If you never heard Paper Television, the 2007 album from the Portland duo the Blow, you missed something small but special. Back before he devoted himself full-time to YACHT, Jona Bechtolt made all the music for Paper Television, cranking out these lovably tinny home-recorded approximations of gleaming mainstream pop music. Khaela Maricich, his partner in the group, sang over those tracks, using them as a bed for intense and personal and highly specific lyrics. Her voice was blithe and conversational, but her actual words were the sorts of things you’d only say to another person if you were in the midst of some souls-entwining 3AM connection-binge: “If something in the deli aisle makes you cry / Of course I’ll wrap my arms around you and I’ll walk you outside / Through the sliding doors / Why would I lie?” That dynamic, between Maricich’s diary-pages communiques and Bechtolt’s homespun Casio-pop beats, felt new and strange if you were part of the small audience that was paying attention. On “True Affection,” the last song of the album, Bechtolt hijacked the beat from D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” the biggest and dumbest song in the universe at that time, so that Maricich could sing about the way attraction sometimes can’t overcome our own weird personal distance: “I never felt so close / I never felt so all alone.” For these two to be taking the language of pop music — or doing their best to take it, anyway — while using it to sing this starkly intimate stuff, was a powerful thing. It affected me, and I haven’t heard another album that did things the way that album did. Until now.
All sorts of weird things can happen when DIY-underground types attempt to engage with pop music, whether or not they have the budget or capability to make stuff that can compete with actual aboveground pop music. Sometimes, they manage to cross over and make things that really do resonate as actual pop music. Sometimes, they make underground hits, pop anthems for people who don’t really think pop anthems are their thing. Sometimes, they fail horrendously and destroy whatever goodwill they might’ve generated before making the move. And sometimes, they make these strange little hybrid-beasts, pieces of music that nod toward pop music while still being way too insular and fractured to function the way pop music functions. That last type can sometimes be the most intriguing. Paper Television was an album like that. So is Me, the full-length debut from Empress Of. Empress Of is Lorely Rodriguez, a Brooklyn-based 25-year-old who does all of her music completely on her own, a self-reliant entity. When we first met Rodriguez a couple of years ago, she was making prettily smeary tone-poem music; that’s the zone she was in on her 2013 EP Systems. But Me is something else. It’s an album of immersive, inward-looking dance pop. The beats are big and charged and cohesive, but they’re there to support these songs about what it means to be with another person, or to be entirely by yourself.
Rodriguez wrote, performed, produced, recorded, and engineered every song on Me. On a couple of songs, she sampled live drums that two different guys played, but that’s really it; otherwise, she’s the sole party responsible for every sound you hear on the album. She spent a year recording it in New York and Montreal and Mexico. And if Me sounds a whole lot sharper and cleaner than Paper Television did, that could have something to do with how much easier it is to record on a laptop than it was a few years ago, but it probably also has a lot to do with Rodriguez sophisticated ear. This is an album made from streaky synth sounds and big drums, but it’s never ingratiating or overbearing. Instead, those sounds are freeing — the skipping keyboard riff on “How Do You Do It,” the push-pull congas on “Need Myself,” the squelching post-Prince sampled backing harmonies on nearly every track. She knows what she’s doing; these songs sound big. But while it’s plenty possible to dance to them, they won’t ever be played in clubs, since there’s no sense of catharsis to them. She sings on every song with a sort of confident, conversational blankness. And when you learn that she spent her teenage years as a competitive jazz singer, and when you hear the ease with which she floats into a lovely falsetto from time to time, it becomes obvious that the blankness is a choice, not a limitation. On these songs, she’s asking big, searching questions of herself, and she’s asking them with the sober studiousness that questions like those sometimes demand.
Rodriguez’s style is minimal and sometimes elliptical, but what she’s singing about is usually clear enough. Sometimes, it’s the things that we’ve come to take for granted: “Water, water is a privilege / Just like kids who go to college.” Sometimes, it’s doubt, and that weird feeling when you wonder whether other people are operating with the same doubt that you have: “Should I be afraid? / You don’t seem to be / All I want to be is you.” More often, though, she’s singing about relationships on a powerful, elemental level — that moment when you and someone else are so close that you feel like you’re becoming the same person, and that moment when you realize you need to peel yourself away from someone and be your own person again. Sometimes, that means singing about sex: “Nothing comes between us / But a piece of latex / When you tear my clothes off / Like I was a paycheck.” Sometimes, it’s about that long freeze-out process, where you’re just starting to realize that you can’t stand this other person: “You’re just a heart to break / Easy to manipulate / I want to care much more / But I’m feeling less and less.” But my favorite song on the album is “How Do You Do It,” the one shivery and euphoric song about completely losing yourself to someone else, about feeling the liberation that comes when you let someone else hold you together: “I forgot that I could / Let someone fulfill me / How do you do it?” It’s the moment when her voice and arrangements are at their liveliest, and it’s the song that’s most about feeling OK, about knowing that someone’s going to be there for you if something in the deli aisle makes you cry. And it’s rare for any kind of pop music, underground or otherwise, to capture that feeling so completely.
Me is out 9/11 on Terrible Records. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• La Misma’s forcefully erratic and urgent punk rock debut Kanizadi.
• Low’s sparkling, dependable Ones And Sixes.
• Prince’s quick-and-dirty Tidal exclusive HITNRUN.
• Beirut’s synthy, folky comeback No, No, No.
• Duran Duran’s collab-heavy pop-comeback attempt Paper Gods.
• Petite Noir’s chameoleonic but personal debut La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful.
• Micachu & The Shapes’ jittery experimental pop effort Good Sad Happy Bad.
• Craig Finn’s downbeat, narrative-heavy solo album Faith In The Future.
• Megafaun man Phil Cook’s solo move Southland Mission.
• Slayer’s weathered, unstoppable Repentless.
• Ben Folds’ full-length yMusic collab So There.
• Fresh Snow’s noisily psychedelic Won.
• HSY’s acerbic, dissonant Bask.
• The Grubs’ simple, chilled-out debut It Must Be The Grubs.
• Guilty Simpson’s underground-rap mutterfest Detroit’s Son.
• Jackson Boone’s misty, psychedelic Natural Changes.
• Lower’s I’m A Lazy Son… But I’m The Only Son EP.
• LVL UP’s Three Songs EP.
• Fitness’ self-titled EP.