When Nick Levine released 2017 Karaoke EP, the first project under their alter ego Jodi, the multi-instrumentalist from Chicago had already spent five years in the background of indie rock. An intermittent guitarist for Pinegrove since their Meridian days, Levine provided the wonderful steel pedal duo with the vocals of Evan Stephens Hall on “Light On” and the compound banjo that supported the surface of “New Friends”. Karaoke was a lush, introspective six-song journey, pairing the reluctant lyricism of Levine with the acoustic bedroom licks of Pinegrove’s past projects. Conceptualized in a cabin in the Catskills and recorded at Lazybones Audio in Silsbee, Texas, their follow-up, Blue heron, stretches a material EP into a sparse, sometimes unsatisfying debut LP.
As the backing musician, Levine reinforced Pinegrove songs with the supple flair needed to keep the beat constant; their main arrangements for the years 2016 Cardinal were crucial in defining the sound of the band. But Blue heron struggles to find her rhythm, trying to be in many places at once refusing to linger. Each song stumbles into the next, blurring the scenes rather than settling into their landscapes. Frequent migrations bring an unwelcome sense of urgency, especially towards the end of the album, with a pair of over a minute tracks (“Water” and “River Rocks”) that could have been left on the ground. from the editing room. “Hawks” parallels the record’s larger vibe: promising build, a long midfield, and a pretty back half interrupted by unnecessary infill.
The largest fault lines appear in the instrumentals wandering under the vocals. The melodies on a song like “Slug Night” are tender and weak, especially weak when Levine’s voice demands a grander accompaniment. All along Blue heron, Levine conjures up beautiful images – wild birds, flora, swimming holes, moments of joy hidden in anxiety – in a monotonous chirp, taking little risk with their voices and instruments. The final effect is stringy and unfinished.
Blue heronThe brightest points of move away from the poetics stretched for a specific language. On “Buddy,” a winter ode to missing friends who’ve gone on tour, Levine sings, “I’m counting on something for / Live / So I’m not going out alone. On “Softy,” a patient ballad of undefined love and loving touching, they sing, “I’m your biggest fan / Listen to the show with your hands up. Both tracks are remarkable, balancing the underused steel twang of Levine’s pedal against the drag of their lead guitar. These songs echo Karaokethe lyrical forces of, making clear distinctions between two thematic tropes – self-reflection and romantic desire – which Blue heron is often confused.
This album certainly sounds like a side project to Pinegrove: quirky indie folk fused with East Coast language arts and emo rock, draped in disgusting melancholy. It’s a familiar sound that deserves a fresh take on, but Levine’s songwriting is conservative, never straying too far from the formula. Although their work is in tune with the human condition – recognizing the impact of our environment on our psyche, especially in the presence of those we love – on Blue heron, this delicate rebalancing of emotional ballast often feels like a one-sided conversation. Filled with vague, faceless characters who act as anonymous plots in their own stories, the album leaves behind the burden of self-centeredness and ambiguity.
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