Small Scales Up: Bellows Goes Pop

Post Author: Geoff Nelson

Oliver Kalb of the Brooklyn band Bellows sees small things the clearest. “Small details sort of are my whole life,” Kalb tells me with less than a month to go before the release of his third LP, and first for Double Double Whammy, Fist & Palm. Though his attention to detail in songwriting and recording is similarly impressive, this reference to smallness refers to the album’s narrative. The record’s lyrics have Kalb gathering marginalia and minutiae – the way subway lines intersect below the streets of New York, the orange juice he drank from a tonic water bottle, the granular panic of being too anxious to leave a bathroom, the brutalist beauty of the Myrtle-Broadway stop – with the curator spinning all his collected nouns into something else entirely. The world becomes a world.

Despite the lyrical smallness, Fist & Palm will be Bellows’ poppiest and most well-received release to date. Emerging from the Brooklyn music collective The Epoch, which comprises other bespoke pop all-stars like Eskimeaux, Told Slant, Florist, and Small Wonder, Kalb enlisted his friends to help make Fist & Palm his most bombastic release yet. In a year spent listening to Kanye and Kendrick Lamar with a dash of Xiu Xiu and Arthur Russell, Kalb began to think of making a record that would move him away from his traditions in folk music. Tapping hip-hop producer James Wilcox to help with drum-loops and production, as well as collaborating with friend Jack Greenleaf, who mixed Eskimeaux’s 2016 release O.K., Kalb says he was aiming for a “big percussive scope” and more “dynamic pop progressions.” It works: Fist & Palm sounds like – pardon the oxymoron – the most expansive “bedroom” record you’ll hear in 2016. If Owl City relentlessly plagiarized the laptop pop that the Postal Service made famous, consider Bellows as trying to recover some measure of decency for the emotive, electronic pop record. Unlike many so many so-called “bedroom records,” Bellows spends its time looking at the ceiling, not at the cracks between the walls and the floor.

Fist & Palm details the failure of one of Kalb’s in-real-life friendships through a series of lyrical tableaus. It begins and ends with the same fight in a backyard, traversing the swath of 20-something Brooklyn in between. The shape grants the album a mutual trajectory and circularity; it ranges widely and returns to where it began. Generated from his experience, the lyrics have an epistolary bent; he writes about and to someone. Kalb found himself writing the beginnings of the record alone, returning, inexorably, to an issue that seemed to dominate his personal and emotional life. “It was a very present conflict in my life, so I felt myself gravitating toward constructing difficulties in friendships in all the songs I was writing. So I went into the record to solve a problem. So the record tackles a few different angles on the central issue. I wanted to make an album about nuance and grey areas in exploring this conflict.” As if feeling for a looming mischaracterization, “It’s not a break-up album,” he assures me.

Kalb examines himself as much as he throws blame at his unnamed antagonist on Fist & Palm. The record pushes into subjective territory, admitting the flaws and failures of its narrator. On the widescreen, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter,” Kalb sings, “I haven’t been myself,” finishing the verse with, “When you don’t pick up the phone, I make up what you said.” Later, on the ambitious “Bully,” Kalb sings, “We feel the same thing just as awful/we feel the same pain just as awful/And as convinced as I was you hurt me/That I was nothing more than a bully.”

On and on Kalb goes, ricocheting blame for another off his honest self-loathing. When Kalb tells me, “It’s an album about the complicatedness of friendship and the complicatedness of loving someone really deeply,” he seems to be talking about himself as much as anyone else. If Fist & Palm isn’t a break-up album, it is, concurrently, miraculously, not solipsistic. Kalb maintains an almost rigid magnanimity throughout our conversation. “When you love someone a lot and need a lot from them that you can also be let down really hard,” he says with only general specificity. For an album ostensibly about the failure of two people to get along, you may find much of yourself in these real events you didn’t witness or experience. We can all be horrifying disappointments. This realization begins to describe some of the delightful, granular surprise that is Fist & Palm.

Even if Kalb’s lived experiences drove the lyrics and the initial song-writing, it’s always a collective project as the members of The Epoch cycle between each other’s bands. Gabby Smith of Eskimeaux does vocal and violin accessories here; Kalb also plays in Eskimeaux. Felix Walworth of Told Slant, who also plays in Bellows and Eskimeaux, helped with the live drums on Fist & Palm. “Different people’s records consume the whole group for a period of time. All the energy of the group goes into [it] for a time,” Kalb tells me. “We have a reputation for helping each other out, but the extent to which everyone gets involved is cool.” If the aesthetic experience of listening to Bellows’ music is a pleasant and mild dizziness, it isn’t unintentional; Kalb and The Epoch collective always seem to be working in circles, not lines.

Still, Kalb hopes the writing of the record helped him move forward, to see the small stuff for what it is and isn’t. He grows a bit didactic, switching into subject-verb-object sentences, toward the end of our conversation. “I don’t think I see life in terms of sweeping conclusions. I find it hard to write music based on grand statements about life. I definitely don’t find myself coming to grand conclusions about problems. I don’t see life as something that can be summed up in a general way.” It’s another pleasant disjoint, his certainty about uncertainty.

He and his former friend aren’t friends anymore, not exactly anyhow. Kalb played the subject of Fist & Palm the record before it was finished. “It was something we were able to talk about. It wasn’t a surprise, “I’m talking shit about you,’” he says. “I think we dealt with it in a pretty mature way.” It will surely be another strange irony if it is this Bellows record – the one about the smallest and most subjective failings – that connects with a wider audience. Perhaps minutiae is best survived when set against a sweeping pop backdrop. Banal texts sent from underground subway trips, lost in the ether between having been written and being sent, become beatified on Kalb’s hushed and beautiful, “Bummer Swells.” The specific becomes the universal, if only for a moment.

Kalb is building a different brand of pop this time. It’s a self-conscious effort. Knowing too well what a break-up record sounds like, he sought to write the inverse. “A lot of pop music deals with a subject of pain and heartbreak as this ultimate thing done-unto-you. You’re like cursing the world and this person, and otherwise without this one thing everything would be perfect. And I reject that approach. I wanted to make a record that wasn’t only about me.” In the world of Fist & Palm we play a role in each other’s sadness. These are our small crimes. Sometimes the small stuff matters.

Bellows will be performing their record release show at Shea Stadium on September 30th. They will be touring in November.