Sounds Local

Pale Cowboy ranges freely

You can hear its irresistible melodies, smooth harmonies Friday

Karl Helander, one of the co-founders and leaders of the Northampton-based band Pale Cowboy, says, “I think we have an equal affinity for old music and for new music, both traditional and modern, and I hope that comes through in our sound.”

Pale Cowboy will perform at Mocha Maya’s, 47 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls on Friday, Nov. 16, at 8 p.m. It will also open for Lydia Loveless at the Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton on Tuesday,
Dec. 4, at 7 p.m.

The band, which formed a couple of years ago when its members were students at Hampshire College, features Helander on guitar, his cousin Aaron Moon on drums, Phoebe Kass Berkel on vocals, Max Wareham on guitar and Andy Cass on bass.

Pale Cowboy’s music is rooted in early rock ’n’ roll and country and western, and is chock-full of irresistible melodies and smooth harmonies. The group says that one of its goals is to explore new possibilities within the popular song, and it does that on its debut EP, “Life Nature Library.”

The disc consists of eight home recordings, with each song written, performed, recorded and mixed by the respective songwriter. “We felt it would be an interesting introductory EP to highlight our different styles at work,” said Helander.

“Life Nature Library” certainly showcases a mix of styles. “Don’t Wanna Discuss” is a pure pop gem, a good example of what the Beach Boys would sound like as a lo-fi indie band. On “Hurts Too Bad,” Berkel sounds like she is fronting a 1960s girl group. “Friida” is a buzzy, guitar-driven rock song and “Water” has a folkie feel.

However, the standout track here is “Loneliness Called,” Helander wrote the lyrics while Berkel handles vocals, making it one of the few collaborations on the disc.

The song begins with Berkel singing the line “singing a song thinking about nothing at all,” in a voice vaguely reminiscent of Feist. She is accompanied by a tinkling piano, until the full band kicks in and takes the listeners on a swirling ride complete with shifting tempos and snapping fingers. With its soft/loud dynamic and its oblique lyrics, the song is a study in contrasts and easily open for interpretation.

“I wrote it when I was in Chicago, the summer of 2007, and I was dealing with a really hard, drawn-out breakup over the phone,” said Helander, who is a native of Granby, Conn. “I think it may have been one of the first songs where I decided to splice two ideas together and it opened up the possibility of less linear compositions, both musically and lyrically. It’s a fragmented song for a fragmented time of my life.”

Pale Cowboy’s new old sound draws from a wide range of influences, from contemporary indie artists like Of Montreal, Grizzly Bear and St. Vincent to such classic musicians as the Beach Boys and The Beatles.

“We spend a lot of time working out harmonies on tunes by the Delmore Brothers, Doc Watson, and the Everly Brothers. We listen to a lot of older pop artists like The Mills Brothers, Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Jackson Five, and Buddy Holly,” said Helander. “Who knows where or when an influence will surface? But, as a band and as individuals, we are very much students of the artists we love.”

As for the inspiration for his lyrics, Helander said he primarily draws from relationships, although in some of his more recent work he experiments with narratives and character studies.

“For a long while, I wrote in a much more singer-songwriter fashion and I focused a bit more on the lyrical side of the composition, trying to find the arc in the lyrics, making sure of an implied chronology and writing more personal, even confessional lyrics,” he said. “ Over time, I’ve found that what excites me most is letting the music, specifically the melody, dictate the lyrics. I find that the best lyrics are those that sound and feel right.”

Pale Cowboy is currently wrapping up work on another EP that will be released sometime in 2013. Helander said this disc will be a “lively, big-sounding collection of songs,” and added that it will be a more cohesive effort in that all the band members collaborated on every track.

When asked what he hopes listeners will take away from Pale Cowboy’s music, Helander had this to say: “For the most part, I prefer to listen to music that is transportive in some way, that takes you on a sort of trip, and we make music for much the same reason. In a best case scenario, our music is experienced actively, following along each step of the way, much as one experiences a movie or a novel that they like. However, if someone wants to passively dance around to one of our songs with a bowl of ice cream in their hands, that’s another sort of immersion that I can get behind.”

The Mocha Maya’s show is free but tips for the performers are encouraged. The Iron Horse show is $10 in advance and $13 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased at the Northampton Box Office Main St, online at or charge by phone at 413-586-8686. To avoid service fees, purchase tickets directly from the band at

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at

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