Dateline Montclair, NJ. Home to Stephen Colbert, media types and hippies of all stripes. An ethnically and economically diverse NYC-adjacent commuter town filled with Priuses and at least three different music venues. It is also apparently the hometown of two of the members of Pinegrove, who came to play the town’s newest venue, Old Mogul Theatre, in late February (2016), bringing with them the music from their debut album, Cardinal. And goddamn if I wasn’t super-proud of my adopted home that weekend. Standing in line in the frigid cold with dozens of whatever the generation behind millennials is called, feeling warmed by a couple beers and bourbons from the pretty-awesome-if-I-do-say-so-myself Gastropub down the street, Pig & Prince, my faith in the youth and their taste in music was restored (at least for the evening). Because this music, while awesome, is certainly not trendy or modern-sounding. It’s verging on alt-country, but in the same way Pavement and Built to Spill sometimes verged on it, with that sort of inland, slightly-lazy lilt that the music can sometimes take on. And even on the rocking songs, lead singer, Evan Stephens Hall, takes on a nondescript drawl that despite his Jersey roots, sounds at times like he’s channeling Will Johnson from Centro-Matic’s twang, or even the working-class humbleness of some of The Boss’ early down-home stuff.
But at its heart Cardinal is a pop album. One part musicianship, one part emo and all parts cautionary youthful exuberance. Nowhere was that better on display than at the aforementioned show in front of his hometown crowd, as Hall could hardly contain his blonde-guy glee at the packed room and said over and over again how excited he was — and he certainly looked it. It didn’t hurt that his mom was working the merch table, waiving the newly-pressed LPs and t-shirts for sale. The album and the live performance were remarkably buttoned-up and clean for such a young band, though I would suggest and hope that they can afford to buy some additional equipment some day so they don’t have to stand silently between songs trying to re-tune their guitars. Eh, that’ll come with experience, money and hopefully a little fame. And why not with those perfect pop sensibilities that touch on nostalgia, but throw in incredible hooks that defy some of the indie rock going-for-the-weird-instead-of-the-good tropes that we run into too much these days. This is a really, really catchy record that is warm and inviting and a great sign of things to come. Definitely on my best-of list for 2016 and will most definitely be there at the end.