Not the right place for the unconverted to start
Well, this is different. In the midst of developing a new social platform and recovering from accusations of sexual coercion, the ampersand and geometric shape-obsessed country-emo darlings Pinegrove decided to make a film called Amperland, NY Named for where they recorded a couple of their four records, this is a 21-track companion album of new versions of some of their lesser-known songs. This review is done without ever having seen the film; if they release the soundtrack for sale on its own, then it should stand on its own. Though their ravenous fanbase of Pinenuts will eat it up, Amperland, NY has little to offer those that aren’t awestruck by the band’s intentionally unstable writing and fractured music.
Described as a fusion of Sunny Day Real Estate-esque emo and alt-country, Pinegrove bring in country instrumentation like banjos and pedal steel to subdermal blasts of distortion and anguished chords. Amperland, NY brings even cloudier production as the band tries to layer many different guitar tones to varying degrees of success. Unlike someone like Ruston Kelley, who also fuses emo with country, it’s not about riffs or even melody, much as a constant feeling of tension paid off with the occasional crescendos. The same is also true of the writing, with a lot of sentences being grammatically incorrect and names and topics brought up almost arbitrarily to suggest a fractured, damaged person or mind behind them.
When this formula works, it is stunning. “Peeling Off the Bark” is the most musically compelling track between its gentle acoustic opening, a great post-chorus drop of heavier drums and a final explosive outro of female harmonies and a captivating lead vocal melody. The more stripped-down songs like “Skylight,” “Need” and “Alcove” let Evan Stephens Hall shows off his vocal chops more, even if the vocal production on the later is a little too thin and strained. On another note, the warmth of the acoustics and the banjo is allowed to shine on “The Alarmist.” There are moments when these elements are allowed to counteract or complement the traditional colossal, gauzy rhythm guitar akin to La Dispute. The piano outro is a great complement to the distorted, blunt chorus of “Dotted Line,” and the pedal steel solo is a lot more enjoyable riding atop the heavy strumming of “Amulets.”
On a 21-song long project, there are going to be duds as Pinegrove’s formula starts to wear thin. Emo tends to be an emotionally intense experience as well, which makes the experience all the more exhausting. For every moment where the writing’s sudden whiplashes and regression into repetitive stock phrases work like on “Moment,” “No Drugs” and “Spiral” to emphasize the fleeting nature of memories of relationships or wanting to feel something without resorting to drugs, there’s another song that is too fractured to connect with.
Those who are intrigued about hearing new renditions will be disappointed as well; it’s still cloudy and claustrophobic, and songs like “Spiral” and “Need” that could have benefitted from a fully stripped-down approach instead have these twinkles and ticking that don’t add anything. Those who already fans of these guys will eat this up, but those that are new to Pinegrove are better suited with their core albums rather than this bloated, unnecessary project.