Ellen Kemper is the 21-year old songwriter behind Palehound. Her upcoming album was recorded with producer Gabe Wax, who has worked with the likes of Here We Go Magic, Cass McCombs, and Speedy Ortiz. Ellen played everything on this record apart from the drums, although live Ellen is joined by drummer Jesse Weiss and bassist David “Doov” Khoshtinat.
Palehound deal in the kind of music that sounds like it started life on an acoustic guitar, although it doesn’t always end up there. There’s plenty of minimal-folksy numbers in the vein of early-Waxahatchee or Kimya Dawson, but there’s also a decent number of tracks that explore more varied sonic territories. Easy takes on the a-tonal grunge of Pavement, Cinnamon is the middle ground of Frankie Cosmos and Orange Juice, whilst Molly adds a surfy edge to proceedings. The whole record is held together by Ellen fabulously expressive guitar playing and laid back vocal, which to our mind sounds a bit like a lightly sedated Karen O.
Palehound are based out of Boston, continuing a theme of two bands from the same place coming along at the same time;we wrote about Boston just last week when introducing Quilt. Worry not, we have plumbed the depth of the internet to come up with some new and “fascinating” facts about Boston. Since 1984 Boston has placed a ban on Happy Hours, Christmas was banned between 1659-1681 and the iconic Fenway Park is the oldest Baseball station still in use. Moving away from some of the more mainstream acts, the city has also given us underground musical heroes such as Margaret Glaspy, Marissa Nadler and Belly.
The first Palehound release was the Bent Nails EP, which came out in 2012 on Exploding In Sound Records. The band remain on Exploding In Sound over in the states but in the UK have teamed up with Heavenly Recordings for the release of their debut album Dry Food, which is out this week (although has been out in the states since the end of last summer).
Above all else what leaps out in the music of Palehound is the sheer quality of Ellen’s guitar work. Whether she’s finger picking her way through Dixie like a young Elliot Smith, moving effortlessly from fuzzy art-rock to warm, woozy slides on Healthier Folk or perfecting the slow, melancholic absent minded tumbling style of Eels on Dry Food, her guitar work is never short of exemplary.
Dry Food might be just eight songs that clock in at under half an hour but it’s a record that’s never short of ideas. Molly could sound like a surf pastiche but the rapid-fire bass is cut through with some delightfully spiky, distorted stabs of guitar. Sea Konk, the albums final cut, could sound maudlin and overly emotive but it’s lifted out of the darkness by an almost Hawaiian sounding lead-guitar line; even when latterly it plunges into the void with a lachrymose key change, it doesn’t stay long enough to truly wallow. Throughout the record Ellen weaves intricate guitar-lines into beautiful textural patterns, managing to infuse the instrument with a sense of energy and life, as if the guitar has its own story to tell, beyond her lyrical pathways.
Ellen is also a fine lyricist, witty and self-deprecating, but with a wry line in world observation and heartache dissection. Most of Dry Food dabbles into relationship breakdown, hardly new lyrical ground, but it does seem to find her at an interesting phase. It sounds like a record of recovery, where emotive attachment is beginning to shift into acceptance and a new-found sense of self worth. On Cushioned Caging, Ellen seems to almost be analysing her own role in a relationships demise, noting, “when all that’s left of me is you pointing at the person I’ve been faking”. Easy deals with the everyday challenge of being a functioning human being in the face of emotional crisis, Ellen noting, “all I need’s a little sleep and I’ll be good to sleep and eat”. Elsewhere there’s hints of moving on, within Easy whilst she’s hinting at the pain of the past, she’s also casting aside the ex, noting witheringly, “you made beauty a monster to me, so I’m kissing all the ugly things I see”. The true resolution comes in Sea Konk though, whilst there’s hints of loneliness as, “the bed is getting cold again”, there’s also a realisation that, “I’m not alone ’cause I’ve got my mum, my dad, and my sister and the dogs”.
For some these raw, emotionally candid songs of anguish and social disassociation might prove a little too close to the bone; but as a songwriter in the lineage of Bright Eyes, Elliot Smith and The Mountain Goats, for many Ellen will offer just the right amount of emotional candour.
Dry Food is out March 4th via Heavenly Recordings. Palehound are on tour in the UK now, click HERE for details.