Preoccupied with nostalgia, in all its frustrating, stubborn shapes.
The Boston-based lo-fi outfit Palehound, fronted by 23-year-old Ellen Kempner, won the hearts of indie kids and music blogs back in 2013 with their eccentric debut single “Pet Carrot.” Since then, they released their excellent debut LP Dry Food, and Kempner experienced the one-two punch of the deaths of both her grandmother and a close friend within a single year. Dry Food was largely a breakup record, which certainly requires a certain level of self-reflection, but if ever there was justification for writing something personal, Kempner has lived it, and many of the things that made Dry Food so memorable also work in favor of sophomore album, A Place I’ll Always Go.
At first glance, it’s difficult to separate Palehound from the millions of other soft-spoken basement acts swirling in the bandcamp ether: their songs have cutesy titles like “Seekonk” and Kempner’s vocals sometimes belong to the Moldy Peaches school of Sounding Quirky. A little time with their songs, though, reveals a singular talent for songcraft that shatters the glass ceiling of their DIY trappings. Kempner injects mundane moments with genuine insight, as in the devastating “If You Met Her,” when she uses an anecdote about Dunkin’ Donuts to reflect on the slippery way time intersects with death: “Starting to count up from ten/ Aging in ‘Remember when?’.”
In general, A Place I’ll Always Go is preoccupied with nostalgia, in all its frustrating, stubborn shapes. Centerpiece “Turning 21” masterfully tackles trauma-induced stasis, using the line “You will always be a week away from turning 21” to discuss how loss often makes us feel frozen in time. The bizarre but lovely “Feeling Fruit” somehow gets away with using produce-touching in the supermarket as a metaphor for considering the people in our past.
Thankfully, while these songs are lyrically backward-glancing, Kempner and co. refrain from indulging pop’s fetishistic “it’s the ‘80s now!” moment to hammer this point home. As it did on Dry Food, the writing feels diaristic, but Palehound doesn’t force nostalgia upon the listener. If the album doesn’t reinvent the lo-fi wheel, it still manages to build on Palehound’s sound in ways that support the new material. A Place I’ll Always Go is massively impressive for its subtle sonic experimentation—many choices thrill, but almost none shout “look at me!” There’s a clear-eyed wisdom that permeates each moment, as if Kempner has no time to be self-congratulatory while also telling us what she’s certain we need to know.
“Backseat,” a song about finding beauty in dire circumstances and also about sleeping, begins as a subtly electronic lullaby before airy drums drop from the sky and turn it into a chugging, dreamlike wonder. “Turning 21” blows Kempner’s traditional strums and creaks to epic indie-rock heights, invoking the likes of Mitski and Car Seat Headrest rather than early Girlpool. Even first single, “Flowing Over,” takes the band’s timid, punkish template and fuzzes it out, pumping a memorable, glammy riff to the top of the mix.
All of these virtues considered, A Place I’ll Always Go can’t escape a few inevitable indie clichés. Even when she’s wise, and even though her voice sports a roughness that somehow correlates to emotional authority, Kempner sometimes deals in standard-issue “I was young and drunk and feeling sad” moments. They’re always well-executed, but they hold A Place I’ll Always Go back from being a fully universal listen.
Ultimately, though, Kempner’s frankness and willingness to package tragic circumstance into digestible rock songs keeps her band from fading into the background. There may be a million kids in Boston singing songs about their grandmother in someone’s basement, but it’s a safe bet that few of them will be as easy to remember as Palehound.