Palette Knife balances humor, heart on ‘Ponderosa Snake House’
The pop-punk trio performs at Junior’s Bar & Grille on Saturday
Though Palette Knife’s most recent album, Ponderosa Snake House and the Chamber of Bullshit (Take This to Heart Records), was written prior to the pandemic, there are lines scattered throughout that sound shaped by this late COVID era, frontman Alec Licata singing: “Unmotivated to leave the house”; “Relearning to find comfort in intimacy.”
While these lines might ring particularly true for many currently struggling to reconnect with society following more than a year of stay-at-home regulations, within the context of the record these melancholic passages more directly reflect the headspace of a narrator still reeling from a breakup.
It's a relationship that erodes over the first half of Ponderosa Snake House, the narrator struggling to figure out if the two can navigate a particularly brutal rocky patch. “What does this mean for our plotline?” Licata sings on “The Only Difference Between Smough and Ornstein Is Press Coverage.” The record’s back end, in turn, pair’s the band’s bouncing pop-punk instrumentals with sometimes dour admissions, Licata’s narrator attempting to to navigate the world alone while carrying on beneath a depressive storm cloud.
“I tried once to hold someone but I felt nothing then slept for a year,” the singer offers on “Candy Wife Wears the Pants.” “Now I don’t try to hold anyone out of fear that I might be gutted for good.”
Fortunately, however, the closing track, “Fullmetal Crickets,” introduces a degree of closure, with Licata’s narrator finally admitting that healing might be possible. “We could cauterize in time,” Licata sings atop a track that downshifts from a caffeinated, pogoing intro to a more muted, atmospheric final passage that feels like reality settling in.
Licata, for his part, said he still struggles with the idea of exploring busted romances within Palette Knife (a previous EP dealt with long-distance relationships), referring to these types of heartbroken songs as “a little trite” and maybe a little too common within the pop-punk genre. So while there are plenty of times the band does play it straight (see: “Candy Wife Wears the Pants”), most Palette Knife songs contain humorous lines meant to break the tension, the musical equivalent of Jim rolling his eyes at the camera in an episode of “The Office.”
“Humor lets us wink at the camera, and then we can still have those moments of introspection,” said Licata, who will join bassist Chris McGrath and drummer Aaron Queener in concert at Junior’s Bar & Grille (234 King Ave.) at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 26. “It’s like, we want to joke around, but also we do care. … When you come across that line that feels good to sing, and it’s also clever, and maybe a little funny. That’s the sweet spot for me.”
Licata traced this ongoing balancing act to his early obsession with Ben Folds Five, another group that managed to set sincere, heartrending tracks (“Brick”) alongside more joke-laden turns (“Uncle Walter”). “They were probably the most formative band, for me,” he said, “and influenced my songwriting in really subtle ways that I almost didn’t realize.”
Early on, Licata leaned more heavily into earnestness, describing his first songwriting efforts as “super sappy” attempts to mimic Dashboard Confessional. “But you have to make art to get good,” Licata said, and laughed. “One of my favorite quotes is something like, ‘You have a million bad drawings in you, so get started.’ And I definitely got my million bad songs out. And I’m still writing bad songs, which is a good sign, because it means I’m still learning.”
Musically, the band, which started playing together in 2018, has gradually galvanized around the sometimes divergent tastes of its three members. A batch of in-progress tracks, for example, weaves elements of artists and genres currently favored by Licata (Japanese math rock circa 2010), McGrath (shoegaze and dream-pop) and Queener (electronica) into its usual pop-punk tapestry.
“My philosophy has always been that the more music you listen to, the better the music you’re going to write,” Licata said. “It puts more ideas on your palette, I guess.”
Intended or not, the veiled reference to the band’s name is precisely what Licata hopes for the band’s best songs: It’s a little clever, and a little funny, and it still manages to ring entirely true.