Pine Barons Prove Strong On Debut Album

“Children of the Forest; Conceived by the root. Lived by vascular contraptions.” So describes Pine Barons, an up-and-coming indie rock band from South Jersey. Oh wait, maybe they’re talking about the forest. OK, now I’m confused.

Indeed, the band does take its name from the dense, expansive woodlands close to their home territory, but the band has much more to do with the forest and the description above than location. The groups self-titled debut album is a rustic, sprawling affair that fits comfortably amongst the weathered bark and towering leafy canopies of their namesake.

It’s clear that Pine Barons present themselves as a big “nature” band, and, to this respect, the group’s sound appropriately conveys this.

The group’s debut is packed front to back with dense arrangements and open, reverb-soaked guitars.

Although their name is rooted in the forest, Pine Barons’ music travels across wide open ranges and some rather rocky terrain, offering an interestingly mixed, yet fully organic, bag of influences and surprises.

Helping to convey the nature-bred, animalistic tendencies of the band is the wily vocals of lead singer Keith Abrams, who also pens the lyrics and plays guitar. Abrams quivering, unhinged vocals – often reminiscent of indie rock bands like Wolf Parade – sound wild and untamed one moment yet heartbroken the next, which really help to bring out the viscerally human side of the group’s music.

Describing exactly what kind of band Pine Barons is can be admittedly a bit tricky, as the group’s members each bring aboard a slew of unique influences from the previous projects of Abrams, drummer Collin Smith, and guitarist Brad Pulley.

Vestiges of jangly indie rock, country, folk, progressive rock, and even touches of jazz manage to sneak their way into the tight pockets and open landscapes of Pine Barons, often within the same song.

And trust me, keeping up with some of these tracks takes a lot of effort. Though the songs on Pine Barons aren’t that long (most do not exceed the five minute mark) the band finds a way to stuff as many ideas as they can within a four to five minute time frame, with some tracks ending miles from where they started.

In a sense, I have to congratulate the band on being so restless and unabashedly ambitious with their song craft. You really get a sense that the band is just doing whatever they want: Should a twangy, harmonica-tinged folk-rock ditty end with a minute of random whirrs and delay effects, as the track “Smile America” does? “Why not?” they may reply.

Of course, this formula is only bound to work sometimes, not always, and while some tracks, like the bouncy opener “Carnival,” can pull this trick off quite well and come off as engaging. A track like “Black Matter,” which moves from a spacy intro to a peppy rock jam to a mathy little guitar jig in less than two minutes, can feel more daunting and unnecessary.

Not all tracks prove to be so convoluted, however, “Alpha-Igloo-Bet,” for instance, features a number of memorable riffs. Despite the interruption of a few proggy guitar leads, builds steadily and triumphantly, pushing the track far but not letting it lose sight of where it began in the first place.

The group also proves with their debut that they can write singles as well.

“Since I’ve Been Away,” the track that seems best fit for single-status, is probably the most concise and straight-forward statement the group makes on Pine Barons. Built on a classic country western riff and carried by light vocal melodies, the track feels like the type of old west sing-along you’d want to belt with your friends at an old dive bar, or better yet, a campfire out in the old frontier.

More interesting is “Chamber Choir,” a weathered lo-fi folk oddity that feels somewhat out of place on the record, yet proves to be its most emotionally impacting and finest moment. Featuring little more than airy acoustic guitar chords and Abrams’ yearning falsetto buried under tape hiss, “Chamber Choir” may be simple and sweet, but it is probably the track I will be returning to the most as time passes.

The album’s biggest moment, however, comes at the very end, as the stratospheric closer, “Don’t Believe What They Told You,” closes out the record with a serious bang. Though beginning as a solemn piano ballad, the track is pushed far beyond its boundaries with Abrams’ unhinged screams of “Jesus Christ,” along with a nice forward push by the band, allowing for the bottom to fall out just in time for a climactic finish.

Pine Barons isn’t a perfect album, and the band definitely has to work out a few kinks in the “trimming the fat” department before they can make a truly great record. But while its weak spots show need for improvement, its bounty of strong qualities definitely prove that Pine Barons has something quite formidable going for them, and I’d be interested to see where they take their rugged sound in the future.