Pinegrove and the art of the live album

Pinegrove are a band whose songs deserve to be heard live. Their 2015 Audiotree session is testament to this, with Pitchfork describing the live album as ‘legendary.’ Between this session and their latest live album Amperland, NY, the New Jersey based band led by Evan Stephens Hall have released three albums. 2016’s debut Cardinal, the more subtle and introspective Skylight in 2018 and most recently, 2020’s Marigold, which despite not matching up to the previous records, still featured a handful of exceptional tracks. 

Whether or not a song requires a rearrangement for a live album can sometimes be a difficult question to answer. Whilst a live album which is near identical to the studio version might sell a fair number of copies, it does little to bring in new listeners, doesn’t engage with existing fans particularly well and can fail to satisfy an artist’s creative desires. Put simply, it can sometimes feel unnecessary. Alternatively, and as Pinegrove’s Audiotree session proves, they can bring new energy, new subtleties and do the double of both enticing new listeners whilst simultaneously achieving a cult status among pre-existing fans. 

 Alas, Pinegrove strike the balance perfectly on Amperland, NY. A nickname given to the Air BnB they have recorded much of their music in (as well as this live album obviously), Amperland, NY is a conglomeration of the finest songs from Skylight and Marigold, as well as a couple of fan favourites from their 2015 mixtape Everything So Far. Pinegrove don’t feel obliged to overdo it. Whether it be the grand piano on ‘The Alarmist’ or ‘Paterson and Leo,’ the double bass on ‘Skylight’ or Nick Levine’s pedal steel weaving in and out of almost all the tracks, these subtle additions of timbre add a sense of maturity to these already well-crafted songs.

 Whilst the instrumentation is excellent, as with many Pinegrove tracks, it is the song writing that is most revered. Evan Stephens Hall crafts evocative and deeply literate lyrics, often with words or phrases you rarely, if ever hear in songs. Solipsistic, iterate and inchoate come to mind. His ability to fuse similar sounding words together and create moments of assonance is similarly impressive as his flexing vocabulary. Isolated, lines such as ‘take a rectangle, untangle your head’ off ‘Intrepid’ or ‘no may no memory hold my head up’ on ‘Dotted Line’ sound like clunky tongue twisters. When sung, they become poetry. Beautiful and often disguised by metaphors, Stephens Hall’s lyrics are relatable and earnest. 

The decision to omit ‘Rings’ seems bizarre given it is one of the band’s most stunning tracks. We can hardly complain. Amperland, NY was always going to be well received by Pinegrove fans, even by those who were slightly torn on Marigold. What’s most exciting however, is that unlike so many live albums, this one has the ability to draw in new listeners, who surely, would be mad not to stick around. 

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