The first time I saw Ellen Kempner perform as Palehound was in October 2013. She was singing her guts out to about 20 people at the now-defunct Spike Hill venue on Bedford. (You NYC people know the one; there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts next door now). Up until then, I’d only listened to “Pet Carrot” over and over again online, wondering how a 19-year-old could funnel loneliness and angst into such an agreeable ’90s grunge-pop vacuum. Two years later, Kempner has sharpened her blunt edges and honed in on a sound that twirls instead of drifts; her debut record Dry Food is full of stately, well-planned rock songs that dissolve of their own accord into seething emotion. “Molly” was the first indication of how much Kempner had fine-tuned her sound since that first Bent Nail EP. It’s a carousing take-down of a particularly vengeful jezebel, and there was even a point where the guitar work veers into gleeful rockabilly territory, an unexpected U-turn in the song’s bitter, coursing rhythm.
But if anyone was worried Dry Food’s new sheen might dull Kempner’s wry, slower sensibilities, “Healthier Folk” will banish those fears. It’s the second track she’s shared from the upcoming full-length, and it’s a simmering outsiders anthem from someone who doesn’t really want to be anything else. Muffled riffs hit against each other like spoons in a drawer, clanking and clattering with jangly precision, until a carnival of a guitar solo derails the whole trip at the end. “I only feel half-right around healthier folk,” Kempner mutters, but it’s not herself she’s condemning. As a wise philosopher once noted: “It’s no indication of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Listen below.
Dry Food is out 8/14 via Exploding In Sound. Pre-order it here.