Some Songs Considered #057: Pinegrove, Big Thief, the twangs of narrative and genre
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
Pinegrove’s Cardinal & Big Thief’s Masterpiece
A few times a week I get a batch of emails from college radio promoters – my name still on some list left over from my time as a DJ – and I’m always amazed at how insistently they characterize bands with treacherously obtuse RIYL’s#, habitually expounding for a few paragraphs on the album’s context, production history, and, most importantly, where it fits into the grand scheme of whatever genre will help sell more copies. “Andrew Bird! RIYL Fleet Foxes/Father John Misty” read a recent email subject line.
Often, it seems that their claims of artistic supremacy fail spectacularly, and the seams of yet another marketing venture break as the songs take second place to the bottom line. But then again, every once in a while an album is so good, so personal yet relevant, that even the biggest promotional bullshit is outdone by the music itself.
In 2016, Pinegrove’s Cardinal and Big Thief’s Masterpiece have weathered the adjective storm of PR speak to deliver carefully crafted, reflective songs that are linked by more than the genre superimposed on them by people simply trying to get a few extra air plays:
The strange (and refreshing) part about these albums isn’t that they outright eschew genre tropes; instead, they use them to elevate the crucial part of each song: the tenderly crafted stories and condensed narratives that drive a stake deep into my sympathy sensors.
There to help the lyrics land is Pinegrove’s occasional pedal guitar and banjo, and Big Thief’s searing dual guitars and triumphant tempo changes. Both bands use asides, flashes of images, and carefully constructed lyrical ploys to levy a higher awareness of pain and discomfort and sorrow, filling in details of expanding accounts of past lovers, social alienation, and a rugged hopefulness. Pinegrove’s characters are found in one-liners, part of the framework of anecdotes that aim straight for a relatable, and occasionally crushing nostalgia. “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago/saw some old friends at her funeral,” the band’s lead singer and songwriter Evan Stephen Hall sings on “Old Friends”, the album opener.
In one line, he brings listeners into the minutiae and subtext of a relationship, using a narrative closeness and brevity that captures the ethos of the song.
In other words: he employs the stuff that makes up good poetry.
Big Thief’s gestures, on the other hand, tend to be more sweeping and grand.
The band started out as a duo; Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek released about an album and a half’s worth of material two years ago, mostly original folk songs of hallowed vocals and guitar pickings. In the full band version, though, Lenker has transitioned to the sole vocalist, with Meek on guitar, and it’s an evolution where the changes are palpable. On the title track of their new album, released last week on Saddle Creek, the band crashes into a mood and power unseen on their early recordings.
Like Pinegrove, they make short work of dismantling a listener’s emotional guards. “There’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do,” Lenker sings, with a detached melancholy:
Pinegrove has been laying the foundation for their newfound success for years, launching off on DIY tour after DIY tour, playing in basements and bookstores. I personally first met the band when I booked them to play in my living room, in December 2014. A year later, as they were ramping up to release Cardinal, they played again, and I found myself paying new attention to the intimacies in their songwriting. Undoubtedly, getting to see these songs transform and grow up close gave me an appreciation for the process of musical fermentation that they seemed to have soaked in for years.
The band’s “Size of the Moon” is a good example; the difference between the album version and an earlier recording appears to be only a few lyrical and rhythm changes, but the production and added instrumentation elevate its emotional upheaval dramatically:
Random Tracks from Random Nerds:
Drake – “Summers Over Interlude”
– Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
Insufferable discussion about Drake’s fourth album, VIEWS, originally discouraged me from writing about it – why cast my thoughts into a moat already polluted by lukewarm takes? Alas, I’ve broken my vow because it’s a new month and I’m returning to the column after nearly a year. And the last artist I wrote about in SSC? You guessed it: Drake.
VIEWS’ April 29 release triggered nearly a month of rain consistent with the album’s sullen, lethargic aura — true pathetic fallacy in audio form. While undeniably popular, it hasn’t exactly been well-received, as VIEWS (aka Everything Was the Same) exposes Drake’s lack of progress as both an artist and a human being rapidly approaching the age of 30.
There is, however, one special record embedded in this 81-minute case of arrested development: “Summers Over Interlude.”
Drake finishes fawning over Rihanna on “Too Good,”# but this is no revelation. “Summers Over Interlude” slinks in, more seductive than Carl Thomas’ inimitable “Summer Rain,” every instrument — the pop of the snare; the muffled explosion of the crash cymbals; each pluck and croak of the guitar — playing an integral role in the irresistible waltz. Accenting it is the penetrative falsetto of Majid Al Maskati, one-half of OVO disciples Majid Jordan.
In its totality, it amounts to a beautiful interpretation of a summer fling’s death knell:
Days in the sun
And nights in the rain
Summer is over, simple and plain
Found me some fun that’s good for the pain
Already told you, I don’t feel the same
I don’t feel the same….
Al Maskati’s lyrics — and the way he clings to the final use of “same” — capture the initial attraction, sweaty sex, and fading interest of semi-casual relationships born around Memorial Day that expire around Labor Day.
“Summers Over Interlude” leaves you wanting more, so perhaps its 1:46 duration is meant to signify the brevity of seasonal relationships. Its inclusion on VIEWS is a great call by Drake, even though Drake himself isn’t present.
That’s right: Drake, narcissist supreme, is absent from arguably the best song on VIEWS. “Keep the Family Close” is strong because Drake never drops the ball on opening tracks, “Weston Road Flows” made me dig up my copy of Mary J. Blige’s My Life, “Controlla” is perfectly simple, and “Fire & Desire” is Drake at his rainy-day best, but “Summers Over Interlude” is the gem of VIEWS and Drake ain’t on it.
That truth will eat away at his pride all summer ‘16.
The Hotelier – “Piano Player” & “Soft Animal”
– Bryce Rudow (@BryceTRudow)
“Piano Player” – the first single off their new LP Goodness – will be the song that gets you into The Hotelier, the scrappy rock band from Worcester, Massachusetts who was adopted into the emo scene in 2014 after their album Home, Like Noplace Is There got some favorable coverage on outlets like Absolute Punk and Alternative Press. It’s bouncy, it’s a little throwback-R.E.M.ish, it’s fun.
Still, it’s going to be “Soft Animal” that’ll hook you…
A song about the resurrection of the singer’s grandmother as a doe and her subsequent death at the hands of hunters, “Soft Animal” isn’t emo – it’s emotional nerve gas:
“The ring around your mothers heart
grows saccharine then falls apart
and I can hear the rustling as you go.
You camouflaged or clearly seen
and nameless in the in-between
and I can hear the rustling as you go.
The firing of rifles off
the echo hits you hard enough
and I can hear the rustling as you go.
A soft and skittish self inside
shines golden, opal, chrysolite
and I can feel the rustling as you go.
Oh, go slow.
A mob a voices harmonize
and tell me that your not alive
but I can feel the rustling as you go.”
That “I can hear the rustling as you go” line wrecks me every, single time.
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