Can you be kind? With this half-whispered question, Oliver Kalb opens the new Bellows album, Fist & Palm. It’s a frail assertion that things aren’t going all that well, that this album has a subject and that subject has committed a betrayal.
What follows is a series of songs that attempt to answer that initial question. Fist & Palm is a concept album revolving around a broken friendship, and all 11 tracks probe at the microfractures that caused it to break in the first place. Kalb evaluates these tiny schisms through his singular brand of orchestral pop, creating huge arrangements to score the small dramas in his lyrics. If you’re to endow the album’s cover with any great meaning, it’s helpful to see it as a jumbled road map: a series of pit-stops along the way to the end of a friendship that once meant so much. It’s an honest, wide-open pop album that sounds like nothing Bellows has previously released, but in order to admire Kalb’s achievement, it’s important to go back to the beginning.
Bellows began when Kalb was a student at Bard College in the Hudson River Valley. It was there that he met Gabrielle Smith (Eskimeaux), who introduced Kalb to the music of Phil Elverum. Kalb had only played in rock bands up until then, and that moment proved to be a transformative one, as it has for so many self-produced indie projects of the past decade.
“The Microphones and Mount Eerie were this life-changing musical discovery,” Kalb tells me over coffee at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Reggio, a few blocks from where he went to high school. “[Elverum’s] songs work according to pop dynamic progressions but seemed so mysterious and foreign to me… nothing on [those albums] sounded the way an instrument would naturally sound.”
With that DIY aesthetic in mind, Kalb started recording songs in his bedroom, eventually self-releasing Bellows’ debut LP, As If To Say I Hate Daylight, in the summer of 2011, and embarking on tour with the Epoch collective, of which he is still a member. (The album was eventually re-released by Burst And Bloom, a small independent record label based in New England.)
As If To Say I Hate Daylight is a dusty series of folk songs largely constructed on acoustic guitar that Smith, Felix Walworth (Told Slant), and Henry Crawford (Small Wonder) all contributed to. It sounds a lot like the isolated, beautiful world it was born of: Sweeping coming-of-age stories mingle with vague illustrations of the natural environment that staged them. It’s simply rendered and quiet in places, noisy and commanding in others. In fact, it’s quite easy to hear some of Elverum’s Pacific Northwest echoed in Kalb’s Hudson River Valley — the choruses crash and crumble against existential refrains that sound semi-sweet in comparison. These are songs so embedded in a sense of place that they lend themselves easily to metaphor: misty mountaintops, crunchy leaves in late autumn, snow so white it blinds you.
But Kalb moved away from the Hudson River Valley after graduating. He tried living in various places before eventually finding himself back in New York City, where he was born and raised. Bellows’ sophomore album, Blue Breath, came out in 2014, and was recorded during that nomadic period, “in five bedrooms across long distances,” as his Bandcamp describes it. You can hear that transience in Blue Breath, an album that spans emotional distance as readily as it does physical. “Era of losing skin, showing up late just to make you interested/ Walls — leaning on the toilet seat/ Making diamonds of dreams that don’t come to me,” Kalb’s spoken word-like narration surfaces nearing the end of the title track over a cavernous, near-sinister beat. It’s the first song on Blue Breath that approaches the unfamiliar — a glimpse of what’s to come.
Neither of these two albums quite compare to Bellows’ forthcoming Fist & Palm. In retrospect, they sound like the slow build-up to this point, the album that he’s been wanting to release for five-plus years. Like all Bellows releases, Kalb recorded the bulk of Fist & Palm at home, fabricating songs and fleshing them out as fully as he could before passing them off to other members of the Epoch collective for contributions. James Wilcox helped Kalb pick out new sounds to accompany or replace his humbly-rendered MIDI tracks, and through that process, Kalb learned about quantization. You can really hear that in all of the album’s drum tracks; they tower and expand, often taking precedent over Kalb’s lyrics. Overall, those drums create a palpable friction, which is appropriate for an album that’s entirely driven by a state of tension.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on “Bully.” It’s a song built on awkward silence, the push-and-pull of a power dynamic finally come to a head. “Bully” is Fist & Palm’s centerpiece, the moment in this album’s memory-fueled story that gives listeners a sense of its true purpose: self-reckoning, not reconciliation. “You couldn’t be my friend all last year/ I couldn’t be there for you either,” Kalb sings toward the end. “You had to black out on some liquor/ To not confront the basic idea/ We feel the same thing just as awful.” There are allusions to substance abuse throughout, small details that pepper the album’s narrative and attribute them to a specific place and time. It’s relatable in its specificity: a friend hell-bent on self-destruction with no one left to turn to. Those details give “Bully” life, they remind us of friends and exes and family members who we’ve collectively fallen out with because something just wasn’t working anymore. This is not a hopeful song — Kalb eventually settles on a gaping realization that he “was nothing more than a bully” — and that’s kind of the point of Fist & Palm. Sometimes there’s no fix, sometimes things stay broken. But we have to try to piece together those shards, honor them, before giving up.
