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.
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