Pinegrove’s Best Album

Garrett Lee dancing the Pinegrove Shuffle on TikTok. Photo credit: “The New York Times,” Aug. 2, 2023

Among the more unexpected social media trends of summer 2023, to me, was the “Pinegrove shuffle,” a viral dance described by the New York Times as floppy, hypnotic, sad, and cathartic. We have 19-year-old Garrett Lee to thank for the dance trend, set to the aching, quietly frantic “Need 2,” first released nearly a decade ago as the seventh track on Pinegrove’s 2014 album “Everything So Far.”

The “shuffle” rose to fame just as Pinegrove was dipping out of it. On May 12, @pinegroveband made an Instagram post explaining their upcoming transition: “to anyone who may have missed the memo, pinegrove, while not over, is moving into a different phase which will not involve touring as a band, at least for a few years.” A month later, Lee posted his video. Soon, new and old Pinegrove listeners alike were flopping and shuffling across the world.

“Every summer has its song, its vibration,” Gia Kourlas writes for the Times. “So why not a dance? And why not this dance? So far, this has not been a joyful summer. It’s hotter than ever in miserable and scary ways; the smoke from wildfires is dangerous and heartbreaking. There’s so much to care about, most obviously the somber state of the planet. The lyrics that stand out during Lee’s dance, ‘Nothing here to care about,’ are deceptive — to dance this dance is to show that you do care, that you aren’t going down without a fight.”

There’s so much to care about — this is how Pinegrove’s music makes me feel. I had been playing the same Pinegrove CD on loop for nearly a month when the shuffle started; I’d been feeling a lot, caring a lot, and Evan Stephens Hall seemed to understand: “I climb through the skylight / Whatever you’re feeling is alright,” he sings on the earnest, acoustic “Skylight.” “Let me let go / Whatever you’re feeling is natural.” It is the twelfth track on “Amperland, NY,” a live album released in January 2021, and my favorite from this prolific band.

It feels important to mention that Evan Stephens Hall, Pinegrove frontman and principal songwriter, is a big reader (notably, the now-viral “Need 2” was inspired in its simplicity by short story writer Lydia Davis). He’s on record as being a fan of Virginia Wolf and David Foster Wallace. More recently, he’s enjoyed Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” and “Either/Or.” Maybe it’s this interest in literature that makes him such a compelling storyteller.

Like a good book, “Amperland, NY” transports you to a different world — one where all of your feelings matter, are nothing to be ashamed of, and are completely survivable. Even more, “Amperland” reminds you that you’re not alone in having those feelings: “It’s an honor to feel this way / To feel the color of the longest day / ‘Cause it’s a shadow that many know,” Hall sings on “Endless,” a song about long mornings, wide afternoons, and endless nights.

The world of “Amperland” is lush, unhurried, and washed in layers of light and shadow. There’s that skylight he’s always climbing through, first mentioned in the final lines of track three, “No Drugs” (“I follow my shadow up and out the skylight / I could see an outline settled in the grey”); there’s the startling brightness of a new day in “Morningtime” (“Since the moment when the night limped by / And all of a sudden it was morningtime”); there’s the glow of “On Jet Lag” (“You’re writing by lamplight, you’re writing by the moonrise”). There’s the “little amulets” of red and blue ambulance lights streaming past a window in “Amulets/Light On,” followed by a plea: “Leave your light on / Don’t leave.”

The images and emotions of the Pinegrove universe are distilled in Hall’s simple, shimmering lyrics. These lyrics then find a perfect vessel in Hall’s voice. It’s a treat to hear his live vocals on “Amperland” — he sings with conviction and tenderness, with the kind of melodic freedom one might expect from a trained diva, but delivered with the playful roughness and twang of a campfire singer.

His voice, bright, unpredictable, and resonant, brings a feeling of relief. On “Need” (“Need 2″‘s predecessor), when Hall soars into the last lines — “Do I care about my brain / Remembering everything? / I remember everything” — it’s hard not to feel it all with him; a single crashing wave of memory, dragging you down yet rinsing you clean in one motion.

While “Need 2” may have been the brooding anthem some of us needed to shuffle through a wearisome summer, “Amperland, NY” has carried me into fall. “Need 2” raises a few unanswerable questions: “What’s that song about? / It’s nothing worth me saying aloud / So why do I seem to need to?” “Ampersand” is generous enough to offer some simple affirmations instead:

Drink water
Good posture
Good lighting
Good evening
Good morning
Good morning
Good morning
I see you

(Pinegrove, “Spiral”)

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