As Palehound, Ellen Kempner opens her new debut album with the guitar riff that shreds expectations and lets you know she’s not messing around. The song is called “Molly,” and its angular hook tangles up in the brain like taffy. The song is steady as a metronome, but punctuated by snarling blasts of distortion and the disarming softness of Kempner’s voice.
It makes believers out of skeptics, as does “Cinnamon,” another standout track from the album. Kempner still remembers the first reactions she’d get when she unveiled it early on in concerts.
“As soon as I’d play that song at shows, I would feel the dudes who had immediately written me off as a girl with a guitar, they’d turn around at the bar,” Kempner says. “Those guys would come up after the set and tell me what they thought was a compliment: ‘Wow, when I saw you get up onstage with that guitar, I wasn’t expecting that!’
“I get that all the time, at least two out of five shows,” she says, shaking it off as just another day on the job.
Kempner, 21, who lives in Allston, should expect to get that even more. “Dry Food,” her debut released in August on the Exploding in Sound label, has catapulted her to a national stage. Buoyed by fawning reviews and fierce live shows, Palehound is one of the year’s most welcome, and deserved, breakthrough acts in indie rock.
After a buzzed-about EP, 2013’s “Bent Nail,” the new album has earned Kempner comparisons to other young bands exploring a distinctly ’90s strain of alt rock. Palehound indeed shares musical DNA with Cloud Nothings and Speedy Ortiz, whose frontwoman, Sadie Dupuis, is one of Kempner’s close friends (and her former camp counselor).
“Dry Food” is short and sweet, just eight songs that clock in under 30 minutes; Kempner kept only the ones that reflected what she wanted to say. They chronicle a topsy-turvy time in her life, that awkward leap from being a teenager to becoming an adult with very real struggles. The songs are riddled with existential soul-searching and romantic longing, with threadbare lyrics unafraid to pick at scabs and reveal deeper truths. “You made beauty a monster to me,” she sings on the brooding title track.
“It was definitely the product of a very weird time for me,” says Kempner, who brings Palehound, currently performing as a three-piece in concert, to the Sinclair on Tuesday. “I was feeling defeated, kind of stuck. I was writing songs that I felt were really honest and I was trying to pour more honesty into them and be really straightforward.”
She wanted to make an album that was open but not self-indulgent, and she found a blueprint in recent work by such songwriters as Angel Olsen and Courtney Barnett.
“When I first recorded the EP, I was a little scared to put all the cards on the table,” she says. “I had no idea what to expect, and I had never even played a show outside a teen center in Connecticut. I thought, if this is my debut, I don’t want to set the stage for me to be holding anything back. Now’s the time for me to be present, to be all out.”
As much as the lyrics command your attention, they don’t distract from the simple fact that Kempner is also a formidable guitarist. Throughout “Dry Food,” she showcases a dazzling mastery of disparate moods and chord voicings, from the fleet-footed groove of “Cinnamon” to the intimate slackness of “Dixie.” Her prowess was borne out of formal training in college (Sarah Lawrence), where she studied both classical and jazz techniques. “The combination gave my hands a workout,” she says, adding that jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery was an early influence.
For “Dry Food,” which marked her first time recording in a studio, Kempner enlisted the help of Gabe Wax, a musician and producer in New York. Where “Bent Nail” had a DIY charm, “Dry Food” applied a subtle but essential amount of polish to Kempner’s songs while never sanding off their edges. It also demanded more of Kempner as a musician; she played nearly every instrument on the album.
“I think she differentiated herself on this record from some of the references she had been getting to Speedy Ortiz and other Boston bands,” Wax says. “A big part of this record was making sure it sounded good, but also sounded like her — because no one else really sounds like her.”
With Gardens & Villa and And the Kids. At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Tuesday at 9 p.m. Tickets: $15. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.comJames Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.