When I was a teenager, I never really cared about typical teenager things. I didn’t really drink, I didn’t care about going to parties, and I was always more comfortable interacting with the parents of the kids at my high school than the kids themselves. While most guys in my small town were consumed with football, cars and hunting season, I was more interested in spending my spare time in my high school’s art room or taking out as many weird movies from my library’s DVD section as was allowed. That’s not to say that I thought I was better than anyone I went to high school with. In fact, I pretty much got along with everyone. I just knew that I was very different from them. So when people say things like, “Age is just a number,” it’s something that I really identify with.
If you want a current embodiment of this sentiment, look no further than Yonkers native Ellen Kempner. The 19-year-old writes and records under the name Palehound, and her music evidences a level of maturity that is way beyond her years. Nineteen is just a number to this girl, and she proves it through her music. Don’t worry, though—if the thought of maturity dredges up stodgy or boring images, know that Ellen never sacrifices her playful quirk or biting sense of humor for something eye-rollingly grown up. Of course, you’d never know this judging by her sloppy cover artwork, slang-heavy track titles, and the fact that Ellen buries everything in a thick layer of humor disguised as apathy, but the songs on her recent Bent Nail EP are some of the most mature, confident, and self-assured tracks released this year. For a person who hears music first and lyrics second, it took me a few listens before I really began to absorb the songs. But eventually I got there, and I can tell you that these are the sort of lyrics that you read and reread. Burying her messages under wordplay and bizarre metaphors, Ellen takes joy in wrinkling her listeners’ brows, in making them think.
Take for instance the EP’s opening track “Drooler.” Not only does Ellen use the song to establish a goofy slang-speak that naturally lends itself to the cadence of her voice, but she uses it all to casually condemn sexism and rape culture. The song is catchy, and a couple casual listens through would find you eventually singing along, but it isn’t until you really dig into what Ellen’s saying that the song takes on a darker tone buried under the pop hooks. The chorus says “Stamp me and vandalize me if it helps you sleep soundly.” The words are uncomfortable, and rightfully so. And they need to be. You can’t enact change from a position of safety. For the rest of the short EP, the lyrics don’t sting quite so bitterly as they do on “Drooler,” but it’s a perfect introduction to a project where there is so much more than meets the eye.
It fits, then, that Bent Nail was released by Exploding In Sound Records. The EP came out at the end of October and subsequently capped off a really strong year for the young label. With excellent releases from bands like Ovlov, Fat History Month, Kal Marks, and Porches., they’ve proven to have an eye for talent, and Palehound is no exception. It also bears mentioning that the label’s past roster includes critical darlings Speedy Ortiz seeing as Ellen Kempner is good friends with and a protégé of sorts of Speedy Ortiz vocalist/guitarist Sadie Dupuis. In a lot of ways, Palehound seems to be following in the footsteps of her friends and label-mates in that she is doing her own part in leveling the music industry playing field as far as gender goes. It also helps that, like Dupuis, Kempner writes whip-smart songs that she then blankets in a crunchy, alt-rock candy coating. Part sour, part sweet, the songs stick to the inside of the brain and go down easy, but it’s not until you really sit down and listen to what Ellen is saying that their secret genius is revealed.
All of this is good enough reason for why Palehound seemed to make a modest splash in the last couple of months. If there was a checklist for all the typical music sites you’d need to hit before being taken seriously, she’d have that in the bank. And yet for all of the deserving attention that’s been thrown their way, Palehound has yet to really hit it big. I feel that their time is coming, though. With songwriting as strong as this, it’s bound to surface at some point, right? I have to believe that for my own peace of mind, and I can’t think of a more deserving band to be a candidate for breakout success than Palehound. Here’s to hoping they get there.
Bent Nail is available now via Exploding In Sound Records.