrove’s tour was cancelled, and Skylight, already recorded, was shelved.

But the unabridged truth proved far more complicated to parse. Ten months later, a Pitchfork story written by Jenn Pelly revealed that Hall’s accuser (who preferred to remain anonymous) felt her allegations had been mishandled by a mental health professional who had privately emailed Pinegrove, their record label, and festival promoters to demand “Hall step away from music to receive intense treatment” or risk being publicly outed.

A third party mediator between Hall and his accuser has since clarified that the “sexual coercion” was “not of a physical nature at all” but rather was “verbal and contextual pressure.” In the mediator’s words, the accuser felt she had been “coerced into cheating on her partner with (Evan).” Hall admitted that while the relationship was “by no means simple,” he believed it to be completely mutual. “she met my parents. we discussed eventually moving in together.” he wrote “i absolutely never threatened her, i never leveraged anything against her. i believed all of our decisions to be based in love.”

photo by Lucie Murphy

For his part, although Hall has maintained that their relationship was consensual, he has also acknowledged his accuser’s viewpoint. In the Pitchfork article, he talks about choosing to repeat her exact words “sexual coercion” in his public statement, even when the possibility for mischaracterizing his own actions was high. Hall has expressed remorse (“I definitely could have conducted myself better”), but admits to feeling pressured to confess in the manner he did by the “inflammatory” way the accusation was levied against him by the mental health professional. Hall entered therapy in 2017 (at his accuser’s request), and a year later (with her approval), Pinegrove released Skylight and resumed touring again.

There are no easy answers in this story. The traditional roles of hero and villain don’t apply because the narrative isn’t that simple — no one possesses moral impunity or has acted completely without self-interest. Each party claims to have been misunderstood. It’s not even an instance of “he said, she said.” Rather, it’s “she said, she said, he said,” and the entire internet has had a chance to say something about it. Opinions differ drastically on the outcome: some find Hall’s atonement trite, insufficient, and insufferable while others empathize openly with his situation and consider his a penance paid.

– – –

“This has been a time for growth, reflection, and introspection” Hall says quietly when the band finishes playing the last track on Skylight. The crowd is dead silent, anticipating further details, but none are forthcoming. All he will offer is this: “I’m so happy to be here. In this room. Playing music for you.” He seems nervous, but warm and genuinely appreciative. This is where Pinegrove find themselves a year later, seeking solace in the very act from which they needed to abstain.

They chug out the opening riff of “Old Friends,” and the room roars its gratitude. Hall laments the loss of an acquaintance: “My steps keep splitting my grief/ Through these solipsistic moods/ I should call my parents when I think of them/ I should tell my friends that I love them.” Everyone knows every lyric by heart. To some, it might seem disingenuous for Hall to be expressing such emotional sincerity in the wake of the accusations made against him, but this power to connect, more than anything, is what engenders him to others.

Pinegrove’s best songs now come — accessible yet erudite, like open books that demand perpetual rereads. “Say what it is/ It’s so impossible” Hall sings on “Cadmium,” a melodic spiral that’s the equivalent of a sonic golden mean. His twangy tenor weaves in and out of the bar and melody like a tipsy cowboy, arriving micro-seconds early and lingering late, instinctively shifting from half-note pitchy to a touch flat. Its an old country singer’s trick. The overall effect is purposeful, disarming and enthralling. You end up hanging on every word.

On “Aphasia,” Hall compares the condition of being unable to express oneself through words to the entropy of a precarious relationship — it’s one of the most sublime ways of communicating the inability to communicate that a pop song has ever managed. As a lyricist, Hall is obsessed with the power of language to explore truth and meaning. Pinegrove’s songs and artwork are strewn with rectangles, rings and ampersands — shapes that carry such resonance that Hall (and several audience members) have tattooed them on their bodies. Epistemology is seldom this reciprocal.

But for all the references to periodic elements, word-finding ailments and oblique symbols, Hall’s intellect doesn’t overshadow his ability to make you feel. He conjures up clever turns of phrases that elicit wellsprings of emotion from the thoughtfully minded, whether they be affirmations (“We’re good at things, and so are a lot of our friends”) or anxieties (“I don’t know what I’m afraid of/ But I’m afraid”). For a band so indebted to simplicity and major chords, Pinegrove has a way of making you think deeply and weep buckets.


“Is there anyone here I know?” he inquires on set closer “New Friends,” and in a live setting, the request engenders a kind of wide-eyed euphoria. Pinegrove concerts are a cathartic, communal act of expressing the inexpressible. Confronted with life’s profundity and absurdity, if I can admit that I just don’t get it, and you can too, then maybe we both actually get it after all. “I resolve to make new friends/ I like my old ones/ But I fucked up so I’ll start again” he professes, and you can practically taste the indefinable yearning while belting these lines out along with hundreds of your favorite, new-found comrades.

The band ambles offstage, having played Cardinal, in order, in its entirety. It’s a risky move; part of the pleasure of attending live shows is watching bands recontextualize their catalog and unearth hidden delights. Tonight feels more like a group therapy/karaoke session where the entire crowd, who already know every word by heart, now knows exactly how the story is going to end. But what it lacks for in spontaneity, it makes up for in intention. This isn’t an apology tour. It’s as though Pinegrove want their complete body of work, and nothing else, to speak for them tonight. They must close one chapter before beginning the next.

– – –

For an encore, Pinegrove plucks a handful of gems from their early days. Former keyboardist/vocalist Nandi Rose Plunkett makes a surprise appearance, and Hall beams as her voice interlaces with his sweetly, like ice cutting bourbon. They play relative obscurities “Need” and “Days” with a fervor that’s infectious. Pinegrove finally seems to let their guard down and embrace the joy they create.

“Nothing really bugs me out anymore” Hall sighs over the joyous skank of “Recycling.” “Now we’re on the same page.” He introduces each member of the group, now fully restored, by first name only with a surety that suggests that our band could definitely be your life, because it most assuredly is ours. I love this, his eyes seem to say, like the old days.

For an artist whose songs embody the power and turmoil of personal relationships, it’s telling that I almost came to see Pinegrove by myself. One by one, all my reliable concert buddies turned me down for reasons both legitimate and frivolous. If not for a last minute RSVP by a prior romantic interest who has since turned platonic (awkward…), I’d be sharing the most meaningful concert experience I’ve had in years with complete strangers. I was prepared to feel sorry for myself for days.

I’m at a juncture in my life where the things I once believed to be bedrock — my marriage, friends, health, career — seem to twist and curl like a canyon bridge at the mercy of life’s resonant frequency. In the past year, I feel like I’ve failed a lot more than I’ve succeeded. Endlessly listening to Pinegrove has helped me survive it, literally. Now, witnessing Hall come to terms with his own imperfections —in a messy, imperfect, and very human way — I realize that everything just might be OK. We are all fallible, and life is more often than not unresolved. We do the best we can do, and when that falls short, we get up and keep on going. Every outcome doesn’t have to be a comedown.

“So let it go” Hall advises sagely on “Recycling.” “There’s nothing I could tell you/ That you don’t already know.” I feel of two minds at once. I could swear he’s talking straight to me, just as surely as he’s preaching to himself. Turns out he’s speaking to everybody in the room. More than anything, this is what Pinegrove do.

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This entry was posted on December 11, 2018 by in Pinegrove, Reviews and tagged , , , .
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