Album Review: Cartalk - Pass Like Pollen

If I were to describe something to you as sounding like “emo meets alt. country,” would you agree that, at least on paper, that sounds like there is a high margin for that to be a disaster?

The way people discover new music, especially right now, is usually not through going to a record store, asking for recommendations, or just simply blind buying something based on the name or cover—you hear about it on the Internet, either through a streaming service’s algorithm of things it thinks you might enjoy, a music news website, or from somebody you are connected with on social media.

Not everything he shares resonates as much as I might like it to, but I almost always check out whatever writer and poet Hanif Abdurraqib1 is listening to when he posts the Spotify screenshot in his Instagram story. And a little over a week ago, he shared the opening track, “Arroyo Tunnels,” from the debut full length by Cartalk, Pass Like Pollen. 

This is one of those occasions where what is shared wound up resonating with me much more than I had anticipated.

It sounds rough, or like it’d be unlistenable, right? “Emo meets alt. country.” But that’s the first thing that came to mind as the opening half of Pass Like Pollen unfolded itself during my initial listen, and even subsequent listens as well. But it’s not unlistenable at all—far from it. It’s wildly accessible and compelling, full of catharsis and honesty, and moments that are thoughtful, evocative, visceral, somber, and beautiful—almost entirely set against the juxtaposition of a borderline ‘down-home’ twang in the voice of singer and songwriter Chuck Moore, which itself is offset slightly by the explosive, distended, pummeling electric guitars used throughout. 

Rarely do you hear a debut album that is this interesting, this well put together, and this literate in the vivid imagery the lyrics are based in. 


Cartalk, as a band, has no connection to the long running, beloved NPR automotive help call-in program of the same name; Cartalk, as a band, is the work of Chuck Moore, a Los Angeles singer and songwriter who founded the project around three years ago, and in the summer of 2019, began releasing pieces that would eventually find their way onto the album—the first being “Noonday Devil,” Pass Like Pollen’s blistering, swaying, jangly second track.

The conceit of Pass Like Pollen’s nine songs is found within the first half of the album, on the eruptive “Las Manos,” where, like an incantation, Moore repeats this phrase at the end of the song: “Did my honesty scare you?” They answer their own question—“Honesty, I scare me too.”

Pass Like Pollen, within its first three tracks, is utterly perfect. Like, no album, by an artist either established or just starting out, should be sequenced this flawlessly, and be this emotional and cultivated lyrically—it burns slowly, and intentionally, right from the beginning, before things escalate somewhat quickly to a cacophonic deliverance. 

Identifying as non-binary, Moore blurs the lines between masculine, feminine, and androgyny with both their photo on Pass Like Pollen’s cover, as well as the opening line to the the album’s gorgeous, simmering first track, “Arroyo Tunnels.” “I’ve been growing my hair out, they sing, before taking a slight pause and adding, earnestly, “Let me be your boy.” 

“Arroyo Tunnels” begins with the warm, low, undercurrent of a droning sound already in progress; you catch a glimmer of it before Moore’s carefully strummed, clean-toned guitar comes in, and their delicate vocals gently folding themselves in on top of it all. If the idea of frightening honesty is the conceit that runs throughout the entirety of Pass Like Pollen, “Arroyo,” structurally, fall somewhere between a mission statement and an introduction. Structurally, the lyrics all arrive roughly within the first minute of the song—from there, as Moore’s voice echos out, they create a feeling that the song is about to take off. But it doesn’t, and in terms of the quiet/loud/quiet dynamic, or the give and take oftension and release2,’ they are too clever of a songwriter to play that hand so early in the record. Instead of some kind of bombastic entrance for the rest of Moore’s stable of musicians, there is restraint, and even as the song still does continue to build toward its conclusion (complete with additional layers of a trumpet and banjo plucks) it never rises above a specifically set level of reservation. 

Lyrically, “Arroyo Tunnels” is among the album’s most fragmented, though perhaps that is, in part, due to the small amount of lyric Moore has written, delivering them all as the vivid, though ambiguous, narrative that appears, at times, to be about the end of a relationship (the expression “heartbreak routine” is used), as well as, for lack of a better description, the infinite feeling3 that comes from when you are speeding through a tunnel—in this case, listening to songs by the band Hop Along.

One of the many facets to Pass Line Pollen that make it such an enjoyable and thoughtful album is Moore’s ability to turn a phrase—yes, the fragmented imagery in the opening track will linger long after it is over, but you really start to get a feel for their skill as a lyricist on “Noonday Devil”; it’s also here that the music begins to grow in terms of its depth, pulling slightly from a dream pop soundscape with the reversed, ambient guitar sounds that open things up, and the soaring emotional heights that the song reaches when it hits the refrain, which features the startling line, “It’s a sentence break—a comma between patterns. The love you gave, I’ve got a noonday devil.” The song also features a very surprising opening line, that Moore delivers with total earnestness—“Lately, I’ve been eating meals on my floor; I don’t question it.”


