I’ve never been to Yonkers, NY, home of Palehound’s Ellen Kempner. So, for context, I Googled it. Google Images threw me a lot of brick buildings, a few graveyards, some parks, a train station, an L.L. Bean and a Red Lobster. Sparse, minimalistic images, with traces of fleece jackets and seafood. These hollow, luxury-free visuals seem like a likely setting for the birth of Palehound’s debut EP, Bent Nail.
Palehound was created during Kempner’s freshman year of college, a time when the rest of us were trying to convince ourselves strawberry Pop-Tarts counted as a serving of fruit and looking for someone with an ID to buy us beer. And yet, in less than 20 minutes, Bent Nail manages to craft a cohesive theme, joined together by a thread of youth and self-doubt. Rather than a coming of age story, the EP evokes a sentiment of questioning if you’ll ever come of age. Through uncrowded compositions and simple song structures, Kempner creates sonic moments in time, and then leaves them hanging in the air like biographical question marks.
Nowhere on Bent Nail is this so obvious as on album highlight Psycho Speak. It’s a slowly thudding, syruped folk jam with a cloudy plotline, like one of Conor Oberst’s roadtrip narratives. Kempner has a way of compiling lyrics like diary entries—but self-aware diary entries—like when she sings in a barely gruff tone: “My neighbor was an asshole/One night he revved up his car inside the garage/It made such a racket that I couldn’t sleep and I was pissed/but too lazy to do anything.” The self-deprecation is palpable, but somehow, Kempner still comes out on top.
I Get Clean is a finger-plucked dark-lullaby with slightly incoherent, tongue-in-cheek lines like, “I’m starting my own continent, with bloomers all around.” Harvest does the moody end-of-the-movie thing, with worn minor chords and sighed lyrics. Kempner also does vocal-drop blues-stomp (Drooler), anti-folk nursery rhymes (Pet Carrot), and sticky, frozen pitch-shifts (Flytrap). Again, it’s a cohesive batch, but rumpled, like a post-nap bed you want to throw yourself back into the minute you get up.
Bent Nail’s strength is in its simplicity. This isn’t a slapped-together, kitchen sink sort of album; every too-aggressively or just-barely strummed note seems to have a purpose. And sure, it might be locked to a particular moment in time, but this is a moment in time we all know.