By Eileen Marshall
Palm’s new EP, Shadow Expert, opens with a conversation. Two guitars, one in each speaker, take turns talking, proving the song’s title, “Walkie Talkie,” apt – to a point. Because then the guitars start playing together, no longer conversing but not really talking over each other either; they’re locked in step, and yet they seem to be doing their own thing.
Such tensions and apparent contradictions define the Philadelphia four-piece’s music. It’s a carefully-choreographed dance masquerading as chaos, tightly controlled but always feeling on the brink of collapse. Time signatures tug at one another, and the guitars, played by Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt (who also share vocal duties), cascade and squawk on the line between melody and discord. Jazzy, syncopated bass and drums, contributed by Gerasimos Livitsanos and Hugo Stanley respectively, complicate and energize, serving less as anchors than as stormy seas pitching the songs along. Atop the driving and sometimes harsh swell of the instrumentation are draped dreamy, droning vocals that conjure Animal Collective. These serve more as instruments than as carriers for lyrics, but when the lyrics do come forward, they join simplicity and surprise in a way befitting of the music. See for example the emphatic chorus to “Ankles,” from 2015’s Trading Basics: “I don’t need you anymore / I don’t need you any more than you need me.”
Excepting the occasional splash of industrial noise or drum machine patter, Palm works in traditional rock instrumentation. But there’s a mechanical quality to their music, a faltering regularity, like the thrum of a factory where something hits a snag and recovers itself. The way the guitars follow and refract one another suggests the manic flutter of shadows thrown by strobe lights, shadows you could almost trip over. But the band doesn’t trip, or if they do, they catch themselves. (Perhaps this is what it means to be a “shadow expert.”)
Live, the seeming effortlessness with which the four hold everything together is striking. They skillfully execute tempo shifts requiring a high degree of coordination, all while hardly looking at each other. It’s almost as though, rather than controlling the music, the music was controlling them. At times the band’s members – Alpert in particular – match the music with similarly frenzied and jerking bodily movement, as though possessed by some sort of fritzing robot spirit (an oxymoron, but, as we’ve seen, Palm trades in those). Watch their Audiotree session to see what I mean – and why their live show is definitely worth checking out.