Palehound | The Shacklewell Arms | 3 March 2016
Ellen Kempner is genuinely thrilled to be here. “This is a dream come true,” the Boston-based singer and guitarist tells the capacity crowd at least three times. And we believe her, because everything about her debut London gig feels authentic, spontaneous, and (apart from the songs) disarmingly unrehearsed. Like when she films the audience shouting a message of support to her heartbroken teen sister. Or the tender tribute she pays to her newlywed dad watching from the side of the stage.
More like hanging out at home with a (very talented) friend than a sold-out show, this is the perfect atmosphere for the intimate, confessional music Kempner’s created as Palehound. “Most of these songs are about breaking up,” she admits at one point but, with their sudden musical U-turns and left-field narrative twists, there’s no trace of insipid, Hallmark-approved love songs involving “heart” rhyme schemes.
So on ‘Dry Food’, the title track of her debut full-length album, she whispers devastatingly “You made beauty a monster to me, so I’m kissing all the ugly things I see”, while the equally haunting ‘Easy’ boasts the tragicomic master stroke “I’m pushing back your tongue with my clenched-teeth home security system”. ‘Sea Konk’ is preceded by a disclaimer (“a song that’s not going to put you in a party mood”) before stark lines like “the bed is getting cold again” hit as hard as the forlorn music. And ‘I Get Clean’, from 2013’s EP ‘Bent Nail’, tries to put the hope into hopelessness (“Stop dusting me off easy ‘cos I get clean when I shower before I go to sleep”).
Often the music gets as raw and ragged as the emotions. Jagged new single ‘Molly’, propelled by the rhythm section of Davood Khoshtinat and Jesse Weiss, shows off Kempner’s more aggressive side as a musician, while slow burning ‘Drooler’ ends up in a swirling vortex of bass, drums, and jangling guitar.
And sometimes the music is positively uplifting. Despite its lyrics of loneliness, sunny slice of Americana ‘Psycho Speak’ swings, while the bouncy ‘Pet Carrot’ may be the brightest and most unexpected song about social isolation.
Yet, whatever form her songs take, Kempner remains an exciting and engaging performer who fully deserves to have her dreams come true.