Palberta is a three-piece rock band without a guitarist, a bassist or a drummer. Or, to put it another way, Palberta is a band with three of each of those things: Onstage and on its records, Ani Ivry-Block, Lily Konigsberg and Nina Ryser trade instruments between nearly every song and harmonize with a near familial tightness that makes the very notion of a frontperson seem absurd. “It kind of feels like we share a brain in a lot of ways, at this point,” Konisberg said in 2018. It kind of sounds like that, too.
Palberta is hardly the first group to treat its lineup like a self-contained revolving door — the Olympia indie legends Beat Happening did something similar in the early 1980s, about a decade before any member of Palberta was born — but the approach fits well with the hermetic and playfully disorienting feelings evoked by Palberta’s sound. Plus, onstage in particular, it’s a handy way to scramble one-dimensional expectations about women playing music: Before anyone can try to make sense of them within stale, familiar stereotypes — oh, so she’s the extroverted lead singer; that must be the cool, detached bass player — the members of Palberta have moved onto their next configuration.
Since meeting at Bard College nearly a decade ago, Ivry-Block, Konigsberg and Ryser have gradually built a reputation as one of the most dynamic live acts in New York’s D.I.Y. scene (and one of the most woefully missed during the pandemic). Listening to one of its early records evokes eavesdropping on a group of friends with a shared, secret language, but seeing them live is like having at least some of its inside jokes explained. Its latest album, “Palberta5000,” though, is a welcoming entry point for those not previously clued into this insular world: It’s an attempt to balance Palberta’s art-rock influences with its earnest love of more mainstream music (Avril Lavigne, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber alongside more niche influences), and is emblematic of a generation of underground musicians that no longer draws such clear lines between punk and pop artistry.
That’s not to say any of these songs are polished or populist enough to be Hot 100-bound — Palberta remains elementally odd, in its compositional approach as much as its subject matter. On “Palberta5000” songs about animals (“Red Antz,” “The Cow”) nearly outnumber songs about other people, while “Eggs n’ Bac’” is a hard-rocking ode to — you guessed it — hot breakfast.
Some of the most effective moments on this album arise from hooks that at first seem straightforwardly catchy and thematically abstract before repetition transforms them into something haunting and resonant. “Yeah, I can’t pretend what I want,” they sing jauntily on “Big Bad Want,” an imagistic daydream in which the mute eyes of a horse reflect back the narrator’s own anxiety. The standout “Fragile Place” pushes this uncanny feeling even further, as the band members harmonize around a repeated phrase that indicates mental unease: “Hey, in a fragile place.” Palberta uses the tricks of pop structure here to a destabilizing effect: These are the kinds of hooks that implore you to sing along before you quite realize what you’re singing about.
Previous Palberta albums had sharp edges and proud imperfections: Guttural grunts, occasional bust-up laughter, and some of the strangest covers of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl” ever recorded. At their most meta, it was sometimes difficult to know if the members of Palberta were playing in a rock band or making fun of playing in a rock band, though their best songs — like “The Sound of the Beat” and “Gimme Everything You Got Girl,” both from their anarchic 2018 release “Roach Going Down” — were the ones that somehow managed to do both at once.
“Palberta5000,” the first album it recorded with the producer Matt Labozza, has a newfound lucidity and oomph without sounding over-rehearsed, likely because the band recorded it in just four days and never attempted more than three takes for each song. It is also worth mentioning that the studio where they recorded the album is “in the original home and family lamp store” of “Pee-wee” actor Paul Reubens, a detail that — being at once funny and faintly cursed — is perfectly Palberta.
“Palberta5000” is animated by the tension of contrasts — between pop catchiness and punk sensibility; between clarity and confusion; between quaking disorder and a foundational solidarity. The careening riffs and tumbling percussion of “Fragile Place” makes the song sound like it’s being recorded in a house that’s collapsing around them. But at the center of it all are those intertwined voices, so locked in friendly harmony that they seem ecstatically oblivious to, and safe from, the chaos around them.