Spread across a concise nine tracks, I stop short of saying that Pass Like Pollen is structured into three specific parts, but the tone of the album shifts dramatically as it reaches the halfway point—specifically with the dreamy, highly enthusiastic “Wrestling,” which is a fine song, but with its energetic tempo and shimmery guitars, I stop short of saying it sounds like it is from another band entirely, but it sounds a little out of place with the pacing, and overall feeling that Pass Like Pollen is trying to convey. From there, the album does switch directions slightly again, with “Car Window.”

Doing away with the slow burn and simmer completely, “Car Window” is one of the moments on the album where Moore comes to putting together a song with an anthemic quality to it—again, steering the band’s sound into bombastic, ‘emo’ territory; less so because of the song’s lyrics, but more because of its instrumentation and definitely because of the way it is arranged. Beginning with a muffled snare drum rhythm, the urgency with which the snarling electric guitars and banjo plunks come in create a very frenzied, yet steady, pacing, as “Car Window” more or less sonically detonates continually throughout (especially in what is billed as a ‘refrain’), and heavily favors the ‘release’ and does little, if anything, to build tension. 

Within the album’s second half, as it descends toward the end, Moore splits the tone of the record evenly with two very tense, somber, inward tracks, along with two songs are based around a raucous build up with moments of real catharsis.

“Driveway” is Pass Like Pollen’s longest track, coming in slightly over five minutes. It begins almost ominously with thundering drumming and a mildly dissonant guitar progression that never really resolves, and instead, breaks into a conclusion of distorted strums. It is, like many of the songs on the album, about a break up, or, at least a stark reflection on a connection severed. “Is this how we evolve?,” Moore asks throughout the song. “Is this how I get on? 

For all of the pensive, tender, and evocative lyricism in the first half of the album, Moore drops that for something raw, and almost confrontational as “Driveway” continues to build: “Do you still think of me?,” right before the climax of the song arrives—“Do you miss me being a ghost on your couch? Haunting your heart, asked me to be around. Picking up where you left off—that’s fine. Easy to move: have no feet to drag behind.” 

If “Driveway” is full of somewhat self-effacing resentment or anger in the wake of a relationship being over, “A Lesson” is a startling, bittersweet, introspective hard look at something, or someone, you’d rather not remember; however, due to the way Moore plays with vagueness, it’s unclear who that someone is. Set against absolutely haunting strings, and a mournful, distended guitar with just the right amount of reverb setting it back farther in the mix, “A Lesson” finds Moore at, perhaps, what is their most literate. The exchange depicted in the song might not be fictional, but like the best writers, they are creating a compelling fiction—one that, through their choice of words, drops you right into the tense exchange that involves whiskey swirled in a glass, to which they counter, “I don’t care for drinking anyhow; it makes me nervous to lose all self-control when I’ve worked hard to gain it.” 

Whoever the person Moore is facing here, they know that, in the end, the exchange is a loss—a hard fact to accept, as they concede, “Nevertheless, a lesson.”

Pass Like Pollen ends with “Sleep,” which really, eclipses “Car Window” in terms of an actual anthem, or “big” moment on the record. It’s a surprising piece to end with—though maybe, structurally, it’s Moore playing against type. With a record built on sadness and self-reflection, and songs that slowly simmer, it behooves them to conclude with something that both name drops, and echoes tonally, Bruce Springsteen. 

The kind of song just bombastic enough that you can literally pump your fist along to it, it does find Moore at their most self-aware, grappling with remembrance and acceptance of “timely lessons brought on by anger and ache.” Lyrically, almost the entire song is quote worthy—“Looks like I needed outside perspective/see the shadow behind my blame. Pull out the fragments of us I won’t let go of while you learn to forget my name,” they sing as the song builds towards its refrain, “I get hit time and time again, pulled back—waking up in your bed,” an image juxtaposed against the next line, “Keep sleeping curled up in my car.”

If the conceit of Pass Like Pollen, this whole time, has been about about frightening honesty—by the end, Moore finds that it’s about that kind of honesty with others, as well as with themselves: “Remind myself our season has come and gone.”


I spent, like, four months finding myself more or less immersed in a song by Angie McMahon—“If You Call,” the version featuring Leif Vollenbakk on the Wurlitzer, that appears on her just released Piano Salt EP. 

This literation of the song, which is much more emotionally charged than the way she performs it on her full length last year, is what I’d listen to on my walks to work, before the sun had risen, and on these walks, with the song filling up my ears, I found that, for me, right now, “If You Call” is about a lot of things, but one of those things, at the core of it, is a dissection of a close friendship. 

