Black Belt Eagle Scout’s 2018 debut album, Mother of My Children, opened with a gripping charge of overdriven power chords. By comparison, At the Party With My Brown Friends, the sophomore release from the artist born Katherine Paul, introduces itself with clean, finger-plucked arpeggios. The contrast speaks volumes: Guitar lines with more than a pinch of distortion are infrequent on At the Party With My Brown Friends, thanks in part to Paul favoring traditional song structures and modest tempos instead.
Opener and quasi-title track “At the Party,” the one with those finger-plucked arpeggios, is a gentle rumble. The bio accompanying At the Party With My Brown Friends says that the “party” in the song—and, by extension, the album title—symbolizes the world. Her “friends” are all her fellow indigenous people, as well as all people of color. Though not a bombastic song in the least, she wrote it as an anthem for these comrades, whom she says “always have my back while we walk through this event called life.”
Friendships, whether the figurative ones on “At the Party” or literal ones, define At the Party With My Brown Friends, as do love and desire. “Going to the Beach With Haley,” for example, is Paul’s ode to her friend Haley Heynderickx, a fellow Pacific Northwest songwriter making folk-speckled rock music. Paul wrote the song’s clanky keyboard beat at the beach on a trip there with Heynderickx, and the soft pummeling of ocean waves comprises the track’s background, something you can hear when listening closely. “You inspire softly / Even over years / I feel your voice coming through / I feel what I’m like with you,” Paul sings placidly. She then becomes so consumed with emotion that she never quite completes her next “I feel,” instead switching to “ooh”ing before louder drums and a guitar solo (one of the album’s few instances of distorted guitar) emerge and tear a riveting fissure along the track’s pristine center.
Paul’s shift towards quieter dynamics serves her subject matter well. Mother of My Children, which documented queer heartbreak and loss, did so via pummeling shredders like “Soft Stud” and borderline metallic freakouts, particularly on the intro of “Just Lie Down.” The diminished intensity and tempos of At the Party With My Brown Friends are a much closer sonic fit for its focus on friendships, love and desire, topics far more comforting than romantic grief. “Real Lovin,” with its “Real lovin’ / Hearts pumpin’ / Palms sweatin’ / Dizziness” chorus, makes its mark while only briefly swelling beyond a lucid murmur during its outro. “Half Colored Hair,” a dawn-brushed ode to desire (“How you look at me / In the brightness of your room / Imagine / Lightness of my fingers on your face”), stays entirely tranquil throughout its nearly five-minute runtime.
At the Party With My Brown Friends’ unhurried, hushed nature proves the album’s strongest obstacle to immediate listener enjoyment. On the first several listens, the songs’ similarities in tempo and structure can blur together. The gradually unfurling twinkle of “Run It To Ya” doesn’t differ wildly from that of its successor, “I Said I Wouldn’t Write This Song.” The structure of “This Song” resembles the post-chorus of “My Heart Dreams,” which scans as Paul’s most irresistible song to date—well, besides the ever-perfect “Soft Stud”—when heard independent of the album itself. Pretty much every song, when listened to individually, is far from lacking emotional impact, indicating that Paul’s sweet spot exists within the realm of midtempo, linear songs. To have nine such hymns packaged into one album is itself a gift—call it a token of friendship.