The Indie-Rock Duo Bachelor Finds Comfort, but Not Escape, in the ’90s

Bachelor is an indie-rock alliance that makes perfect sense. Melina Duterte, who records as Jay Som, and Ellen Kempner, who leads Palehound, met — inevitably — on tour, sharing a double bill in 2017. That booking recognized how compatible they’d be: two breathy-voiced songwriters whose music can be fragile or bruising, offering both vulnerability and resolve.

Kempner and Duterte got together to record one song, “Sand Angel,” in 2018. Then, in January 2020 — just before the pandemic shutdown — they rented an Airbnb house for two weeks, moved in some equipment and made the rest of an album together, quickly and almost entirely by themselves. On Bachelor’s album, “Doomin’ Sun,” Kempner and Duterte brought out the best in each other.

In the songs they wrote together, satisfaction often stays just out of reach. They look at desire, estrangement, insecurity, pop fandom, shoplifting and, in the album’s title song, climate change. And they sing like sisters who know each other’s secrets.

Time and personnel were limited; the only other musicians were James Krivchenia from Big Thief, who plays drums on three songs, and Annie Truscott from Chastity Belt, who provides a sighing string arrangement on “Doomin’ Sun.” Yet nothing sounds rushed or constrained. Each song builds its own soundscape, by turns transparent, dense, introverted and clamorous.

With Palehound, Kempner usually recreates a fairly realistic guitar band in the studio, while Jay Som has largely been Duterte’s solo bedroom-pop construction, deploying ever-changing combinations of instruments, programming and effects. But the two songwriters aren’t that far apart. Both of them often hark back to women’s indie-rock from the 1990s like Belly, the Breeders and Liz Phair; Kempner and Duterte were born in 1994, when that music was new. And both are equally at home whispering or blasting. They will be playing their first live concert on June 10 as a livestream, Doomin’ Sun Fest, alongside dozens of other musicians including Soccer Mommy, Julien Baker, Courtney Barnett, Vagabon, Sylvan Esso and Tune-Yards.

Bachelor’s songs can erupt at any moment. In “Stay in the Car,” it watches admiringly as a woman emerges frantically from a market laden with “plastic bags digging into wrists” and leaps into the double-parked Chevy where her boyfriend is waiting. The couple “slam the trunk, peel off,” making an escape that’s propelled by a sudden, Pixies-like swarm of guitars.

In “Anything at All,” Duterte and Kempner sing in unison about trying to fight off an irresistible attraction: “How do I know if I’m caving in?” At first, there’s just a lumpy bass line and a laconic drum beat behind their matter-of-fact voices. But by the end, multiple distorted guitars have muscled their way in, just as temptation has steamrollered any second thoughts. “Moon” and “Sick of Spiraling” find a quieter intimacy, with separated lovers confessing their loneliness and uncertainty amid patiently twined guitars.

Bachelor’s studio inventiveness shows up in large gestures and small ones. “Spin Out” mingles recrimination and mourning — “you’ve stolen my best friend” — in an imposing blur of guitars and Mellotron-like keyboards, marching slowly toward acceptance. Subtle effects often simmer in the background to tinker with the psychology the songs. Loops of guitar noise sow disquiet behind the acoustic guitar picking in “Went Out Without You,” as Kempner sings about trying to pretend she’s not obsessed with someone. Buzzing amps put an edge on the sleepy lust of “Sand Angel,” while a staticky hiss and edgeless guitar tones vastly expand the perceived space of “Aurora,” an enigmatic piano hymn with a chorus that has Kempner repeating, “the blood, the stream.”

There’s nostalgic comfort in the ways Bachelor looks back to 1990s rock, and Duterte and Kempner project a heartwarming unity; they’ve obviously listened closely to each other. But they haven’t found escapist bliss. In “Doomin’ Sun,” Kempner and Duterte sing as lovers who face global warming and “the end of the Earth.” Acoustic guitar picking accompanies them as they hold each other, gaze at a red sky and muse, “At least it’s warm, at least we’re young.” For Bachelor, pleasure and solace are fragile and temporary, to be savored because they won’t last long.

Bachelor
“Doomin’ Sun”
(Polyvinyl)

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