By Rob van Alstyne
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Three figures are gathered in a corner booth at the barren, low-lit St. Paul watering hole Goby's on a cold February evening. Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt, lead singer-songwriters for the local folk-rock septet the Pines, and Ramsey's brother Alex, keyboardist for the group, are toasting the release earlier that day of their latest album, Dark So Gold. A lean, 39-minute listen, the record serves as a welcome reminder that the heaviest material doesn't have to rely on volume for intensity.
It becomes instantly apparent that the trio brings the same thoughtful intimacy to interviews as to their records. They pause to gather their thoughts before answering every question, check with each other for consensus, and continually refine their train of thought—seemingly intent on having their responses be as finely wrought as their songs. Rushing is not the Pines' style. The group has moved at its own methodical pace for a decade, favoring a still-waters-run-deep sound that requires close listening to be appreciated.
"We understand that by somebody else's timetable it takes us a fairly long amount of time to make records, and we're okay with that," admits Huckfelt, scratching at his knit cap as he ruminates on the two and a half years between Dark So Gold and its predecessor, Tremolo. "It's not surprising to me that most other bands with two songwriters have a tendency to break off all the time and do side projects. It's tough to maintain a spacious atmosphere that feels creative to both people but is still focused and moving in a unified direction. We always have each other's back and let one another follow our ideas through to the end. I don't have to put my stamp on everything Benson does."
416 Cedar Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55454
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)
THE PINES play a record-release show with Jeffrey Foucault on Friday, February 17, at the Cedar Cultural Center; 612.338.2674
"With the Pines we've created a broad world for us as songwriters to work within," adds Benson, the reedy-voiced counterpoint to Huckfelt's sweetly seasoned twang. "All of our music stems out of this same tree of traditional folk music—although I hate that word 'traditional'—and we've each been following different branches of the tree. There's a common thread connecting it all; all of the songs reside in this same little make-believe world. As long as we're in that space, it's almost like The Truman Show or something. It seems so real to us, and we can sort of shut out the rest of the world."
The world the Pines conjure on Dark So Gold is richly detailed, encompassing slow-burn back-porch blues ("Rise Up and Be Lonely"), meditative autumnal instrumentals ("Moonrise, Iowa"), and surprisingly poppy country-rock. The laid-back, hook-heavy "Chimes" even feels like a long-lost Jackson Browne chestnut. Having started out together as an acoustic duo, Huckfelt and Ramsey clearly relish the crack band they've assembled—which features such scene luminaries as banjo player Michael Rossetto, bassist James Buckley, and guitarist Jake Hanson—but still prize austerity. Rarely, if ever, has a seven-piece band been deployed with such restraint.
"We're all freaks for negative space," explains Benson, as brother Alex looks on with a wide grin and appreciative nod. "It's the common thread that connects us. There's an unspoken understanding in the band that the air in between things is often more important then what you're actually playing. The song has to breathe. When you're dealing with that many instruments it's a more carefully orchestrated process."
"When you have the right people you don't have to micro-manage," adds Huckfelt. "Everyone has a chance to write themselves into the equation and see if it fits. Most of the tracks on the record are just different small combinations of the whole band. The songs have always felt big to us. It's a natural progression. It doesn't feel like we became a seven-piece overnight."
"The songs tell you what to do and that's why people aren't going all crazy and over-playing," offers Alex. "It's not about any individual. That's one thing our dad [Bo Ramsey, famed side man for the likes of Lucinda Williams and co-producer on Dark So Gold] taught us—always serve the song."
This selfless credo defines the band and serves as a rallying cry for a group intent on embracing understatement no matter how deafening the surrounding pop-culture din becomes.
"The louder the world gets, the closer we huddle together, and the quieter we tend to play," says Benson.
"There's an element to the band that feels kind of like a platoon," adds Huckfelt, finishing his drink as the band prepares to set off into the chilly night. "There are no casual relationships in this band. I don't have any brothers, these guys are my brothers, and we all feel like the stakes are high."