Listen to “Bully” and read a Q&A with Kalb below.
STEREOGUM: I read on Bandcamp that Fist & Palm is an album about a friendship, or it’s about a friendship falling apart. Did you write all of these songs intending to make it that way, or did it all just come together as such?
OLIVER KALB: It was something that had been stewing for awhile. A feeling that I wanted to address — the dissolving of this relationship — but do it in a way that wasn’t based on like, expressing blame or looking at the relationship as something that had been a single person’s fault. The deterioration. So it was important to me making the record that all of the songs had kind of a feeling of dialogue to them. The song “Bully” is literally a duet, or a conversation between two people. And every time there’s blame put forth, there’s also a sense that the same level of responsibility falls on me. All kinds of music that addresses the conflicts in relationships does so in a way that feels very finger pointing, like: “This is pain that YOU caused, and it’s YOUR fault that I feel this way!” That’s a really tired way of looking at things, and I wanted to make a record that looks at multiple sides of the same issue.
Both perspectives coalesce on “Bully.” The album takes this extreme, downward plummet after that track; “Bully” is the climax in terms of possibility for resolution of the conflict, and the album after that falls into more of, like, a desperation. Or a feeling that the degree to which things have been screwed up is permanent, as much as I would have liked to fix them.
STEREOGUM: It’s so different to hear a pop album about a friendship, when so much pop music is about romantic relationships and sexual relationships.
KALB: There are ways that friendships can deteriorate so much further than like, romantic relationships, because romantic relationships are something that we see as having a definitive end. When it goes bad, it’s clear that you just break up with someone. With a friendship, there are minor ways you can allow someone to hurt you that can go on for years without being confronted, because it feels casual. So in some ways, while making this album I was trying to dredge up little moments of hurt that were caused in the moment that felt ordinary. But I think there are ways in day-to-day life that people hurt each other that are hard to even talk about or confront.
Breakup albums are a thing that’s been really done. I definitely love a lot of them, and I know there are really intense emotions that can be expressed through that, but I don’t know, it feels almost like a tired point. “We were in love, now it’s over.” There’s something different about someone who you relied on to take a more full place in your life then just a romantic or sexual partner. You know, to be together through many phases of life.
STEREOGUM: There’s a universality to pop music — it’s digestible and danceable — so choosing to make a pop album about something so unique to one experience is an interesting dichotomy.
KALB: That tension is definitely present on the record. One of the reasons I love pop music is that it’s so clear about the emotion that it’s trying to express. When you hear a pop song you immediately think: “This reminds me of being in love,” or, “This reminds me of dancing.” There’s kind of a simplicity to the way it’s expressing emotions and the record I made was so based on complexities and grey areas of relationships that the musical aspect of it being as simple as possible or based off of musical tropes that people could identify as relatable and really follow in a more visceral way, rather than making the album weirder musically.
STEREOGUM: Was this conflict happening as you were writing these songs?
KALB: There was this month last year when a friend of mine, David Combs (of Spoonboy) was setting up this huge song-a-day project with pretty much every songwriter he knew, and there was this big Facebook group where everyone was supposed to post their songs. I’d never done something like that, and I was working at the stockroom of this clothing store at the time. So it was kind of this frantic rush to do a song, go to work, and come home. Often there were shows and stuff I had to play in or go to. That was the busiest time of my life, but I feel like it made writing the songs easier. When you’re more active in your life it almost becomes simpler to be creative — you don’t second-guess ideas as much. You just kind of roll with it. So, I wrote 31 songs for that and I think seven of them ended up on the album.
