Dry Food finds Palehound‘s Ellen Kempner attempting to make sense of, or at the very least, document, a period in her life that could best be described as “shaky”. Essentially a solo album, with Kempner playing all the instruments on the album apart from the drums, it serves as a release valve. If the idea of an artist examining the bones of their life and the reasons for their misery is an immediate turn off, fear not, Dry Food approaches the subject from a different angle to the tried-and-killed solo artist template of acoustic guitar plus deserted cabin with nothing but a glove puppet for company.
Having already set the hype machine on fire with the US version of Dry Food last year, Palehound’s debut now gets its UK release. A good thing, too, because these eight tracks – the brainchild of 21-year-old Ellen Kempner – are worthy of a wider audience. While minimalistic and lo-fi – indeed, almost scrappy at times – these are songs full of heart and soul.
On 2013's Bent Nail EP, Palehound's Ellen Kempner sang about taking a carrot for a pet in order to stave off late-teen loneliness. She makes similarly childlike gestures on her debut album. "You made beauty a monster to me, so I'm kissing all the ugly things I see," she seethes at an ex in a so there voice on Dry Food's title track. It's the most deliciously futile form of revenge and reclamation: doing the opposite.
The latest act to emerge from a young Boston scene making rock worth geeking out over again (see Speedy Ortiz and Krill) is Palehound — a.k.a. 21-year-old Ellen Kempner, whose songs morph as unmappably as her emotions. She also plays the hell out of a guitar, but only when necessary to make her point. Her debut is antsy and ambivalently sexy: On "Healthier Folk," she's "watching cuties hit the half-pipe" feeling only "half-ripe"; on "Dixie," with fingerpicking that hints at a Villa-Lobos recital, she dreams of "breasts like eyes" one moment and retches the next.
Since breaking out with 2013’s endearing single “Pet Carrot,” Ellen Kempner’s guitar work has remained mostly hidden behind the hype that her band Palehound is the “next Speedy Ortiz,” or that her songwriting is influenced by The Breeders and Pavement. On Palehound’s debut full-length, Dry Food, you only need to listen to the tack “Cinnamon” to know this classically trained guitar player isn’t simply another ‘90s-sounding pastiche of torn jeans and flannel shirts. 21-year-old Kempner’s guitar prowess is Palehound’s staff of light, a six-stringed burning ember that guides you through her fractured song structures and doleful take on coming-of-age, the basis of Dry Food, an eight-song exploration of Kempner’s mental inner space during the period of 2013 and ‘14.
On her new album, Palehound singer/guitarist Ellen Kempner sounds like someone who’s spent a lot of time alone in her bedroom. That comes through in her melancholic, openhearted lyrics, but, more pointedly, in her impeccable musicianship (she played every note on the album, save the drumming), which bears out intense practicing, deep-seated passion, a keen knowledge of indie rock touchstones, and an impressive versatility, all in equal measure. Kempner’s dazzling playing leads the way on Dry Food, but the 21-year-old’s tender, honest lyrics follow closely, burning softly amid the splashes of dramatic guitar.
The way some people have a way with words, Palehound singer/songwriter Ellen Kempner has a way with a guitar: Looped lines tumble out in the knotty configurations worthy of a sailor’s handiwork, or maybe of academic writing. The latter may be a more appropriate analogy, perhaps, given that the six-string wrangler at hand is a 21-year-old, and a recent dropout of Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York. But unlike the swarthy diction that fills trade journals, the riffs and roils that Kempner has put forth — first on 2013’s Bent Nail EP, now on her full-length Dry Food— justify their density.
Though we try to avoid them, there are moments in everyone’s life when it feels like the world has truly beaten us down. Losing our perspective in a tidal wave of insecurity, we’ll eventually wash up, tear-stained, on a parent’s kitchen floor, and that’s when we can start to pick ourselves back up. ‘Dry Food’ is a soundtrack to that tide of self-doubt.
The beauty of Palehound’s new debut — and there is a surplus of it — is its sheer indifference to one mood, sentiment, or sound. From song to song, “Dry Food” veers from ragged but right pop confections to fingerpicked acoustic ballads and stoner jams cloaked in ’90s guitar heroics. It takes band mastermind Ellen Kempner exactly eight songs in 30 minutes to hook you and leave you wanting to hear more.