Helen Ballentine has spent a lifetime understanding that she looks neither tough nor intense. With wispy blond hair that suggests a wheat field during a radiant summer sunset, and weighing less than the average high-school sophomore, she knows how first impressions tend to go—“sweet, polite, very quiet and even meek, maybe smart,” she summarizes. Ballentine laughs when she recounts being flattened by a soccer ball in fifth grade or the family friends recently tickled by her band name, Skullcrusher. How could someone so slight and soft, they wondered, wield something so heavy and aggressive?

But listen even once to the five subversively rapturous tracks of Skullcrusher’s second EP, Storm in Summer. You’ll instantly understand the dualities at play here—the light and the dark, the harsh and the heavenly, the Skullcrusher and the seemingly soft-spoken songwriter. Ballentine’s tunes ferry a subtle but unwavering intensity, deserving of the very name they take.

Storm in Summer was written entirely during the last year, as Ballentine watched with astonishment and some anxiety as listeners parsed the words and feelings of her acclaimed self-titled debut. “These are words I wrote down in my room, and I didn’t think people would listen to them at all,” she says. “But when people are suddenly interpreting them, you think, ‘Fuck, I shouldn’t have even released this.’” Whether reckoning with her own understanding of a songwriter only through his words during “Song for Nick Drake” or debating the respective merits of being understood versus being left alone on “Steps,” Storm in Summer presents a series of candid snapshots about what it means to sing of scars to strangers. Ballentine captures the tension of that experience—and the complexity of public existence, artistic or otherwise, in 2021.

Ballentine and her partner, the multi-instrumentalist Noah Weinman, recorded most of these tracks during an extended reprieve from California last year. Being back on the East Coast led Ballentine to think about her childhood, her family, and her friends there, especially how they shaped her understanding of herself and the songs that stemmed from it. And Ballentine’s relationship with Weinman allowed her space to be vulnerable, to probe her feelings without fear. Listen closely, beneath the guitars, the drums, and even Ballentine’s rhapsodic voice. You’ll notice the couple’s hiccups at the start of “Song for Nick Drake” or the whistling at the top of “Windshield.” These incidental relics are easter eggs of shared intimacy.

The magnetic “Storm in Summer” seems first to float on a bucolic breeze, with Weinman’s sparkling banjo gently holding hands with Ballentine’s guitar. But as they vault into the chorus, phosphorescent guitar and cascading drums galvanize Ballentine’s beautifully rendered worries about being too hard to understand or too open to being understood. It moves from pleasantness to absolute power in an instant, like a late-afternoon thunderclap. “I wish you could see me start this storm,” she repeats at the climax, her traces of self-doubt shielded by the electric wash.

“Windshield” opens with a gentle acoustic canter, then explodes like Independence Day fireworks, distortion lingering like smoke in humid air. “I thrust my foot through/the windshield in front of you,” Ballentine sings every time the song powers up, recalling a panicked moment of intense hurt where she did exactly that. She is recognizing her own might, the strength possible within perceived slightness.

At the start of the mesmerizing closer “Prefer,” the tape hiss whistles like the wind, while a synthesizer patters like a shower on a tin roof. It subtly mimics “the rain in summer” of which Ballentine sings—the bittersweetness of a halcyon day interrupted by a downpour, itself an act of renewal and nourishment. These five songs are about the space between what you have been and what you are becoming, about our opportunities to transcend those first impressions. They are as loaded and fraught as the name Skullcrusher would suggest, even when they first feel like a light summer wind.

Tracks

Windshield

Song For Nick Drake

Steps

Storm In Summer

Prefer