For the final ten days of June, I’ll be counting down the ten best albums that fell within my radar during the first half of 2016. Each day, I’ll reveal the next album on the list along with an informal review. This will lead to July 1st, a major release day for albums, when I’ll post an updated version of my Most Anticipated Albums of 2016 list. Enjoy!

#2: Cardinal by Pinegrove
Released February 12 by Run for Cover Records

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I have bands like Jonezetta, Monty Are I, and Gatsbys American Dream to thank for inadvertently teaching me a very important lesson in the 8th and 9th grades. I hated these bands at first. So why did I ever give them second chances? I don’t know. Intuition? Good fortune? Pressure from my brother? Regardless, after enough time, my opinions on these bands changed drastically. And it wasn’t even a case of hearing songs I liked more; this was me disliking entire albums, then coming around to love those same albums. This was the lesson I learned, thankfully at such a young age: humans aren’t prone to liking something new when it’s first introduced. When we hear something “new” or different for the first time, our brain’s immediate response isn’t to decide between Like or Dislike. Our brains’ first job is to comprehend, to understand. And when something is truly new or different for us, such as a new genre or an eclectic band, one run-through of an album isn’t usually adequate time for our brains to process it. The fatal mistake so many of us make is equating “I don’t understand” with “I don’t like.” So we hear something once, we fail to understand it, and we throw it away in our Dislike pile. If I’d spent my whole life doing this, I would have missed out on some of my favorite bands (the aforementioned trio, Thrice, Okkervil River, Mew, drmanhattan, the list goes on…), some of my favorite movies (Spirited Away, The Dark Knight, The Hustler, American Splendor, etc.), and honestly even some of my favorite people.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank my good friend Jay (ironically one of those people I didn’t like at first–don’t worry, it was mutual) for convincing me to finally give Pinegrove a listen. I’d seen the band and their debut album Cardinal hyped on AbsolutePunk, I’d even noticed Cardinal‘s extremely impressive 84 on Metacritic, but it was Jay who gave me the final push to give this band a shot. He really wanted to hear my thoughts on the band (if you’re reading this far, I hope you do, too!), so I went to the Pinegrove Bandcamp to see what the hoopla was about. First off, I was thankful that listening to the album wouldn’t take too long; in today’s music culture, it seems slight to find an 8-track album sold for only $5. Since we’re all used to albums with 10+ tracks sold for $10+, it could be easy to write off Cardinal as an overlong EP or Pinegrove as a band who ran out of good ideas. (I would discover how incorrect both these ideas were when I came across Everything So Far, the aptly titled 2015 collection of 21 songs sold for just $1.) Upon pressing play on opening track, “Old Friends,” I was put off by the rough, live-sounding recording quality and the southern drawled yelps and snivels of lead singer Evan Stephens Hall. Naturally, I kept listening, but I occupied myself with news in other web browsers. I think it was around track 3 when my brother questioned what I was listening to and why. For Jay’s sake, I kept going. And I’m so glad I did. At the end of the album, something clicked. I remember saying out loud, “I’m beginning to get the appeal of this.” I’d been sending Jay updates throughout my listen, and he was very happy to see the progression in text messages from, “I think I hate this,” to my conclusion, “Okay, I think I’m starting to like this.” Having undergone such a transformative shift in opinion, I promptly decided that $5 was worth spending on this short little record. Cardinal was thusly added to my iTunes collection, where it idly sat for a month or two before I revisited it. Ever since then, I’ve been desiring to hear this album more and more frequently, with each successive listening revealing the sheer brilliance of all eight of these songs.

I’ve seen Pinegrove described as “americana emo”; their Bandcamp lists the genre “language arts rock.” Both descriptors are equally fitting for the unique offering the Montclair, New Jersey quartet has created on this official debut record. These eight finely-tuned, passionately performed songs are all worth blasting through the stereo speakers and screaming along to or crying along to while the bitterly honest lyrics soak in; even so, each of these songs is worth studying, from an intellectual standpoint or from a musical one. Hall’s songwriting here is impeccable from three specific perspectives: lyrics, dynamic, and presentation. His lyrics are wordy, containing in a four-and-a-half minute tune what might be enough lyrics for three songs by any other band. On “Old Friends,” we hear the lyrics transform from highly literate, esoteric lines like, “Walking outside labyrinthian over / cracks along under the trees / I know this town grounded in a compass / cardinal landing in the dogwood,” into heartbreakingly straightforward lines like, “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.”

