Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Lounge review: Dry Food

Thousands of people like Ellen Kempner go through bouts of loneliness and anxiety when they move to a new city. How Kempner adjusted to life in New York City when she started attending college in 2013, set her apart from most of her peers. She wrote songs—lots of them.

One of them, Pet Carrot, about her lack of companionship in the big city, eventually became her first single. Two EPs down the line, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter and guitarist, who performs as Palehound, has released her debut album, Dry Food. Released on the cult Brooklyn label, Exploding in Sound, the album features a more mature set of songs that distil a lot of her influences—1990s alt rock, folk music, psychedelia from the 1960s, even jazz.

While there is no denying that Kempner has a versatile voice and a way with words, what really adds that extra sparkle to Palehound’s songs is her fantastic guitar playing. There are the unexpected twists and turns with tempo changes, and contrasting sound textures that are almost like zits bursting over the surface of the record. What is also incredible about the music is the fact that Kempner has played all the instruments except the drums.

Kempner is the sort of artiste who has a solid understanding of the musical traditions she is part of. Even a casual hearing of Palehound songs makes it evident that Kempner has spent long hours studying and imbibing the music that has been her inspiration. Some of the inspiration is more readily apparent—the dark musings of Elliott Smith, the blunt honesty of singer-songwriter Liz Phair or the fractured tunes by the likes of Pavement and the Pixies. Others are not— such as Kempner’s admiration for jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery (but then she has studied jazz and classical music).

Dry Food opens with Molly, which bears the influence of St Vincent and even the 1960s British group, The Kinks. Featuring twin-tracked guitars, it’s a furious racket that mirrors the singer’s disgust at the shenanigans of “selfish Molly", who is adept at milking all the dudes ’til they bruise. Kempner’s advice: You better stick with me.

Too stoned taking antibiotics/I feel my infections wrestle in my bones, Kempner sings on the spacey Healthier Folk. Feeling sick is a theme that runs through many of the songs in Dry Food—it’s almost shorthand for the growing pains of Kempner, who has had her fair share of emotional betrayals and problematic relationships. There are references to vitamins, puking, uppers, dixie cups (which were originally called “Health Kups"), bursting sores, among other things.

Kempner often uses startling imagery to hint at her state of mind. For instance, on the title track: You made beauty a monster to me/So I’m kissing all the ugly things I see. In Easy, Kempner sings about love gone sour: I’m pushing back your tongue/With my clenched teeth home security system. Even the acoustic, fingerpicked Dixie, which seems “normal" at first, has references to people the singer has never met, who show up naked in her dreams and “see their breasts like eyes" staring back at her.

When Seekonk, the last song in the album, is winding down, Kempner launches into a bit of sprightly wordless singing—doo doo doo doo: It’s hard to tell whether it’s borne out of relief or nervousness. Unlike many bloated indie epics, Dry Food is only 28 minutes long, and for once, we wish the album had been longer. Let’s console ourselves with the fact that at age 21, Kempner has a long road ahead of her.

Palehound: Dry Food, Exploding in Sound Records, $8 ( 520), available on palehound.bandcamp.com

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