Personnel: Ellen Kempner (vocals, guitar).
Recording information: Rare Book Room, Brooklyn, NY.
2013's buzzworthy Bent Nail EP introduced savvy listeners to Palehound, the musical vehicle of singer/songwriter Ellen Kempner. Wry dissections of youthful isolation like "Drooler" and "Pet Carrot" revealed an emerging artist with a compelling voice and an infatuation with '90s indie rock. Two years later, Kempner offers up Dry Food, Palehound's debut full-length on Brooklyn indie Exploding in Sound. Working again with producers and Ava Luna members Julian Fader and Carlos Hernandez, she strikes a balance between spiky-riffed fuzz-rockers like "Molly" and "Cushioned Caging," and more cleverly built acoustic fare like "Healthier Folk" and "Dixie." The album's dryly textured production borders on lo-fi, but while some indie acts use that as a crutch to disguise subpar material, in Kempner's case it increases the intimacy of her songs in an appealing way. Churning slowly forward over a canned drumbeat, the title cut flows with an attractive half-asleep softness as Kempner tumbles through strange, lonesome verses about fattening up a consolation pet with "dry food, rice, and beans" before intoning "you made beauty a monster to me." Her skill as a wordsmith is a great part of her appeal and she has a knack for mixing vulnerability and abstraction that pairs well with the detached '90s alt-rock style she favors. There's a meandering quality to her song construction and she speeds and slows tempos, introducing odd little parts that might happen only once, like in the ambitious final minute of "Easy." Even when tackling what at first seems like more straightforward indie pop on "Cinnamon," Kempner suddenly changes time signatures and introduces subtle psychedelic elements that keep everything slightly off-kilter. Dry Food is a beguiling debut with a great many more layers and vision than its outwardly casual appearance would suggest. ~ Timothy Monger