Formed in 2010 by childhood friends Evan Stephens Hall and drummer Zack Levine, Pinegrove have released four albums — Everything So Far, Cardinal, Skylight, and Marigold (2020) — to widespread critical acclaim, garnering them a growing and devoted listenership. They’ve described their sound as variously as ‘introspective party music’, or ‘energetic music in the folk tradition’; in any case, they have combined catharsis and inventive structures with irrepressible melodies, resonant lyrics and emotive twang.
Zack describes Pinegrove as “a constellation of soulmates.” Zack and Evan have known each other for 26 years and been playing music together for 21, communicating via a “telepathic musical connection.” Nearly everyone they work with are friends and collaborators from way back. Their most recent release, a live album recorded at the band’s previous studio and home, Amperland, NY, features Evan, Zack, Josh Marre, Megan Benavente, Sam Skinner as well as appearances from Nandi Rose, Nick Levine, Michael Levine and Doug Hall. Sam also engineered and co-produced the record, as he has on every Pinegrove recording since 2015.
Skullcrusher is, by all accounts, an exploration of the ways you become yourself when you aren’t looking – and how that feels once you start paying attention. It’s a quiet power; a hushed celebration of the tiny, understated subtleties that culminate into knowing yourself. On her debut EP, songwriter Helen Ballentine offers an airy, intense, and unflinchingly open collection of songs written about – and from – one of life’s in-between gray areas, a stretch of uncertainty and unemployment, and the subsequent search for identity. Here, as Skullcrusher, Ballentine grapples with how to communicate her private self to an audience.
Ballentine has been playing music for most of her life — piano from age five, guitar since high school — but her songwriting didn’t emerge until later. After moving from her home in upstate New York to Los Angeles to study studio art in college, Ballentine was working full-time at a Los Angeles gallery, poised to continue onto the trajectory of visual art she had been on since she was a teenager. Instead, it didn’t feel right, and she quit.
Suddenly faced with a peculiar freedom, Ballentine decided, somehow both confidently and tentatively, to seriously pursue music for the first time. While nannying on the side to make ends meet, she wrote “Places/Plans,” her first song for Skullcrusher, a little over a year ago. Despite her extensive background in visual arts, Ballentine suddenly found songwriting to be the best avenue for her artistic visions, an easy way for her to organically discover what it as she was trying to say.
“I was feeling very strongly about my lack of a career path, both insecure and confident at the same time,” Ballentine explains. “But there was also a lot of confidence that arose out of that process because I was really able to spend time with myself, and the things I love.”
In music, as in her visual art practices, Ballentine is drawn to conflicting pieces of a puzzle; how hard and soft meet, and the intersection of certainty and ambiguity. Ballentine would tinker on music in pieces, feeling like she wasn’t accomplishing anything day after day, and then suddenly realize she had been assembling songs. That experience felt formative, and the resulting EP, which she worked on alongside producer Noah Weinman,is about what it means to feel like you’re not doing anything, but finding immense meaning and depth within that, too.
The four dark, dreamy songs on her debut EP were influenced by a strange-but-fitting amalgamation of media consumed in the immediate aftermath of quitting her 9-5. There’s Valerie and her Week of Wonders, the Czech new-wave film that went on to inform Skullcrusher’s aesthetic. There’s Ballentine’s love of fantasy and surrealism, her appreciation of the way fantasy novels juxtapose beauty and violence.
Ballentine was also fully immersed in the world of Nick Drake, watching and reading anything she could about his songwriting. Another sonic anchor came from ambient electronica, which provided her with a shared vocabulary with her new band. And as Skullcrusher, Ballentine is decisive and immediate with the way she uses a sparse arrangement, fitting minimal sounds together in a way that creates a fuller space.
