“And if you quit smoking / Will you just start drinking?” Ellen Kempner sings on “Company,” the opening track of her band Palehound’s third album, Black Friday, setting a tone of curiosity and concern about close friendships that drives the songs to follow. Singing these lines, Kempner doesn’t sound like a narc or a buzzkill, but rather like the friend who’s willing to call you on your BS and then dwell with you in the rejection, shame or embarrassment that self-awareness often produces. Black Friday floats inside these currents of love and risk that churn through relationships—especially platonic ones—which involve serious, prolonged leaning on other people. Throughout, the band explores how we move toward and away from people we care about, and how both orientations strain the resources we have available for love.
Kempner’s considerable prowess on guitar and comfort with emotional ambiguity give shape to feelings that shift constantly and seem impossible to pin down. Compressed into a taut two minutes, “Company” sketches a suburban basement scene (“Your mother gets home late / Your father’s out of state”) that recalls after-school hours spent keeping someone company, with boredom sliding into unexpressed desire (“Your brother’s old drum kit set up in the basement / I’m waiting for the day I get to hear you play”). Around Kempner’s inquisitive voice, synth chords bloom and wilt, giving the song a slightly wobbly tone until Kempner’s electric guitar solo cuts through, bending notes tentatively but building on the vocal melody as though trying to access some loftier level of strength. A sparkling synthesizer gives the song a surprising glam-rock edge, which illuminates more tonal shades in the relationship at its center.
This is how many of Palehound’s songs work: they begin with a highly specific image and then subject it to the probing beam of Kempner’s attention, until a broadly relatable sentiment brightens the image’s dark corners. Her lyrics are both precise and suggestive, not too literal to foreclose complexity but not so esoteric as to become untethered from the recognizable world.
Standout track “Aaron” finds grace in this balance between directness and evasion, fitting for its delicate subject matter. Kempner has said that Aaron is a character representing her partner who’s currently undergoing a gender transition, and the song brilliantly charts the process of trying to create space for a loved one who’s knee-deep in an experience to which Kempner can’t fully relate: “Your mother wanted to name you Aaron / But her body built you as a different man.” Building from just voice and a strummed chord progression, “Aaron” moves through a range of responses to the situation: welcoming, hesitating, desiring, and self-censuring—all of them coming from a place of deep kindness, honesty, and respect. The song ends in a joyous climax, with Jesse Weiss’s percussion adding some thudding kicks and energizing fills around Kempner’s increasingly intricate guitar work and echoing vocals. Rather than just cheerleading, the song suggests a more authentic way to support someone’s transition: “If shutting my mouth will help you turn around Aaron / I can.”
Aside from this understated anthem to stable partnership, Black Friday’s most poignant songs eulogize the loss of friendships or worry about the precariousness of those which remain. Black Friday follows the mantra “do more with less” as most of its songs max out around two and a half minutes. This allows Palehound to play with different sonic delivery systems for highly specific moods. “Sneakers” creates a quirky swirl of processed drums, birdsong, and radio static to sketch a brief anecdote about a shame-inducing encounter with a former friend: “It singed a nerve I thought was lost.”
Later, “Urban Drip” builds ironic swagger in a chorus ripped from Adult Contemporary radio in the late-‘90s. Between its plucky rhythm section and Latin-inspired guitar licks, the song brings to mind a fusion between Eagle-Eye Cherry’s oddly satisfying hit “Save Tonight” and Santana’s once-ubiquitous solos. Littering the song with retro references (“mall sunglasses / fees for classes”) and a slightly cheesy refrain (“You are music / But not the kind they listen to”), Palehound delivers this song with a wink and proves they can find humor in the strange pains that nostalgia induces.
Thanks in part to co-producer Gabe Wax (Soccer Mommy, Speedy Ortiz, Adrienne Lenker), it’s tempting to compare Palehound’s current sound to that of other whip-smart women and queer folks who are remaking rock for the 21st century. A band doesn’t need to be truly distinct, however, to contribute mightily to a movement, and Kempner brings a candid mix of insecurity and strength to topics like complicated friendships (“Black Friday,” “Bullshit”), self-acceptance (“Worthy”), and taking up physical space (“The City”). Ultimately, Black Friday is a constantly modulating love song to the very human experience of clinging to other people, but through her sharp writing, Kempner offers insight on how to rely on ourselves when everyone else leaves: “Nothing worth loving ever sticks around / But you.”