Black Belt Eagle Scout serves as an artistic moniker for Portland-based multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Katherine Paul, but it’s no mask. Nothing could be further from Paul’s musical goals than the idea of hiding. On the 2018 re-release of her 2017 full-length debut Mother of My Children, Paul commanded attention by laying bare her feelings and integral facets of her identity as a queer, indigenous woman. Earlier this year, the “Loss & Relax” seven-inch helped to sustain that momentum with two heartstopping songs, the cathartic title track and calmer b-side “Half Colored Hair”. Now, on At the Party With My Brown Friends, Paul draws us even deeper into her life with unassuming courage.
Even on a superficial level, Paul’s music is lovely. Her voice, a profoundly versatile instrument, is refreshingly free of obvious affectation, sincerely emotive and naturally soothing. She centers her melodies around guitar lines, which tend toward mellifluous repetition until the breakout of the occasional electrifying solo. Percussion rolls in and out, a calm tide beset by fleeting storms. Paul is a master of artful understatement, capable of flowing without a hitch from smooth sailing into gale-force winds and pouring raw energy into songs of every tempo.
That energy is purely organic, as though the album has its own beating heart. Paul draws inspiration from within and without, channeling natural sounds of the Pacific Northwest and intensely personal experiences and with a delicate hand to express herself on levels both intellectual and visceral. What makes the opening track “At the Party” haunting is a combination of her atmospheric verbal depictions of alienation (“How is it you’ve suffered through this kind of love?”) and wordless interstitial cries that escalate until the song’s sudden end.
What makes “My Heart Dreams” poignant is a careful mix of simple indie rock melody and lyrics that can barely contain their narrator’s ecstasy. “You’re my dream / I need you / Screaming loudly / Screaming softly, too.” When seashore sounds open “Going to the Beach With Haley”, a song that exchanges blissful verses with riotous instrumental interludes, it makes perfect sense. It fills in the gaps to paint an even fuller picture of the Black Belt Eagle Scout world where self and environment are inextricable.
As present as Paul is during each song, she also invokes touches of the past. Freer guitar lines overlay the main structures of songs like the sweetly enrapturing “Run It to Ya” and the infectious “I Said I Wouldn’t Write This Song” with vestiges of 1990s-2000s post-grunge that’s sharp-edged and catchy. Nostalgia takes on an even more personal form on the final track “You’re Me and I’m You”, an ode to Paul’s mother that leaves me utterly verklempt every time. “I am the one / The one she loves / No matter what / My heart becomes.”
There are no gimmicks to Black Belt Eagle Scout. Nothing on At the Party With My Brown Friends is perplexing or demands an unreasonable amount of analysis from its audience. Its depth comes from Katherine Paul’s ability to convey her own worldview and all that entails, be it the romantic love she revels in on “Half Colored Hair” or the loss she mourns on “Scorpio Moon”. To know Black Belt Eagle Scout’s music is to connect with Katherine Paul, and as a person who identifies as one of a number of often marginalized communities. Particularly in the indie rock world, her voice is that much more essential in contributing to a more diverse musical scene. At the Party With My Brown Friends is another exquisite installation in what I sincerely hope and believe is a career that will only continue to blossom.