Happy Friday, bibliophiles!
I was first introduced to Black Belt Eagle Scout during the early days of quarantine, back in the spring where I was just drinking tea and plastering stickers on my sketchbook before the burnout set in. Black Belt Eagle Scout, the stage name of Katherine Paul (she/they), rarely missed when I listened to their first two albums, Mother of My Children (2017) and At the Party with my Brown Friends (2019) in rapid succession. Her air-light vocals combined with her sucker-punch guitar melodies made me a fan almost instantly, but I longed for more of the latter—I liked At the Party, but I found myself wanting something that leaned into her harder side.
More ended up coming with Paul’s third album, The Land, The Water, the Sky, which Paul said on her Instagram was inspired by “how important the role of connection to my homelands plays within my mental health.” With back-to-back moments of beauty, strength, and the guitars I’ve been wanting from them since At the Party, I might go so far as to say that this is the best Black Belt Eagle Scout album yet.
Enjoy this album review!
THE LAND, THE WATER, THE SKY – BLACK BELT EAGLE SCOUT (album review)
Release date: February 10, 2023 (Saddle Creek records)
TRACK 1: “My Blood Runs Through This Land” – 8/10
THAT’S how you do an album opener. Take notes, everyone.
This was the second single to come from The Land, The Water, The Sky, and it stands out as one of the most visceral and sonically heavy tracks from the album. It feels like it’s releasing everything that Paul meant to release, letting it all loose in a storm of some of the best guitar work on the whole album. Contrasting with Paul’s airy vocals, it’s a beautiful juxtaposition that opens the door for new directions on the record.
TRACK 2: “Sedna” – 7.5/10
“Sedna” slowly brings down the momentum of “My Blood Runs Through This Land,” but never diminishes it. Reminiscent of some of Paul’s slower tracks, the steady beat is imbued with electric guitar like strikes of lightning. It’s an anchor for the rest of the record after the explosion of the first track, and it’s a great guiding line for the rest of the songs.
TRACK 3: “Salmon Stinta” – 7/10
“Salmon Stinta” eases us back into the calm, grounding work that has characterized so much of Black Belt Eagle Scout’s work. It holds a little more water than some of her slower tracks on At the Party; with more instrumentation (LOVE the strings and flutes) to give it a larger landscape to work with. I’m not sure how I feel about the vocals from Phil Elverum, though—his voice just felt kind of flat, and since he was repeating the same lyrics as Paul, it didn’t add anything to the song for me.
TRACK 4: “Blue” – 8/10
“Blue” begins The Land, The Water, The Sky’s journey back to soaring heights. Katherine Paul’s voice never ceases to amaze me, but there’s something in the way she sings “and life is overwhelming” that reaches right down into my chest to tug at my heartstrings. Pair that with the powerful combination of guitars and a formidable string section, and you’ve got an instant highlight from the album.
TRACK 5: “On the River” – 7.5/10
Even though I’ve been going on about how much the increased instrumentation elevates Katherine Paul’s voice, it’s great to have a track where their voice is front and center, displaying all of their range, whirling like the breeze around you. It’s the shortest track on the album, but somehow, I don’t find myself wanting more—that’s a good thing, mind you; sometimes, songs are meant to be short, and “On the River” is just the length that it was meant to be.
TRACK 6: “Nobody” – 8.5/10
Nobody sang it for me
Like I wanna sing it to you…Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Nobody”
I talked a bit about this one in my Sunday Songs for 1/22/23, and as the third single to be released, it was one of the perfect showcases for the album. The bright tones of the guitar shine through, and it’s the perfect slice of indie rock in every sense of the word. But the line “Nobody sang it for me/Like I wanna sing it to you…”…yeah, that gets me. That always gets me. Paul said on instagram that she wrote it about Native American representation and seeing herself in the music industry and beyond, but I think anyone who’s grown up struggling to see themselves represented can relate. Beautiful.
