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You can feel Palehound's songs in your gut

There are big rock riffs on <em>Eye on the Bat</em>, but El Kempner also stretches the sound of Palehound to new places.
Tonje Thilesen
Courtesy of the artist
There are big rock riffs on Eye on the Bat, but El Kempner also stretches the sound of Palehound to new places.

Eye on the Bat, the latest album from Palehound, is filled with body parts. There's a "shaking fist" and a "b**** that grows like hair." There's a punch in the face; another in the gut; another in the arm. Bodies are held like a dinner plate, a paperweight, a tiny clock. Not one but two songs feature bloody hands.

Across Palehound's previous three albums, singer and songwriter El Kempner has been no stranger to filling their songs — wiry indie rock that combines poignant reflections with Kempner's skillful, playful approach to guitar — with sharp imagery. Where much of Black Friday, their last release, was filled with the freeing joy of new love, Eye on the Bat turns the force of Kempner's attention toward a couple simultaneous collapses. In early 2020, Palehound was supposed to tour the country behind Black Friday; as the tour got scrapped and the world shut down, Kempner's romantic relationship fell apart, too. Throughout Eye on the Bat, Kempner renders these crises as physical experiences: a "stomach doing backflips," a "cold feeling rising in my throat," a personified evil with which they "share a skull." The visceral palette gives the record a sense of directness, like there's no way to hide the truth; even when Kempner is engaging with metaphor, you can feel the meaning in your gut.

Eye on the Bat isn't an entirely brooding listen, or solely a document of disaster: Palehound has always been a vehicle for Kempner's acrobatic, nimble guitar playing, and here, there's a joyful quality to the range of styles they deploy. Kempner has recently cited inspiration from fellow guitarists like Adrianne Lenker, Hannah Read of Lomelda and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits — all friends of theirs who favor creative, inventive approaches over classic rock-god stylings. Kempner has said in particular that, while on tour with Big Thief, they admired and aimed to emulate Lenker's fingerpicking style, and you can hear that influence in the intricate acoustic riffs across Eye on the Bat. That's not to say Kempner has abandoned their love of big rock riffs entirely — the album is teeming with propulsive energy and creative textures; plus, songs like "The Clutch" and "Head Like Soup" feature big, glorious guitar solos. In between Black Friday and this new record, Kempner also formed the band Bachelor with multi-instrumentalist and producer Melina Duterte of Jay Som. They've said the experience of working with Duterte gave them confidence when they stepped into the studio to make Eye on the Bat, which Kempner co-produced alongside Sam Owens. It let them stretch the sound of Palehound to new places, as on "U Want It U Got It," a charmingly unsteady, warbling track about devotion and disconnects, that Kempner produced almost entirely at home.

Eye on the Bat finds its most impressive moments of clarity when Kempner highlights the disconnect between the body and the brain — as on the album's striking opening track, where Kempner describes a romantic gesture that devolves into a feeling of absurdity. On the cathartic "Independence Day," Kempner wonders why a freak car accident didn't bring them and their soon-to-be-ex closer: "All it did," they sing, "was drive the point home in my body and my mind." Sometimes, our brain knows something before our body can catch up; sometimes it takes the shock of something physical for our mind to accept the truth. By cataloging the painful truth of these moments, Palehound offers a reminder of how it feels to survive them.

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