Before Palehound released “The Clutch,” a rippin’ rock song and the first single off of their new LP, Eye On The Bat, we’d most recently heard the vocals and elevated guitar work of El Kempner as one half of the duo Bachelor. Kempner teamed up with Melina Duterte of Jay Som to form the supergroup and deliver the stand-out 2021 record Doomin’ Sun. But just as the recording of Doomin’ Sun was finished in early 2020, and Kempner hit the road with Palehound to tour their own solo work, the world shut down.
Tour abruptly cancelled, the band took an “apocalyptic road trip” back to Brooklyn and Kempner quickly settled into a time of personal and professional mourning alongside the universal, COVID-inflicted existential dread. They locked down with their longtime romantic partner, then ended that relationship on a sad but star-spangled holiday, as retold in the song “Independence Day.”
Eye On The Bat, a 10-song collection written around and largely about that holiday break-up, finds Kempner once again excelling at the plainspoken — like the literal retelling of that July 4th, and in memories evoked in the title track:
Black Sabbath as the sun goes down“Eye On The Bat”
Cuz I like heavy metal now
We’re the only people for miles around
And we’re head banging to “Paranoid”
Kempner also delivers some of the record’s most potent imagery through simile and metaphor, in songs like “Head Like Soup”: “My head like a pot of thick soup/Stirred and tasted/I live to fill you up/And I burn unwatched”…then, “Holding my body like a dinner plate, warmly balancing in your palm.” Whether piqued or pissed, Kempner is a poet. They can’t seem to help it.
Eye On The Bat‘s stories follow the thwarted, last ditch efforts at intimacy (on track one, “Good Sex”) and a car wreck that might’ve drawn the couple closer but didn’t. Kempner also traces older, tender recollections (maybe when the love was still growing instead of withering) in “Route 22”:
You come for love“Route 22”
To call my bluff
To tell no lies
And keep me wild
I come to play
I come to bleed
We come to laugh
You come to see the good in me
As is actually grappling with the end of something important, Eye On The Bat is a mixed bag. And yet, when hearing this work as a whole some years later, Kempner feels mostly settled in the feelings and the ways they’re stitched together on the album.
“So much about this record is about the complex feelings of a breakup,” Kempner told me from home on Zoom, their black cat in frame, slinking around a recently delivered Chewy delivery box on the kitchen floor. “This record is not like a sad break-up record, necessarily. There are sad songs, like ‘Fadin,’ and ‘My Evil’ is sad in its own way. But ‘Independence Day’ I see as a victory lap — I know I made the right choice, ‘I don’t want to see that other path.’ Like, I don’t want to know what could have been because I feel confident in what I did.”
The album thematically and lyrically spans a wide range of emotions Kempner felt in the wake of the relationship, their most meaningful to date. Lingering sorrow marks the final tune, “Fadin,” while shame in recognizing they were capable of hurting someone they loved is illustrated through Kempner’s semi-spooky self-indictment, “My Evil.”
Eye On The Bat also covers a lot of ground musically. Already a skilled picker, Kempner leaned into more riffing and blistering electric guitar elements while leading virtual lessons during the pandemic. “If one of my students wants to learn the solo from Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Cherub Rock,’ then I also have to learn the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Cherub Rock’ solo,” they said. “[Teaching] definitely influenced the way I wrote.” Kempner also messed around with gear borrowed from a friend, audio engineer Nick Kinsey, when apprenticing with him in upstate New York. The result was the home-recorded tune “U Want It U Got It,” at once both more psychedelic and poppier than a typical Palehound track.
On “The Clutch,” the cathartic repetition of “You didn’t need my help” (similar, I noted, to the repetition in the choruses of beloved 2019 Palehound song “Aaron”) had me wondering what truly bears repeating when we’re trying to heal. How do we self-soothe via mantra or some other woo-woo pep talking to keep moving forward? Ultimately, now in a period of prolonged “singleness,” Kempner told me they are learning to more regularly check in on their own needs and wants.
“I’m 29 and I was in relationships pretty consecutively from like 21 to 28,” they said. “So I’m feeling myself in a whole new way and learning myself in a whole new way. And my biggest thing is that I don’t want to be like a people-pleaser anymore. I have this habit of putting my own desires and feelings to the side to care for other people. And that’s kind of how I’ve been my whole life. That’s one thing I’m really working on is [asking] ‘What is it l want in this situation?'”
Flexing this new muscle has fortified Kempner creatively, too. For Eye On The Bat, they opted out of “going to a fancy studio and working with a really fancy producer,” because what they really wanted, and what was “better for the songs,” was recording with Sam Evian in his living room. So that’s what they did.
“I’ve been doing Palehound and I’ve been in the quote-unquote ‘music industry’ since I was 19, and I never really learned to ask for what I wanted. I was so impressionable and so vulnerable that I kind of just got in this habit and cycle of appeasing the people around me. You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, I really want to work with this person, so I have to do everything that they suggest.’ And so I think it’s been not just a romantic or personal endeavor, but a career endeavor, as well. Recently I’ve [asked myself], “What do I want to do, with my art?”
Kempner said Eye On The Bat feels like their “most genuine” work since Palehound’s 2015 debut, Dry Food. They’ll hit the road with their band this fall, ideally a time less apocalyptical than March of 2020. WNXP Presents: Palehound in Nashville at The Blue Room on October 26.