In terms of dynamic, it’s hard to imagine these songs being written in any fashion other than lyrics-first. These songs ebb and flow with a rhythm and range more like conversations than like typical song structures. The way most artists write songs, a verse will have a consistent dynamic of “midtempo” or “bass-driven, no guitars,” then the chorus will have a dynamic of “everything full volume” or “drums go half-time,” etc. Most music we listen to, whether the artists do it effectively or not, can be lumped into these general fast-slow, quiet-loud categories. (If you’ve never thought about it before, start paying attention to how many songs go quiet for the beginning of the third chorus. That tactic is everywhere.) On all of these songs, if they even can be dissected by verse-chorus nomenclature, each section rides its own ocean of dynamic. A single verse might build, swell, drop off, alter rhythms, or change tempos. Take “Cadmium”: the first two minutes contain a song’s worth of melody, all atop a lone four-chord progression, exiting into a cathartic new chord progression at just the right moment. The song then goes into something of a mini-verse at 2:10, hinting at the lyrics of the chorus that won’t arrive until 2:33. (All the while, Hall’s melodies exude a very intuitive sense for how words should be sung; note how the way he sings the word “confidence” in “Cadmium” is almost identical to how its sung in “Aphasia”). Even though you only get to hear it twice before the song fizzles out, that chorus is one of the album’s highlights, a big hook atop a groovy, unusual drum beat from the unorthodox but extremely talented Zack Levine. His brother Nick provides the tasteful lead guitars throughout the record, which brings us to the album’s presentation.

It could be simple enough to call Pinegrove “americana emo” because it has an emotional-sounding, heart-on-sleeve vocalist singing atop music where a banjo and pedal steel make a few appearances. There’s something greater going on here, though, and what I had originally found to be detractors (Hall’s voice, the live-sounding recording quality) are actually some of Cardinal‘s greatest assets. The roots rock instrumentation provides a musical bedrock that bridges the gap between the heartfelt, angsty cries of 90’s emo and the storytelling of traditional folk and country music. Hall’s voice is unassumingly nimble enough to blaze through difficult melodies, yet he sings with the fragility needed to make his literate verbosity endearing instead of pompous. At each moment, the band supports his voice, whether that’s an added piece of percussion, a slick bass lick from Sam Skinner, or a warm harmony from Nandi Rose Plunkett. The dirty, unedited recordings keep the additions of instruments or abrupt changes in tempo surprising but never off-kilter or unnatural. All in all, these songs are so expertly presented that I think I can claim that these are the most organic, dynamic songs I’ve heard in my life. These traits come to a head on penultimate track “Size of the Moon,” a contender for the best lyrical rumination on death I’ve ever read, matched by Cardinal‘s most muscular instrumentation and hands-down its catchiest chorus. Like “Cadmium,” listeners don’t get to hear the chorus until about two minutes in, and you only get it twice, but Hall cunningly plants the hook of the chorus at a few other points in the verses. When you get to the chorus, you’ll feel like you already know how to sing along, you just forgot the words. Those words have a quality most songwriters long for, easy to sing along to yet haunting once the song’s over: “I don’t know what I’m afraid of / but I’m afraid / one day it all will fall away / maybe I read that / but still, let’s see / if nothing else it’s an idle curiosity.” We get a much more hopeful ending to the album with “New Friends,” the perfect counter to the opening track, altogether making an exemplary debut outing that should not be missed. Whether you want to sing along as a fan or study as an admirer, Cardinal is a true treasure. If you don’t like it on your first listen, ask yourself, “Did I not like this album, or perhaps do I just not understand it yet?”

Check out Pinegrove’s Audiotree Live session on Youtube.

Read the review for album #3.

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