On the opening “Places/Plans,” Ballentine sighs, “Come in, the window’s open and I’m lying alone,” which feels fitting for the entirety of the EP – Ballentine invites the listener into the depths her personal, intense solitude. “I put so much emphasis on this private self, and all of these things that I love that are my own, and as soon as I let someone else into that, it’s really hard,” Ballentine says. “But I’m also someone who wants to let someone else into that. It’s sort of this back-and-forth about wanting to connect to other people but also being a little bit afraid of that.”
Skullcrusher’s understated energy radiates with the atmosphere of waking up to the quiet terror of shapeless, structureless days, but it finds power in eschewing the pressures of careerism and a vapid culture of productivity. Instead, as Skullcrusher, Ballentine has the audacity to be comfortable enough with herself, and to simply accept the unknown as her life.
Here to remind us that there are small moments of magic in the everyday, Albany’s Blue Ranger create subtle, melodious stories that ruminate on universal introspection. Saving a Beauty – their follow-up to 2016’s Actual Food – is a collection of soft-focused folk that celebrates the beauty in our uncertainties with an existential flair.
Written while on the road in the summer of 2017, there’s an ever-evolving, thoughtful prose that is akin to frontman Joshua F. Marré’s insatiable appetite for stories bigger than himself. A keen reader and record collector, Marré will often be found elbow deep in a used book store or flipping through the racks of a local music shop, no matter what unfamiliar town he finds himself in. This obsession with fictitious prose seeps through to Saving a Beauty, where candid, autobiographical tales dance among a wealth of imaginary characters.
This generous exploration of what makes us human is the centerpoint of Marré’s artistic output. Unafraid to highlight his flaws, Saving a Beauty is able to transcend specific moments and instead, lends itself to celebrating the inner-chaos of figuring out who we are and why the hell we’re here in the first place. Citing Carl Sagan, George Saunders and Zadie Smith as inspirations for the narrative on the new record, Marre says that producing ‘story songs’ was a way to stretch his lyrical-limbs. “Those authors helped me solidify the type of world-building of some of the more fictitious songs on the record,” he explains. “Telling a completely fictitious story in the middle of a largely auto biographical album is sort of a deep sigh of relief for me.”
Saving a Beauty was recorded in upstate New York, with Kenna Hynes on vocals, fiddle, and piano; Matt Griffin on drums and guitar; Mike Doherty on vocals and Joshua’s twin brother, Evan Marré on percussion bass and vocals. The record was also recorded and mixed by Evan and later, co-produced by the brothers. Joshua says that it was the first time he’d let himself trust other musicians to be a part of the creative process – “our goal was to have as natural of a sound as possible and to be off the cuff… letting the process reveal itself along the way” – describing it as “super collaborative.”
“Saving a Beauty is a big step up for us and a way more honest representation of where we’re going,” he adds. “Vocally, I think I’m leaning more into how I actually sound, not some fantastical idea of how I SHOULD sound on an album. We wanted it be natural. I think we nailed that.” Communication is the cornerstone of the album’s narrative and its perhaps through this collaborative, live recording process that it achieves that not just in its lyrical content but in its dynamic energy.
As well as his bandmates, Marré also welcomed in field recordings of his family and friends. On “Spots” – his personal favourite on the album – they added in a recording of Marré playing pinball with his folks. “It turns out the pinball machine was relatively in tune with the song,” he explains. “You can actually hear my dad drop the name of the album in the middle of the song if you listen closely enough.”
Explaining his intentions with Saving a Beauty, Marré says: “I wanted to achieve personal meditation. If i got there, I was hoping that would transfer to the listener and put them at ease. a lofty goal, but I think an honest one.”
The album has a way of welcoming people in, with a truthful essence that can be hard to come by in a world often veers away from sincerity. “I realize this will be the first thing people hear by the band Blue Ranger,” Marré explains. “I want people to lean in and hear something relatable while flowing with the sound. A lot of times you hear about people getting “lost” in albums. I kind of wanted people to go looking for something, and hopefully they would find it without getting lost on the way.”