But it took a little bit of time for me to unpack that part of it. 

It took a lot less time for me to find something similar, though presented much much differently, in Pass Like Pollen’s stunning “Las Manos,” which is, by far, one of those most arresting and poignant songs I have heard in this wretched year. 

Subjectively, Cartalk is a relatively “new” band in the sense that Moore just began releasing material from Pass Like Pollen last year, slowly building the project around the Los Angeles area in 2019 and at the start of 2020, but the mythology around the band dates back to 2017, with early, self-recorded material featuring Moore and their close friend, Kenny Becker, frontman of the group Goon.

Moore befriended Becker after approaching him following a Goon show, and the two, apparently, would talk for hours in the car—eventually, there was a late night text that simply said, “Love our car talks.”

It’s a charming “origin story” of the band’s name, yes, but the fragmented narrative of this friendship and the give, take, admiration, and everything else that comes alone with a deeply rooted platonic love is at the center of “Las Manos” and that’s what makes it so important—and as a songwriter, and performer, it is utterly astounding in the way Moore is able to execute it all, not just beautifully, but make it look effortless in the process. 

There are myriad elements making “Las Manos” the song it is, and giving it the power it has. One of those is the contrasting quiet/loud/quiet structure of the song’s arranging, and how Moore and the band play with theatricality and walls of aggression and noise throughout—there aren’t really any other moments on Pass Like Pollen that have the sharp, catastrophic blasts of feedback and distortion the way this song does, using them to punctuate after what could easily been called each “verse” in the song, but the song, lyrically, just kind of unfolds in a sprawling way, so there is not a very clear or traditional distinction between verses and refrains. 

“Las Manos” was written long before this year—the year of isolation and distancing; there is something wildly surreal about the song’s opening line: “Vulnerable introductions are a pastime effort,” they sing, though it is a line that is used to build the narrative of two people meeting and building a connection. The line continues: “Especially in public, lost in the jaw of others. I manage to shake your hand, sow a few words of candor,” and it is right here, on the next line, where Moore creates the first surprising, explosive moment. There is little breathing room between the line, “In the back of The Hi Hat, I left without your number,” fading out, and the squalls of distortion and thundering percussive hits taking everything over. 

Moore pulls this of a second time, with equally powerful results, through using even more evocative, gorgeous imagery as they continue to build the narrative based around this friendship. “You’re dancing out of your jacket,” they sing. “And you you talk about your sister, and the things that matter. Attention cuts to your jaw—dancing in and out of laughter.” 

The contrast to these literate, hyper-focused passages arrives in the form of both Moore’s internalized admiration (“The expression of your hands paint shadows on a brick wall—a silent film I watch” is probably one of the most beautiful phrases they turn on the album) as well as the concern that maybe they have shared a little too much, or the friendship has become too serious—that give and take, trying to find where, if any, the boundaries are. “I’m not going to backpedal,” they sing. “‘Cause I’m all caught up.”

There is, then, the conceit that we circle back to—the unabashed truths within this song, as well as in every other song on Pass Like Pollen: “Did my honesty scare you? Honestly, I scare me too,” a line that, like so many I have heard within the last few years, that has left me simultaneously feeling seen and attacked, both in the best and worst ways possible. 


It is evident from the amount of time it took Moore from recording their earliest Cartalk material, to revealing the slow roll out of singles a year in advance of Pass Like Pollen, that they are willing to be patient and put in the work to make sure the music is the best it can be—and that is evident throughout these nine songs. It’s a damn near flawless debut record from a brilliant new voice in songwriting—one that has created an album that is wildly accessible thanks to the infectious “pop” structure many of them follow, but artist enough and intelligent enough that it has you in the palm its hand from the opening note to the final swooning moment of “Sleep.” 

Brimming with fragments of love in all forms, loss, and a wistful longing, Moore has created an album that is, yes, frightening in just how honest it can be, but there is a very tangible beauty in that honesty as well—and that is what lingers long after the record has concluded. 

1- I’ve discovered a lot of things via Hanif’s IG stories, but more importantly, outside of being a national treasure for his work as a poet and writer, his stories often involve his attempts at baking an elaborate dessert, photos of his dog Wendy, or very lengthy ruminations on pop songs that are so long, you have to pause the story in order to read his thoughts.

2- My best friend often makes fun of how often I talk about “evocative imagery” in my music writing and I am afraid that now my new thing is to overuse the expression “tension and release.”

3- I had some reservations about making this reference, but I am of course talking about The Perks of Being A Wallflower here and I am sorry because we all know that book hasn’t aged well at all, but to everyone who was ever, like, 15, that book is always going to be important, just clunky and very flawed in a number of ways. 

Pass Like Pollen is out now as a digital download; the LP will be out the first part of November, via Anxiety Blanket.