Palberta Find Harmony In The Chaos
Picture it: a post-quarantine, early autumn afternoon, sun shining in waves across rolling green hills. Reunited friends, both human and animal, frolic together in piles of crisp, golden leaves. It’s not a dream, but the sweet, pastoral setting of “The Cow,” a song from Palberta’s fifth and latest album, Palberta5000.
Or is it?
“‘Cow’ is about going to the farm with your friends, milking the cow, and then everyone drinking the milk,” Lily Konigsberg says matter-of-factly in our very 2020 video chat about the record, out early next year. Her bandmates, Nina Ryser and Ani Ivry-Block, disagree.
“Guys,” Ryser counters, “Tell me if I’m wrong, but isn’t ‘Cow’ about leaving your house and seeing [Ivry-Block and Konigsberg’s beloved cat] Monster? I remember having a conversation with Lily when we were writing [about how] he’s a big boy and sometimes looks like a baby cow.”
“It’s a song about friendship, to me,” quips Ivry-Block.
“I think about it as being in love,” Konigsberg adds, somewhat contradicting even herself.
For yours truly, not a member of Palberta, “Cow” means something different entirely. Polished and precise, its sleek, shuffling drums recall an icy account of the end of a relationship — that feeling when you place your hand on someone’s chest, sense their “rumbling internal mess,” and know that their heart is still beating, but no longer in tandem with your own.
As with many Palberta songs, though, the meaning doesn’t matter all that much. Palberta comprises three individual women, but together, they’re more like one singular being. Remove one part from this magical equation, and there’s no meaning left.
For Konigsberg, Ryser, and Ivry-Block, who met at upstate New York’s Bard College and formed Palberta in 2013, playing together involves a series of happy accidents. Near-perfect three-part harmonies are simply a natural occurrence (“When we’re in the car together, we’ll start harmonizing about something we’re thinking about,” says Konigsberg), and experimentation and improvisation are what give the songs their distinct, lawless flavor.
“[Songwriting] is different for each of us, because when we come up with lyrics, we can’t hear each other,” Konigsberg explains. “Then we come together, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is what I was singing.'”
Both live and in recordings, the close-knit trio famously swap instruments without missing a beat. On record, their bright, organic harmonies blend seamlessly, making it impossible to tell who is who. While all three members boast other projects — including Konigsberg’s Lily & Horn Horse, Ivry-Block’s Shimmer, and Ryser’s multiple solo releases — there’s a potent chemistry in Palberta that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
“We all have an instinct for harmony, which I now realize is not a very common thing,” admits Ivry-Block. “[Palberta] was destiny.”
For the past several years, Palberta have been omnipresent fixtures in the Brooklyn DIY scene, churning out buoyant, brilliant punk releases of equal parts fun and fury. The band have toured the US and abroad several times over, but now that life — and the music industry — as we know it has ground to a halt, they’ve been forced apart while releasing their most cohesive album to date.
“With this album, we tried harder to collaborate on lyrics,” Ryser says. “A lot of the lyrics reflect feelings of apprehension and confusion… feelings that exist in relationships in general, whether you’re going through a breakup or not.”
Part of this newfound thematic focus included new experiments in elongating songs or jamming for longer to explore unknown twists and turns. As a result, the already tight unit has never sounded more like one.
“I was going through a pretty big breakup at the time [of writing the album],” Ivry-Block admits. “But I think many times, if we’re referencing a relationship, it’s the relationship between us. We’re three best friends. We’ve gone through a lot together, we’ve toured together, and we’ve experienced so many different emotions together — good, bad, in between.”
Palberta5000 presents the tumultuous trio reimagined, cutting through chaos to deliver smoother, more melodic bites of pristine post-punk. On previous records, they’ve flourished in anarchy, but here, Palberta’s oddball perspective sharpens, crafting a clear narrative that unfolds like a series of diorama-esque vignettes.
For the listener, it’s easy to close your eyes and see yourself in any one of these carefully-constructed, impeccably vivid scenes — the lonely, tree-lined roads of “Red Antz,” the tear-soaked kitchen floor of “Summer Sun.” The propulsive “Fragile Place” shifts the setting toward the internal, utilizing hypnotic repetition to weave a post-heartbreak cautionary tale (“Don’t step too close,” a trio of glassy voices warns). The album’s lead single, “Something In The Way,” offers criticism of a “manufactured dream” through soft, sunny vocals, knotty guitars, and bouncing beats reminiscent of classic art-punk bands like the Raincoats and Delta 5. But it’s still a wild ride, from the sparse, groovy freak-out “All Over My Face” to “Eggs n’ Bac,” a hearty and rollicking ode to breakfast.
Palberta5000 concludes with the sunny “Before I Got Here,” perhaps the band’s poppiest song ever thanks to ’90s girl-group-style vocal exchanges and a perky, driving beat. The delightful new vibe fits like a glove for a reason.
“I kind of only listen to pop music,” says Konigsberg, who cites Ariana Grande and Drake as some of her favorite contemporary artists. Justin Bieber, Liz Phair, and Avril Lavigne are all among the band’s collective influences. While they all appreciate the “ear candy” of radio pop, they’re far more partial to artists like Rihanna, who aim to push the genre’s boundaries.
“Something that I find frustrating about mainstream pop is that there isn’t enough variety in the vocals,” says Ryser. “I wish it was more accepted for female singers to have more subtlety and less polish.”
As far as the music they’re making with Palberta5000 and beyond, it’ll never fit neatly into a box, and that’s preferred. “The way we play and our production will always be weirder than mainstream pop allows,” Ivry Block notes.
“To me, this is the most accessible album we’ve made, but it’s probably not accessible to most people,” Ryser says. “But we love three-part harmonies and a good hook.”
When asked what the probability might be of a weird female pop band ever making it onto the radio, Palberta’s take is, unfortunately, all too familiar to women musicians everywhere.
“There have definitely been shows where dudes have come up to one of us and said, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe you’re so good at that,'” says Konigsberg. “It’s totally still thought of us as a unique and exciting thing to see a woman slay an instrument. I don’t know when that will change.”
In addition to waiting on Rihanna’s latest blessing to drop — “Is Rihanna listening??” — the bandmates and best friends look forward to seeing more of each other as soon as possible. While this year’s break from touring has afforded more freedom in their work and personal schedules, they’re hoping the change isn’t too permanent. “As soon as we can play shows again, we’ll be doing that,” Konigsberg assures.
“I think when we get together and write music there’s a specific thing happening that doesn’t happen anywhere else,” says Ryser.
“It feels extremely natural,” Konigsberg adds. “So when people ask, ‘What are your influences?’ it’s kind of hard to answer.”
For Palberta — a band all too adept at unearthing strange beauty from the most peculiar places — outside forces will always mean less than the influence they find in each other.
01 “No Way”
02 “Big Bad Want”
03 “Never To Go”
04 “The Cow”
05 “Fragile Place”
06 “In Again”
08 “Red Antz”
09 “Summer Sun”
10 “Eggs n’ Bac'”
11 “Corner Store”
12 “I’m Z’done”
13 “Something In The Way”
14 “The Way That You Do”
15 “All Over My”
16 “Before I Got Here”
Palberta5000 is out 1/22 on Wharf Cat. Pre-order it here.