Palehound: Eye On The Bat [Album Review]

Eye On The Bat
Polyvinyl Records [2023]

The Fire Note headphone approved

The fourth album from El Kemper’s Palehound is a break-up record to beat all break-up records, as their poetic distillation of the moments that led up to the relationship’s inevitable dissolution fuel the driving music of their rock trio. Kemper’s diary-like lyrics in “Independence Day” chronicle how a collision with a deer on the road foreshadowed the relationship’s end, suggesting the truth that we’re all “living life like writing a first draft,” before concluding that if things had worked out differently, “it would kill me to look back/No, I don’t want to see the other path.” The initial guitar chord hook and the song’s sturdy bassline doesn’t allow a wasteful sentimentality, just drives home the fact that we “can’t edit the past,” we just have to move into the present and beyond.

“The Clutch,” one of the album’s better grinding punk-energy rockers, responds to the loss’ “punch in the gut,” and the realization driven home in the final repeated rant that “you didn’t need my help.” The smart combo playing of the band, Kemper’s great guitar sound and solo, and the mix of soft/loud dramatic delivery, all point to the production craft of co-producers Kemper and Sam Owens. The band can build a convincing rocker like “Head Like Soup” work even if the initial poetic metaphor seems like an over-reach. By the time the song’s driving rhythm gets to the “I live to fill you up and I burn unwatched” you’ve gotten over the soup imagery, and their convincing guitar solo at the song ends belies all the silliness.  

With “My Evil,” Kemper is owning up to their own responsibility as the song’s balladic structure acknowledges the “blood on my hands,” even in the most mundane domestic tasks, like doing the laundry. Still more fun is the video of the song with Kemper mimicking the opening sequence of the “Sopranos’ TV drama, right down to the cigar, driving by all the Jersey landmarks, and wearing a bathrobe to collect the morning paper at the end of the driveway. It plays well against the driving acoustic rhythm of “U Want It U Got It,” which exposes the self-defeating effort to live to fulfill someone else’s fantasy, also expressed in the self-deprecating opening track, “Good Sex,” where they bear the tracks of an uncomfortable corset on their skin like “a bad joke that’s only funny if you were there.”

While Kemper’s approach is deeply personal, the band’s sound benefits from a rhythm section that’s both substantial when called for, but delicate and responsive to the song’s nuances. Bassist Larz Brogan adds muscular grit throughout, and drummer Zoe Brecher plays with versatility and punch as required, a compelling study in the benefits of playing on point.

Kemper has mastered that strange paradox in the intimate journalistic approach, that sharing the vulnerable details of one’s struggles in life can open up the possibility of a nearly universal point of connection, which together with the compelling musical settings make Eye On The Bat a record with vitality and engaging durability. In the title track, they not only celebrate headbanging to Black Sabbath, but warn against being distracted by suckers who “keep you watching for the ball,” when it’s the bat that has the potential for greater damage. Life can feel like that in periods of loss, where paranoia makes sense because people seem to actually be following you. But as Kempner suggests in the acoustic sign off of “Fadin’,” time may not heal all wounds, but as things drift to the back of one’s memory, life indeed goes on.

“The Clutch” / “Eye On The Bat” / “Independence Day”

Phoebe Bridgers / Snail Mail / Sunflower Bean

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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