There’s a famous quote by Lou Reed, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Not many have stuck to that—Lou Reed included—but it still gets to the heart of the kind of music he made with the Velvet Underground and their successors. Relying on few chords, they use noisiness, tension-mounting repetitions, and other unusual means of building complexity to produce music that is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Palm’s debut full-length, Trading Basics, feels like a weird descendant of that. Though the end product is quite different, it is similarly the kind of music that uses simplicity as a foundation for experimentation, not varying anything too wildly in a single voice (even if they often use more than three chords), but intertwining all of the voices to create explosive, surreal music that manages to be both elusive and completely mesmerizing. And it sounds anything but simple.
Starting with the all-instrumental “Time Times Three," Palm sets the tone for fuzzed-out rock that starts small and builds, laying down one repetitive line on a distorted guitar and adding layers of noise on top of it. “Crank,” a more energetic song, demonstrates the way they harness those repetitions and their disruptions to gently poke the nervous system. The guitars swing between screeching lines based off of two notes, switching only after we’ve become a little comfortable. When the swing oscillates at weird frequencies, Eve Alpert’s voice—an out-of-focus, low chant—holds the wonderful cacophony together.
It’s hard to believe, then, that all the members of Palm are relatively untrained. Alpert and Kasra Kurt played together in high school in London, but never pursued formal training or bothered to play more than a few songs. At Bard College, they enlisted Kurt’s roommate to play bass, even though he had never picked it up before. (The fourth member, drummer Hugo Stanley, played in the band Big Neck Police). Usually such risks—wonky and shifting time signatures, odd intervals, dissonance—require studied calculation, but their unstudied approach apparently benefits from raw talent and creative (perhaps somewhat twisted) minds —and a history of listening to Sonic Youth in high school.
There’s a moment in the penultimate song, “Garden,” at around 1:11, after a long, warm intro of a single guitar riff and singing, after the bass and drums have dropped, when the bright guitar sound switches the beat that it falls on. It’s the smallest touch, but it packs a punch. So much of Trading Basics is like this: the repeated feeling of getting the rug pulled out from under you, only to discover that you love that sensation.