“Orange Juice” was the second one. That was written basically at Palisades, I think it was during a Small Wonder show. I think I had been at work all day and had to come up with a song really quickly if I wanted to do one that day so I was at this show and just did it as a voice recording and then when I went home. I plugged in this really simple beat, and just sang the song over it. And that’s the song basically — just the beat and the melody. Some embellishments were added later, but that one came out pretty fully-formed, and the lyrics are pretty simple. It’s just a pop song and it reminds me a lot of the original voice memo.
STEREOGUM: As poppy as this album is, there are moments that remind me of minstrel music in certain ways.
KALB: My mom came from an Irish Catholic household, and she used to sing me a lot of traditional songs. I respond to folk music in a really nostalgic way, or go back to the tropes of European folk and traditional music a lot. I don’t listen to music like that at all. The music I listen to is mostly pop and hip-hop, but there’s an intersection of folk and pop that I’m really interested in exploring. My inclinations with melodies come from folk music mostly, but my impulses with production come from contemporary music.
My one regret when it comes to the early Bellows music is it’s so based on acoustic guitar. That just comes from it being the only instrument in my room, because I never record in a studio. So usually it’s like, a computer, an acoustic guitar, and maybe a MIDI keyboard is all I’m working with. Those early Bellows recordings used acoustic guitar just ’cause that was the only instrument at my disposal, but maybe that wasn’t actually the best instrument to like explore the musical ideas fully, or something? ?The early Bellows music is based on a lot of folk tropes that I’ve been able to move past with each successive album.
STEREOGUM: There’s a lot of New York on this album. What’s your relationship like to this city now that you’re settled here?
KALB: In the beginning, I thought of Bellows as a rural band. On the first record I was very much responding to the woods and the Hudson Valley as a space and kind of the weird dark mystery of walking around by yourself, getting lost in your thoughts, trying to access the vastness of that space and sort of like… I don’t know. It felt almost like I wanted to wash away the person that had grown up in New York City pop-rock bands. Manhattan played a huge role in the way that I grew up, but there was a time in my life in the first year of college that I wanted to not be that person. When I eventually settled in New York I found that I actually really love it here and have such a strong connection to this place that I no longer want to run away from. So, in a lot of ways this record was about rediscovering the city as a place that could be a home for my art. And you know, live through New York City in a way that I had wanted to channel the Hudson Valley in my older stuff. Even though Fist & Palm isn’t specifically about New York, I’ve definitely gotten to a place in my life where I really love the city. I want to live here and use it as a space that can create a world for me.
Bellows tour dates:
09/30 Brooklyn, NY @ Shea Stadium #
10/22 Portsmouth, NH @ 3S Artspace ^
10/24 Toronto, ON @ Silver Dollar Room ^
10/25 Lakewood, OH @ Mahall’s ^
10/26 Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen ^
10/27 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry ^
10/28 Omaha, NE @ Milk Run ^
10/30 Denver, CO @ Lost Lake Lounge ^
11/01 Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court ^
11/02 Boise, ID @ Neurolux ^
11/03 Walla Walla, WA @ Billsville West ^
11/04 Vancouver, BC @ 333 Clark ^
11/05 Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project ^
11/06 Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios #
11/07 Eugene, OR @ The Boreal ^
11/09 San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop ^
11/11 Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater ^
11/12 Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge ^
11/14 Austin, TX @ The Mohawk ^
11/15 Dallas, TX @ Club Dada ^
11/16 Jackson, MS @ Big Sleepy’s ^
11/17 Nashville, TN @ The End ^
11/18 Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade ^
11/20 Durham, NC @ The Pinhook ^
11/21 Washington, DC @ DC9 ^
11/22 Philadelphia, PA @ PhilaMOCA ^
11/23 Somerville, MA @ ONCE Somerville ^
# Record Release Show w/ Sharpless, Sitcom and Paper Bee
^ w/ PWR BTTM & Lisa Prank
Fist & Palm is out 9/30 via Double Double Whammy. Pre-order it here.