Album Review: Palehound - Black Friday
Over the course of two previous Palehound albums, band leader Ellen Kempner has dealt openly and first-hand with her grief at loss of loved ones, in many forms. It’s unsurprising that having felt such powerful emotions through her formative years has shaped the way she reacts to the world – and in turn the way she writes songs. It means that she’s unafraid to speak her mind, no matter how embarrassing or outrageous her thoughts might be, resulting more often than not in visceral confessions. This dedicated honesty that she exorcises in her songs cuts both ways; as undying devotion to friends, yet callous dismissiveness towards herself. This leads to a disconcerting but utterly magnetic outing on third full length Black Friday.
The new record opens with ‘Company’, a distorted slow-burning song that doesn’t exactly welcome you with open arms, but does give you a neat bird’s-eye view of Kempner’s mental state, as she sits, stewing, waiting for the day when a lost friend will play drums for her. In its own mangled and skeletal way, ‘Company’ is an overflowing of love from Kempner – a feeling which comes in much warmer form on follow-up track ‘Aaron’. A relatively upbeat indie rocker, written as a love song for her partner undergoing gender re-assignment, ‘Aaron’ is an utterly adorable song, with Kempner detailing true details from their life together, and states her commitment in the most perfectly plain way: “My friend if you want me to, I’ll call you Aaron.” Her happiest moments come hand-in-hand with the most immediate tracks on Black Friday, as on the resolution to get a new “shitty tattoo” on ‘Stick N Poke’; or ‘Urban Drip’, a fierce declaration to a best friend whose songs aren’t vibing with people at her local coffee shop: “You are music, but not the kind they listen to,” Kempner proudly announces.
This bald-faced love for her friends and lovers can sometimes tip over into unhealthy levels of obsession – or something close to it. On the lightly twirling title track she worryingly states “you’re Black Friday and I’m going to the mall,” the beauty of the track belying the unhealthy imbalance, revealed by the line “I’m too weak to hold your grudge.” The questionable mismatch in Kempner’s views of herself as opposed to her friends comes out even more bluntly on ‘Worthy’, where she admits “I think I hate my body/ Til it’s next to yours,” and that she doesn’t feel worthy of her partner. There’s never a feeling of Kempner overcoming these issues in the songs, but then there is also no feeling that she has to – she is unjudged by her audience, and the comfort of knowing that can lead her to more honest - and insidious - places.
Undoubtedly the darkest point on Black Friday is ‘Killer’, a song where Kempner fantasises about following a man down empty streets to commit unspeakable acts: “I wanna be the one who kills the man who hurt you darling.” The mood for ‘Killer’ is a low-lit, noir-ish rocker, which only adds to the sharpness of the mission statement – again, no judgement, just enjoyment at the honesty.
However, there are, unsurprisingly, other black spots on Black Friday, especially when Kempner turns her weapon on herself. ‘Bullshit’ may be the most blissful-sounding singalong on the record, all hushed acoustics and dreamy soundbeds, but the lyricism finds her tormented by her attraction: “what can I do when all my truth just sounds like bullshit to you?” ‘Sneakers’ is similarly weightless, a metronomic tick cutting through bird chirps and moody synths, with Kempner sing-speaking a rough apology: “I’m sorry that you had to see me like that.” She saves her most vulnerable moment for closer ‘In Town’, a spindly rocker imbued with violins, where she balefully admits “I grip you like a leech/ How would I let go from here?”
In these quieter instances the lightness of the production gives us a palpable sense of our singer’s deep well of love, and makes the hammer-blow of her words even more powerful. In fact, the production throughout Black Friday is subtler than ever, making the feeling that these songs are coming from a deeply personal place even more pronounced. Kempner’s voice is, for the most part, hushed and breathy, but the instrumentation never drowns it out, allowing the messages to come out in an unheeding torrent. Never have we felt more like we can see the words in her diary, whether they’re carved into the page by a fist shaking with rage, or gracefully penned with heart-dotted i’s.
Kempner has stated that in her music she aims to “help people heal in some way, or come to some new understanding about whatever it is that they’re going through.” On Black Friday she certainly does not offer any solutions to the kinds of problems that she’s going through, but purely by being so fearless and unbridled in her songwriting, she’s sending out a message to all who feel ashamed of their true feelings, telling them that they’re nothing but humans, just as worthy of love as anyone else.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 7th June 2019