Exploding in sound
Palehound is the musical nom de plume of one Ellen Kempner, a singer-songwriter/musician who has transitioned over the past few years from creating solo, insular bedroom recordings to leading a revolving band line-up for her output and live performances. Ellen underwent several pivotal changes during this time period, including graduating from high school, attending Sarah Lawrence College, and dropping out of college in order to focus on her music. She moved from her native NYC area to Boston, released her debut EP titled Bent Nail in October 2013 and, with her newly-formed band at the time, played gigs and dropped the Kitchen 7”.
Ellen’s much buzzed about, lo-fi, lyrics-centered debut album, Dry Food, is now ready for release on August 14th via Exploding In Sound Records. She’s headed out for a 2-month tour of mainly the East Coast starting August 9th, but will include stops in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Michigan.
Ellen has been experiencing a personal transformation of late as she negotiates the music press and public reception to, audience connection with, and self-perception of her deeply personal song lyrics, as well as adjusting to her evolving inner and social personas. She describes herself as a shy person who has had to come out of her shell due to the nature of being heard and known as an artist. Dry Food is a chronicle of Ellen’s life and outlook so far and details her internal struggles and external adversity. While her insecurities and relationship troubles may be writ large with her lyrics, she’s confident in the studio, playing all the instruments on the album save for drums which were played by Jesse Weiss of Grass Is Green.
While Ellen probably kills it live where her spare statements and matter-of-fact confessions have room to be fleshed out into vibrant beings, on record her compositions are anemic and confined and don’t have much staying power. Her unadorned and sometimes cryptic lyrics have made her many a fan who understand and/or share her pain and malaise, but the meaning of her words isn’t always clearly articulated on her new batch of songs. Ellen’s subdued sing-talking vocals are modest and, maybe as a protective mechanism, emotionally deadpan. There’s some empty-calorie vocal filler on several tunes where Ellen prettily coos “Oohs” and “Doo doo doos” that add nothing to the subject matter. The lean indie-rock sonics with decidedly lo-fi production don’t make a strong impression either and seem to mainly exist to support Ellen’s lyrics.
Dry Food starts off promising with the up-tempo, assuredly unpolished, Sonic Youth-tinged number “Molly”. A flexible running bass line and insistent drum beat push through abrupt bursts of angular guitar agitation and cymbal smash while Ellen sings in a moderate tone about “selfish Molly” who “…only knows how to love all alone.” “Healthier Folk” also hits a nerve both instrumentally and lyrics-wise as laid-back acoustic guitar strum switches to mellow curls of guitar on the verses and then slides into distorted guitar riffs and even wiry surf guitar runs at its very end. Ellen sing-talks in a light, wistful tone, admitting that “I only feel half right around healthier folk.”
Ellen wrestles with the issues and aftermath of relationships gone wrong on the rest of the album’s songs, like the hard-to-totally-like “Easy”. It alternately sleepwalks with a slow drum tempo and stabs with the insertion of little, noisy jabs and squeals of guitar feedback. Ellen sing-talks in a soporific drawl that “Lately I’ve been thinking / that you’re never gonna love no one.” (Isn’t that a double negative?) as the guitar lick follows her melody line. A bit of fuzzy grit sticks to the song, giving it an unvarnished vibe. “Cinnamon” is deceptively pleasant, swimming in a fluid guitar flow, mid-tempo beat, and hushed vocals on the verses with Ellen mildly lilting the cutting lyrics “…crossing out my closest friends / for someone I can’t recommend.” The brief chorus sections get fleetingly faster as rapid-fire drums and Ellen’s exclamations vie for prominence. A billowing, trippy sound takes over at the end that consists of swirls of areo-guitar, finger-picked guitar chime, and languid, echoed vocals.
The ballad “Dry Food” is another low-key number with soft guitar lines and a slow pace made up of a hard wooden tick and drum beat. An emotionally flat Ellen again drifts through the instrumentation, talk-sighing about a broken relationship, highlighting the standout lines “You made beauty a monster to me / so I’m kissin’ all the ugly things I see.” Synth tings and detuned noises flit in and out of the background, keeping it off-kilter and not too aurally dreamy. The frugal alt-folk of “Dixie” utilizes only strummed acoustic guitar with fingers glancing over the strings and Ellen’s unassuming vocals that are sometimes doubled. She languishes over her words, wanly intoning “…Oh, the danger is when I have to go.” and trailing off with “I’ve always got to go…”
The indie-rock of “Cushioned Caging” holds interest instrumentally with its see-sawing pace of stop-start drum beat, cymbal shimmer, and wiry guitar line reverb. A more assertive Ellen declares “I knew you were a close call / I love you but it’s all my fault.” The intensity rises for a time as the stomp of the drums and heavily buzzed guitar takes over. “See Konk” works in some sweet slide guitar and scratchy acoustic guitar lines, measured drum beat, and cymbal tap as Ellen contrasts being alone in ‘real life’ with her inner fantasy where “…I’m not alone ‘cause I watch TV / cartoons and the news all starrin’ me.” After those kicker lyrics, the song rambles on for a long while with a repetitive cycle of two guitar lines and wordless vocal fluff. Save for Ellen’s trenchant, perceptive lyrics, Dry Food is mostly a bummer, suffering from its slacker-rock trappings of lackluster production, lethargic song tempos, and vocal delivery lassitude.