The Pines have garnered raves for what's described as their quintessentially Midwestern sound. Critics have hailed the duo's spare, spooky hybrid of blues, folk, roots, and rock.
If The Pines' new CD "Tremolo" were a landscape painting, you would see weathered barns and cornfields against an ashen sky. The Pines' music distinguishes itself by its sense of place.
The Pines are based in Minneapolis, but both members grew up in Iowa. Cofounder Benson Ramsey is often asked to define the "Iowa sound." To Ramsey, it's music that takes its roots seriously.
"Definitely there's the folk and the blues thing that maybe come up the Mississippi or something. But there's a real space there also, and I think it just comes from the landscape," Ramsey said.
"There's a sense of restraint," added Pines cofounder David Huckfelt. "It's not the flashiest music, you know? It doesn't exactly come into your face and slap you upside the head. When you drive around the Midwest you see a lot of worn out old barns, silos ... they don't pull your eye but if you're looking there, there's rich stories."
Huckfelt and Ramsey write songs full of contrasts. They sound timeless, yet immediate, grave and dark, yet somehow uplifting.
If you can hear fellow Iowa songwriter Greg Brown in Ramsey's mournful voice, there's a reason. Ramsey's father is Bo Ramsey, Brown's sidekick on guitar and a songwriter in his own right. Bo Ramsey produced "Tremolo."
Benson Ramsey inherited his love of folk and blues from his father, and all the other musicians he was surrounded by. The tradition has never stopped resonating for him.
"There's a basic theme of the human condition that is alive today, you know, life, love, death, sorrow," Ramsey said. "Any of the new songs today that I like, it's the same idea."
Neither Ramsey nor Huckfelt listen to a lot to today's music. They feel too much of it is self-centered to the point of being narcissistic, and not enough of it honestly reflects today's world.
Huckfelt says the music of the Pines provides a counterpoint to that.
"It's almost like a spiritual-level mission, to get to the point where your songs are speaking on a very human, very emotional level," Huckfelt said.
The humanity in the songs on the new Pines CD, "Tremolo," is part of what is winning over music critics such as Rick Teverbaum.
"This is certainly one of the best things that I've heard in 2009," he said.
Teverbaum writes about alternative country music for the blog, Country Standard Time.
He says he's captivated by the Pines stripped-down, unpretentious sound, and its ability to draw deep meaning from everyday life. Teverbaum thinks of what classical music offers, a chance for serious listening or a pleasant companion.
"This music that The Pines have put together on Tremolo has both of those qualities working for it," Teverbaum said. "[It can be] appreciated if you're really listening to it, because there's a lot going on. But it also can be appreciated as, you know, a pleasing backdrop."
Both members of the Pines say they're proud to carry on a Midwestern musical tradition. Benson Ramsey says if he's learned anything from artists such as his dad Bo or Greg Brown, it's to stay true to the songs.
"The music comes first," Ramsey said. "The world is scary and it's crazy, and when things get crazy and hard, just hold the music. Keep it close."
Ramsey says the songs the Pines prefer sharing on their records are the mysterious ones, the ones that, as cliche as it sounds, write themselves. He says their plan for the future is basically their only choice -- to keep following the songs.
Tonight the Pines mark the release of their new CD, "Tremolo," with an in-store performance at Electric Fetus in Minneapolis.