Palm’s fourth studio release has them in a beautiful state of molting, their older voices shedding a bit to make way for a MIDI palette and scrupulous production. This direction has been in the works for most of the Philly band’s career, the raw beginnings of “Ostrich Vacation” and their first full-length, “Trading Basics,” making way for a similar sound on this past summer’s “Shadow Expert,” albeit more polished and punchy. “Rock Island” has them going further into the studio, not only working with MIDI triggers on drums and guitar, but quantization and other electronic music-influenced approaches, adding a whole new dimension of complexity to their already intricate, chopped and screwed compositions.
The MIDI drums squirm and jitter before making way for guitar, now singing with vocal-esque synthesized tone via a MIDI pickup, as opposed to the twangy roughness of past releases. It is a bold first few seconds, the band immediately showing that this is not going to sound like their first album or even the recent EP. I remember hearing this opening track, “Pearly,” as a single immediately after it came out and being skeptical of the new sound. But after having listened to “Rock Island” in its entirety several times and seeing them tour a form of this music, I realized that there is a strange warmness to Palm’s music—not just this album, but all of it—that ties it together and pulls the listener in.
Yes, the introduction of MIDI and lots of processing is extremely present—especially when one guitar sounds like goofy yet endearing steel drums—but it is still the same old Palm, playing with the constraints time has on music and the act of songwriting. Even though there is that familiarity within this album, it is by no means stale. I could hear them chipping away at a spectrum of colors and progressing their already distinct mystical way of composing. While creating “Rock Island” was time-consuming stuff, as detailed in numerous descriptions and interviews, Palm is nowhere near slowing down, their momentum staying controlled yet explorative and enjoyable, for the band and listeners alike.
Live at The Cactus Club, February 21
While this column is Palm-based, I would be remiss not to at least share a few thoughts about the two openers at their show in Milwaukee’s Cactus Club—Dorth Nakota and The Spirit of the Beehive, the former being a local band and the latter also from Philly and sharing the tour. Dorth Nakota, a heavy punk outfit, took to the stage with a darkness of low, active strings, drums that never let up and vocals and sax creating lines of unsettling harmonies. Unfortunately, they do not yet have a recording beyond one demo, and to know that I will have only that live experience to hold onto until an EP release in the next several months or so made the show a special one. While also rooted in loud rock, The Spirit of the Beehive ventured into dreamier and more jangly realms, using layers of effects on guitars, vocals and samples. Their wide range of influences was apparent, and the often laid back, psychedelic grooves were relaxing after the dense intensity of the openers. The three bands flowed well together, producing an experience I enjoyed immensely in a more complex way than looking at them individually.
While the first two bands grooved in a fairly regular structure (mostly four-four time), they set the audience up well to move and dance to Palm’s anything-but-regular time. While their records have ample life and energy in them, seeing them live was an entirely different experience, despite the music being very similar. Especially with the new material that had been so meticulously produced, their live sound had a free-flowing quality to it, and heavy interaction. Much of “Rock Island” was tracked one by one, making it exhilarating to see the four build the music all together, standing fairly still, but gesturing wildly with their punctuated sounds. The concert also took on a meditative side, with longer instrumental sections that repeated, changing ever so slightly or not at all, lulling me into a state of calmness even though it was loud and, at the surface, abrasive. That is the peculiar thing about Palm, especially live—they can come off as comforting and familiar yet also inaccessible and, at points, even overwhelming. But the latter description is not a negative criticism, nor was it as true when immersed in their set. They create their own paradoxical, dense world and invite others into it—many graciously accept, as they should—but it is easy to see they would be nearly as content just playing for themselves.
It is a band the listener has to work for, and the fruits of the labor are well worth it, especially in a time where it can be difficult to find songwriters and composers that are doing new things in this tradition that has seemed to go everywhere at this point. I have said it to many before and I will say it again: Palm is one of the best rock bands I have heard in the past few years, and experiencing them—either live or through their records—is an experience that will change your perspective on what a song can be, how it interacts with itself and others and what it viscerally does.