1/22/16 – Great Scott

The unforgiving cold and dark of Boston’s winter is nearly inescapable, but sometimes if you embrace darkness, it dissipates. A sold-out crowd gathered to see Torres on Friday, in part to do just that.

But first, Palehound took to the stage. At Great Scott in Allston, Palehound is about as local as it gets. As they said when they arrived on stage, “We’re Palehound and we’re from right here actually. Right around the corner.”

The Allston residents debut LP, Dry Food, was a 2015 standout for Exploding in Sound, the Brooklyn-based, Boston-rooted independent label. “Molly” and “Healthier Folks,” standouts from the album, came to life at Great Scott with unorthodox rhythms, bouts of tasteful noise, and intriguing chord progressions.

On “Healthier Folks,” Ellen Kempner’s breathy vocals sounded part Elliott Smith, part Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz. Much has been made of the connection between Dupuis and Kempner. And while, yes, they are roommates and the influence is undeniable, Palehound is a different animal: more melodic, loose, and calm than Speedy’s mathy, angular dissonance.

But somewhat unfortunately, Palehound is at their best when they’re boring. Like the title track “Dry Food,” Palehound’s 90s-tinged sadcore offerings, while very good, are not exactly exciting in the flesh. As the back of the sold-out venue talked over Kempner’s touching lines (“You made beauty a monster to me/So I’m kissing all the ugly things I see”), any energy that there was seemed to disperse.

On more spirited tracks, however, Kempner’s noteworthy songwriting failed to shine through with a band that just wasn’t tight enough. On “Cinnamon,” Kempner’s seeming effort at a jangly Mac Demarco-esque track – only better than Mac – tentative guitar licks and rhythmic aberrations led to a slightly unnecessary post-song apology.

It may have just been nerves, and understandably so. After the show – literally as soon as they walked off stage – Palehound embarked on a new tour supporting Bully, starting in Asheville, North Carolina. That meant a drive through blizzard conditions. But as Kempner said pseudo-philosophically, “Sometimes if you want to get to the beach you have to drive through the blizzard first.”

As Palehound exited rapidly, making a beeline for their van, Torres fans slithered to the front. It was an unlikely group of young professionals, some coming straight from work, and styrofoam Dunkin’ cups and aluminum ‘Gansett cans intermingled accordingly on bar ledges and tables.

Torres made her way to the mic and conversation lulled. “We couldn’t believe how well the parent-teacher conference went,” said one dude to another as Torres introduced herself, her bleached-blonde hair and all-black outfit consciously clashing.

Torres is Georgia-born Mackenzie Scott, whose album Sprinter has risen, if unintentionally, with the 90s alt-rock nostalgia du jour. With subtle southern roots, precocious lyrics, and fleeting moments of industrial darkness, her accessible indie-rock has drawn comparisons to Garbage and PJ Harvey.

 

Her 21st-century goth image matched her music better live than on record. Ambient guitar noise and new wave synths played more prominent a role, as her erudite lyrics spilled out over skin-tight instrumentals.

The only faltering came from Scott herself, whose guitar was well distorted in part to mask moments of mediocrity. But mostly it was aesthetic, not functional. From the second guitar came cool industrial ambience, courtesy of effects and an ebow, a needed addition to Scott’s sometimes-sparse guitar.

On “New Skin,” what was a standard indie-pop song came with shades of new wave. A four-to-the-floor beat opened the song before synth accompanied. “Cowboy Guilt,” another standout from Sprinter, was also slightly reinterpreted, with a krauty one-note bass line on synth accompanied by harmonizing guitars.     

Like Palehound before, Torres had moments of monotony. On songs like “A Proper Polish Welcome” or “Son, You Are No Island,” thoughtful lyrics were only accessible to those who could focus on otherwise tedious and unremarkable compositions.

But on “Strange Hellos,” the punky chorus (“What’s mine isn’t really yours/But I hope you find what you’re looking for”) did enough to capture the crowd’s attention. Here Torres proved that rock star dreams don’t have to die at adulthood – yuppies of all ages and genders screeched along to cries of “I was all for being real/But if I don’t believe then no one will,” with reckless abandon and disregard for their day jobs.   

On the last song of the evening, “The Harshest Light,” Torres played rock star herself, bucking her head back, mouth ajar after each line of the chorus, the roar of the synth seeming to breath on her behalf.

It was performative, self-conscious, and orchestrated. But that’s what it means to be a rock star, right?

Strange Hellos: Torres & Palehound
Pros
  • Torres' meaningful lyrics & strong singing
  • Allston-locals Palehound
Cons
  • Moments of monotony
  • Some sloppy playin'
6.8Overall Score

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