Empress Of ‘Me’ (Terrible/XL)

Brooklyn synthpop newcomer shows she’s already ruling over the competition

Lorely Rodriguez stands dead centre on her album cover, framed simply by the confines of the square. She covers her mouth with her fist, but stares directly outwards at the viewer, her pose a mixture of shyness and confrontation. The album is titled ‘Me’ and the music contained within is equally demanding of your attention.

Rodriguez is a Brooklyn musician who records using the name Empress Of. As was the vogue in late 2012, she first emerged under a certain cloud of mystery. Her ‘Colorminutes’ series, uploaded anonymously to YouTube, was composed of 13 aural fragments, each a minute long and accompanied by an image of a block of pure colour. The format sounds difficult and experimental, but these were pop gems in miniature, recalling the Cocteau Twins and Dirty Projectors. ‘Colorminutes’ was followed swiftly by the ‘Champagne’/‘Don’t Tell Me’ single (the latter is still one of her best tracks), while the ‘Systems’ EP in 2013 featured a pair of Spanish language songs.

Thankfully it’s 2015 and the whole unknown artist shtick has been done to death – just in time for Rodriguez to come up with a bold debut album that shows her increased mastery of the form. The production is a huge step up, committing fully to the dance trajectory suggested on last year’s ‘Realize You’. While there’s an aqueous quality to ‘Me’ – Rodriguez’s synths can frequently be described in terms of washes or bubbling – the dreamy haze of ‘Don’t Tell Me’ has given way to clarity and sharpness. Check out the wiggling synth line on ‘How Do You Do It’ or the wild Caribou rave-up of ‘Threat’.

Rodriguez’s increased confidence comes through in her voice as well as her production. It’s pushed to the front, still retaining a touch of Liz Fraser, but now more grounded and less obscured than on her earlier releases. She changes it subtly to suit each track – on ‘Everything Is You’, the breezy opening track, she sounds like Angel Deradoorian and by ‘Water Water’ she’s already coming off like Bjork circa ‘Post’.

Not that it should need pointing out, but Rodriguez wrote, recorded and produced this entire album herself. Sadly, only minutes after I saw that in the press release, I read a suggestion that there must be another (presumably male) figure behind the boards. Perhaps the title wasn’t enough of a clue. Fittingly, a lot of the lyrics here are to do with independence. The most arresting track is ‘Kitty Kat’, whose refrain of “Let me walk away” addresses catcalling and unwanted interest. ‘Need Myself’ is a series of assertions where “I don’t need this love, not from you” eventually becomes “I just need myself to love myself”.

Admittedly, ‘Me’ is buoyed by a handful of particularly strong tracks, but Lorely Rodriguez still manages to lift the whole album way above the rest of the field through an inventive sonic architecture and superb command of her voice. It might have been nice to get one or two Spanish language tracks like on the back half of ‘Systems’, but that’s probably just being greedy. ‘Me’ is a great debut and certainly one of the best synthpop albums of the year.

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