Ellen Kempner is a singer and guitarist from Boston who moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence college, but dropped out when her debut EP Bent Nail pricked a nerve. That EP was one of her initial releases as Palehound, and while it dwelled more in lo-fi grunge-folk, her new full-length makes it clear that Kempner’s musical inclinations have no bounds. Especially considering news of Palehound’s debut album Dry Food kicked off with the deceptively surfy, scorched-earth rager “Molly,” one of the most concise, caustic things we’d heard from the 21-year-old. The follow-up single, “Healthier Folk,” sharpened her oozing grunge to an angsty point.
The full record, which is streaming today via NPR, only continues to unfold from there. “Cinnamon” is more akin to Real Estate or even Mac DeMarco, with lingering, luscious guitar lines that dance and noodle into psychedelia, and the title track reminds me of Ryan Adams’ elegiac acoustic understatement. She isn’t afraid to get at the wrinkly underbelly of love though, and “Dry Food” refuses to romanticize her brokenness: “You made beauty a monster to me / So I’m kissing all the ugly things I see.” Pain is more beautiful when it’s naked like this, not clothed in any starry-eyed pretense. Speaking of nudity, it too gets a turn on “Dixie,” a finger-picked slow-burner about dreams, unconscious desires, and the sometimes repulsive trudge of physical existence.
Many people write about their pain like it’s a precious gift, like hurting is only a prism to filter emotion back into something easy and light. Kempner lets her bitterness burn until it singes, her angst roiling in a ruined mess. “Cushioned Caging” is a great example of that, a song that rolls by on instability, minor chords and the flat creep of age. “When all that’s left of me is you / Pointing at a person I’ve been faking,” Kempner sings, and there’s no resolution, no forgiveness. The beauty is in the uncertainty, when you have to wait and see what comes of the chaos. You don’t have to tie the ends. On Dry Food Kempner lets the narrative unravel. This is music for those in the thick of it.
Dry Food is out 8/14 via Exploding In Sound. Pre-order it here.