National Music Reviews
Black Belt Eagle Scout
The Land, The Water, The Sky
Black Belt Eagle Scout = Sleater-Kinney + Japanese Breakfast
Once, while at a Black Belt Eagle Scout concert at Urban Lounge in 2019, my phone autocorrected the name of the recording project to “Black Belt Rage Scout.” At the time, the mistype seemed fitting. Katherine Paul was touring on her debut album, Mother of My Children (2018), and the political undercurrents beneath several of her songs were anything but subtle. With impactful tracks such as “Indians Never Die” and “Soft Stud,” Portland-based Paul, an Indigenous Swinomish/Iñupiaq queer woman, became known as the heiress of Pacific Northwestern rock who wrote her heralded debut during the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.
The Land, The Water, The Sky is Paul’s third full-length as Black Belt Eagle Scout, and it was also written during a time of hardship. In 2020, Paul sought the peace of home and weathered the pandemic by returning to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community where she was raised. Aptly, she opens the album with “My Blood Runs Through This Land,” a tribute to the reservation and the ancestors who came before her. “I know you speak through me, I / Feel it in the sound of water / Touching all the rocks I feel / No one can take this moment away,” she sings softly in contrast to a wailing electric guitar. Despite the comically mistyped name above and the prototypical rock anthems that make up much of the album, Paul never sounds rageful, but rather powerful, straightforward and confident—energetic frequencies that too often get confused with anger when underrepresented groups take up their fair share of space.
Paul continues alluding to her heritage throughout the album’s 12 tracks and paints a picture of where she came from, where she is and where she’s going. She nods to ancient Inuit mythology with “Sedna,” a track named after the Inuit goddess of the sea and marine animals. With “Salmon Stinta,” Paul draws from the meditative act of traveling upstream to her place of origin—just as she did and just as salmon do. “On the River” ebbs and flows like the Skagit itself with entrancing, finger-plucked guitar and a welcome stillness. The Skagit River is the Puget Sound’s primary source of freshwater, and on the album cover of The Land, The Water, The Sky, Paul stands waist-deep in the river, immersing herself in its ancient power.
As on other BBES albums, Paul’s lyrics are few. The words she does include are often cryptic, don’t divulge much and are less important than the instruments and feeling behind her unpolished vocals. A few times, Paul’s minimalistic lyrics ring loud and clear, as with the honesty contained in “Understanding:” “I know it’s wrong to love everyone but myself but / Sometimes I can’t even hold me / Sometimes I can’t even find time for myself yet / Here I am understanding,” Paul sings. Often, she latches onto a single phrase that fills almost an entire track, repeating it until the sentiment has found all angles of meaning.
Paul’s music has always been about reckoning parts of herself with the outside world and the beauty and pain in both. “You wanted a second chance at life / Well, you’re alive,” she sings matter of factly on the closing track, “Don’t Give Up.” As a whole, the album serves as a soundtrack for our own reckonings and remembrances, of concrete comforts to turn to when things get tough—friends, family, lovers; the land, the water, the sky. –Mekenna Malan