TRACK 7: “Fancy Dance” – 8/10
I have a crystal clear memory of what happened when this song came on the first time I listened to this album all the way through; I was in the dining hall filling my water bottle before breakfast, and for a minute, I got so lost in this song that I didn’t notice that the water was overflowing. Instantly hooking and consistently catchy, this is the Black Belt Eagle Scout that I always wanted to hear more of—loosening up and letting it all out. Absolutely a standout track.
TRACK 8: “Sčičudᶻ (A Narrow Place)” – 7.5/10
I see the way you look at me, dancing
I see the way you love me
I’m dancing…Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Sčičudᶻ (A Narrow Place)”
In terms of instrumentation, it’s one of the softer songs on the album, but the power of the lyrics—which Paul explained in an interview with them. was about her identity as a queer, Indigenous woman—cannot be understated. In fact, it feels as though that’s what the relatively light background instrumentation (in contrast to the rest of the album) was meant to do: the deceptively simple-sounding lyrics reveal a much more personal meaning when taken in context with Paul’s identity and the way it’s shaped her experience and her connection to her ancestors and homeland. Continuously beautiful stuff.
TRACK 9: “Treeline” – 7/10
“Treeline” is my least favorite track on the album, but it’s not a bad song by any stretch of the imagination. It brings a sinister, creeping undercurrent to the album with its percussion slowly unraveling in the background, almost like the studio recording of Wilco’s “Via Chicago”, quiet chaos slowly unfolding. I couldn’t help but compare the first notes of Paul’s vocals to the vocal opening of her earlier track “Indians Never Die”—whether or not it’s a callback, I’m not sure, but either way, it’s representational of Paul’s growth as a musician from Mother of My Children to now.
TRACK 10: “Understanding” – 8.5/10
I know it’s wrong to love everyone but myself,
But sometimes I can’t even hold me…Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Understanding”
One of the shortest tracks on the album, but way up there with the most powerful. “Understanding” is a song that keeps you on your toes—it starts out as any acoustic indie song, but just when you think that the quicker strumming is the fastest it will get, the electric guitars come in with all of the force of a tidal wave. With just one verse of songwriting, it delivers such a powerful message—learning to heal and focus on introspection rather than trying to please everybody else. Leave it to Katherine Paul to deliver such beauty in such a short amount of time with such force.
TRACK 11: “Spaces” – 7.5/10
Strangely, it took a while for this song to grow on me, but it’s easy to see its beauty now. With its sprawling instrumentals and the gentle power of Paul’s voice, it’s the perfect song to bridge to the end of the album. And not only does the music video feature Katherine Paul connecting with their father through art, both of her parents provided backing vocals on the chorus! It’s just so sweet to me…🥲
TRACK 12: “Don’t Give Up” – 9.5/10
And these leaves, they come from people who grow
But we’re to listen, guide us,
I want everyone to know
I don’t give up..Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Don’t Give Up”
The first single from the album, the last track chronologically, and without a doubt, the best track overall. Black Belt Eagle Scout knows how to save the best for last.
Turning the emotional core of The Land, The Water, The Sky into a rallying cry, this is a song that always makes every positive emotion bubble over inside of me. There’s something so wonderfully empowering about it, Paul’s vocals soaring as she proclaims that “You wanted a second chance at life/Well, you’re alive.” It’s the culmination of everything beautiful on this album, and it’s quickly become my favorite Black Belt Eagle Scout song ever. The fearless outro of “The land/the water/the sky” is the perfect sendoff for a phenomenal album.
I averaged out all of my ratings for each track, and it came out to about a 7.9! We’re not even 2 months into this year, but I’m so glad that we’ve had this beautiful album already. It’s a beautiful tribute to the connections we have—with nature, with our ancestors, with our identities, and out communities—that’s Black Belt Eagle Scout’s best work to date. What a stunning album, seriously.
Since this post is an album review, consider the whole of The Land, The Water, The Sky to be today’s song.
That’s it for this album review! And just like that, we’re a week away from another highly anticipated release—Cracker Island! I’ll be sure to review that soon too. Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!