Palehound: Black Friday

Palehound: Black Friday

  • Polyvinyl

2019

Guitarist and bandleader Ellen Kempner’s third record breaks down the walls around her wiry, anxious riffs, opening space for levity and the thrill of new love.

A lot of Palehound‘s last album, 2017’s A Place I’ll Always Go, took place indoors. Bandleader Ellen Kempner set her scenes in bedrooms and in grocery stores, singing tightly wound vocal melodies over wiry, anxious guitar riffs. On the Boston band’s third album, Kempner breaks down the walls. Black Friday reaches far toward the hazy horizon, letting the nervous energy of Palehound’s first two LPs mount and unspool.

Kempner wrote many of the songs on A Place I’ll Always Go during a period of grief after a close friend passed away. That weight lifts on Black Friday, which bubbles around the thrill of new love, and also reckons with the stress that falling deeply for someone can bring. Love, both romantic and platonic, can erase self-consciousness in the moment, but it can also heighten self-scrutiny later. Opening yourself up to another person can drive you to ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions about yourself: Am I enough? Can I be enough? What can I do to be enough?

Palehound wade through this space with a skillful grip on their newly expanded rock toolkit. A couple of synthesizers and drum machines bookended A Place I’ll Always Go; here, those accents get fleshed out, woven in alongside long, languid, reverb-heavy guitar lines. The stunning “Killer,” a menacing Western number about taking cold-blooded revenge on a male abuser, punctuates its chorus with sprinkles of saloon piano. “I wanna be the one who kills the man who hurt you, darlin’,” Kempner sings, perfectly poised, as if her shotgun’s already slung over her shoulder. She barely raises her voice above a stage whisper, which only adds to the song’s chill. It’s not a geyser of white-hot rage, but a cold, calculated expression of venom toward a deserving target. It’s also a brilliant reclamation of the sounds of the Western, a film genre whose women don’t always make it out alive.

“Killer” brings Palehound to some of their darkest places yet, but Black Friday also opens space for moments of levity. With their quick-strummed acoustic guitar and playful vocal melodies, “Urban Drip” and “Stick N Poke” could almost be Sheryl Crow singles from the early aughts. “I think I’m due for a shitty tattoo,” Kempner proclaims at the chorus of the latter, which is such a spectacular way to say “fuck it” that it sounds like she’s running barefoot through summer grass.

But nothing else on the album, or in the rest of Palehound’s discography, quite compares to the joy of “Aaron,” a song Kempner wrote for her partner as he navigated a gender transition. “My friend, if you want me to/I’ll call you Aaron/I can, I can, I can, I can,” she sings a little breathlessly. The “I can” becomes a refrain, sometimes morphing into “I will,” an urgent, excited affirmation. The instrumentation—nimble guitars and big, booming percussion—keeps building and ebbing away until finally, in the song’s final seconds, it erupts, a little like the climax of Perfume Genius’ 2012 stunner “Hood.” The moment’s ecstatic, a rush of affection where uncertainty gives way to unconditional acceptance, and it cements “Aaron” as one of the best love songs you’re likely to hear in a while.

Kempner has excelled at tracing anxiety, fear, and shame through expertly crafted rock songs, and there’s still plenty of those emotions throughout Black Friday—the title track and “Worthy” both tackle the feelings of inadequacy that can attend even the most uncomplicated love. But on her third record, she also allows herself to experience pure joy, and what a treat it is to feel that euphoria along with her.

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