Ellen Kempner’s third, full-length record as Palehound is the songwriter’s most focused and human yet. After reaching a new peak with 2017’s critical acclaim garnering A Place I’ll Always Go, the Boston-based band outdoes itself again with an album that doubles down on precise indie rock arrangements and purposeful songwriting.
While Kempner’s reputation initially developed around upcycled, 90s guitar rock that never seemed to settle, Black Friday feels as though it’s constantly at the calm in the storm. It’s as if Kempner has suspended the emotionally exposed moments right before or after a great unsettling. The magic of the album is that it keeps that weighty sense of significance without ever reaching for climactic explosions.
The topic on Black Friday is love, love in all its forms. It’s often not quite clear where the songs’ narrators actually stand in their relationships. On opener “Company”—which immediately establishes a feeling of grand importance with its organ-like synth tone—Kempner sings with equal concern and doubt for a loved one: “if you quit smoking will you just start drinking?”
Later in the album, Kempner details struggles with body image on “Worthy,” where the chorus wavers between a sort of confidence and certain defeat: “I’ve won over your mother darling / and I’ve won over your sister too / and I’ve won over your father darling / and I still don’t feel worthy of you.” Black Friday’s lyrics portray relationships that are as ambiguous as reality, full of uncertain desires and understandings.
Kempner generously offers detail, with and without context, as well. “Sneakers” recalls a friendship that seems to have faded, highlighting that person’s absence by returning to their tendency to wear sneakers in all situations (“Thought I saw you wearing boots but knew it wasn’t really you cause you wear sneakers in the winter”). “Aaron,” one of the strongest tracks on the album, talks about supporting a trans partner as they transition, the verses offering anecdotes that could be commonplace but become moving in Kempner’s gentle delivery.
Like many tracks on Black Friday, “Aaron” seems to simmer where other artists might push for fiery turning points. “Killer” epitomizes Palehound’s ability to maintain strength without much commotion—the chorus line “I want to be the one who kills the man who hurt you darling,” delivered with pseudo-outlaw country swagger, could move mountains on its own.
The arrangements push toward more spaciousness, letting that distant fuzz guitar stand out when it rephrases the melody on “Company,” bringing attention to Kempner’s almost-out-of-breath delivery on “Worthy” or her floating, helpless questioning on “Bullshit.” Its extremely effective in letting Kempner’s lyrical work standout, and it helps to emphasize excellent production—Kempner co-produced alongside Gabe Wax—that results in crispy acoustic guitars, dazzling little synths, and hidden treats like birds sampled in time to the beat on “Sneakers” or DJ-style frequency pulsing on “In Town.”
Compared to much of the current alternative and indie rock scenes, or even Palehound’s previous work, Black Friday is certainly mellower, understated, but the band achieves a remarkable amount of sincerity and hardly lacks from toning things down. Musically, Palehound leans toward a light sound where previously discordant guitar lines have been transformed into open-ended, almost folky backgrounds, but the album still makes time for jazzy spoken word (“Where We Live”), almost bossa nova-tinged pop (“Urban Drip”), and more upbeat basement rock (“Stick N Poke”). The focus, though, is the lyrics. With Black Friday, Palehound have achieved a greatly human and personable creation.