Dry Food finds Palehound‘s Ellen Kempner attempting to make sense of, or at the very least, document, a period in her life that could best be described as “shaky”. Essentially a solo album, with Kempner playing all the instruments on the album apart from the drums, it serves as a release valve.
If the idea of an artist examining the bones of their life and the reasons for their misery is an immediate turn off, fear not, Dry Food approaches the subject from a different angle to the tried-and-killed solo artist template of acoustic guitar plus deserted cabin with nothing but a glove puppet for company.
This much is evident from opening track Molly, which comes roaring out of the traps. A buttoned-down beat underpins a sinuous-but-weirdly-funky bass line as the guitars stab over the top repeatedly. A post-punk pop explosion is not the usual way to deal with the ache of relationship blues, and although lines like “It hurts in my bones” hint at a deeper pain, the opening salvo of the album is defined by its relentless drive and inventiveness.
Post-punk is not the only influence on show; quite a few of these songs seem to draw heavily on the ’90s grunge period and its legacy, too. Healthier Folk for example could have been plucked from Veruca Salt’s American Thighs album and hints at Tiger’s We Are Puppet, with its lazy but wonderfully hook laden vocal lines and fuzzed up guitar lines.
There’s the lo-fi swing of Ween in evidence on Cinnamon too, although it predominantly serves as a showcase for Kempner’s fantastic guitar skills with its jazzy runs. For the majority of the album, she keeps things fairly simple, but every so often she cuts loose and allows a glimpse of her virtuosity to peek through. Cinnamon is also song with the most twists and turns, as she plays with genre, time, and sound.
This ability to switch moods swiftly is in evidence on Easy, which is a fairly languid affair for the most part, but there’s a neat change of pace around the midpoint, just Kempner delivers the line “all I need’s a little sleep” the song lurches from lethargic introspection to raucous and twitch, which might well be a representation of the way the mind works when its over emotional and exhausted from overthinking things.
There are warning signs in the occasional squalls that cut across the quite guitar expositions of the verses. Perhaps the only real concession to indulging in the sadness of a break up is the title track. A relatively straightforward song, it’s essentially a bedroom strum, but its effectiveness is in its simplicity. Lines like “you made beauty a monster to me” and the fact that the pet she’s been bought is “a-ok” (which suggests that she’s not), possess an emotional truth that is hard to ignore.
The introspection is offset by the humour wrapped up in the revenge fantasy (and appropriately jaunty) Cushioned Caging which finds Kempner presumably disrupting a wedding, puking everywhere, and turning on the attendants. There’s also a tint of madness to be found, in the behaviour of the protagonist, and in her inability to let go. There is at least, a little sugar to be found in the music. Sea Konk ends things on something of a down note, with Kempner trying to look at the positives. She’s not alone, because she’s got her family and dogs, and the TV, which is pretty much all you could ask for. On the other hand, the TV is staring at her, and the bed is cold.
Whilst the song itself possess a neat little vocal hook and does its best to stay jaunty and upbeat, there’s an uncertainty that runs in a carefully crafted guitar line, niggling away. The hot/cold metaphor contained in the lyrics is well worn, but Kempner utilises it well, and the simplicity of the song itself highlights how it’s possible to feel loneliest when you’re surrounded by people that give you unconditional love, when all you want is that special someone you can’t have. It’s a perfect summation of the pain of relationships that also highlights the effectiveness of Palehound’s economy of language and music.