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Album review

With ‘Black Friday,’ Palehound’s Ellen Kempner is even deeper in her feelings

Ellen KempnerShervin Lainez

The angels have always been in the details of Palehound’s songs. On 2017’s “A Place I’ll Always Go,” the Boston-based trio — fronted by singer-songwriter and guitarist Ellen Kempner — conveyed the complexities of grief and love through vulnerable, visceral imagery such as Dunkin’ blueberry glazed donuts, numbly boxing up books, and the tactile overload of touching grocery store produce. “Black Friday,” out Friday, curls around the same introspective bent, but largely zooms out from the individual experience. As a result, the songs hit the same button as reading a particularly on-the nose horoscope, or a Jenny Holzer truism: clearly, these songs were not written about you (unless you happen to be Ellen Kempner), but they feel like they could have been.

Throughout this album, co-produced by Kempner and Gabe Wax, the emotions the frontwoman describes are commonplace but rarely so well articulated, with such matter-of-fact gravitas. Rendered in her confessional, breathy alto voice, backed by the soft yet muscular sound of the trio — completed by bassist Larz Brogan and drummer Jesse Weiss — they capture a general and at the same time very specific experience of being young, anxious, queer, and simultaneously in love with and enraged at the world. For those of us who check or have checked any number of these boxes, there’s probably going to be a song on this album that will make us wonder where it was when we needed it, and how it knew exactly what to say to make us feel less alone.


The title track narrates a day with a friend who, for no good reason, doesn’t value her presence as much as she values theirs. “Worthy” explores self-love or the lack thereof, and learning to see what one’s lover sees. “I think I hate my body ’til it’s next to yours/ With you I wear the clothes I’d bury in my drawers,” Kempner sings, just one of many brutal couplets.

Some songs, especially shorter tracks such as “Company” and “Sneakers,” feel like they should have been expanded and developed more. They sound tentative next to standout tracks such as “Killer,” an airtight, exhausted-sounding revenge fantasy about a friend’s abuser, or “Bull[expletive],” which cuts to the heart of trying to support a partner through the distortions of depression. In her notes, Kempner wrote that it’s the track she’s proudest of, and indeed it’s one of the album’s best.


For all the long shadows in which “Black Friday” lingers, it also turns its face toward the light in small and not-so-small ways. Most noticeably, the subject of “Aaron” is a character who represents her transgender partner, and the song is a wellspring of hope, with a heaping side of powerful love and compassion. Kempner’s quiet, urgent voice persists through the entire song. “If you want me to call you Aaron, I can, I can, I can . . .” she pushes through elongated phrases like prayers, even when she seems about to lose her breath. As the words blur together, she creates a circle of healing, inviting all who need it to step inside.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.