Songwriter El Kempner turns pandemic-era stress into great songs
The latest release from Palehound is one hell of a ride. The album was inspired by the “apocalypse road trip” across the U.S. that the indie Boston band took mid-tour to get safely back home as the pandemic hit in early 2020. The stress and tension of that moment informs the album, even when the song’s aren’t specifically about the pandemic. In a larger sense, the greatest adventure on Eye on the Bat is Palehound’s musical evolution: they’re sharper, punkier, and more fearless — roaring in the face of change.
Adventurous songwriting has always been par for the course for Palehound, the brainchild of queer singer-songwriter, El Kempner. Over the course of four full-length releases, Kempner’s vivid lyrics and knack for fusing rock sensibilities, punk energy and folky softness have helped make their band peers of beloved artists like Pup, Big Thief, and boygenius (who they’ll be opening shows for this fall). Yet, Kemper’s directness, empathy and intimacy are all their own.
The pent-up angst of writing these songs in lockdown comes through on the album’s strongest, grittiest numbers. “The Clutch” is driven by bracing riffs that echo the “punch in the gut” feeling Kempner sings about as she describes a blistering break-up On the twangy, bass-heavy “Independence Day,” Kempner tackles the vacillating feelings of ending a long term relationship, with sharp imagery and an wide-open, irresistibly clever chorus. Opener “Good Sex” comes in hot with a staccato strum that builds tension before the energy tapers off, mirroring the sense of confused desire in her lyrics. “Bad sex makes a good joke that anyone can get,” Kempner quips, “But good sex makes a good joke that’s only funny if you were there,” she reveals.
The album isn’t all rock aggression. The title of “U Want It, U Got It” riffs on Young MC’s pop-rap classic “Bust A Move,” and has a bouncy synth line that pushes against its tough guitar part. And the dance-y “Head Like Soup” feels like it could’ve been on an LCD Soundsystem record. Part of the appeal of Eye on the Bat’s is its sense of resilience. In the title track, Kempner flips a turn of phrase with cheeky, yet eloquent wisdom: “Suckers will all tell you to keep watching for the ball / But we know better than that/ Keep your eye on the bat.” Palehound is ready to swing at anything life throws their way.